Demystifying the palate war

Ever wondered what separates the Americans from the Europeans (especially the British), apart from their accents, the ways of spelling English words and of course, the Atlantic Ocean? It’s their palate; for wine. If you are not already familiar with this (somewhat hush-hush) reality, it may come across as bizarre and even amusing. The fact that a wine’s taste, and hence quality, can be perceived so differently among two demographics, makes this a gripping topic to analyse. This post is an attempt to do exactly that without sounding blatantly dramatic and based on a well-reasoned and informed assumption that such a division does exist in the wine world.

So, what is the basis of this whole debate about American palate vs. European/British palate? Is it just a media created hype or is there real substance to this differentiation? Does an element of  ‘wineupmanship’, so often witnessed in the wine world, accentuate this rift? If the division is for real, how glaring are the difference of opinions?

Questions like these have provided plenty of food for thought to wine commentators since this phenomenon appeared on the world stage, most noticeably in the form of a very public spat between two of the world’s most prolific tasters and highly regarded wine critics, Robert Parker Jr. and Jancis Robinson. The wine in question was the 2003 Chateau Pavie from Saint-Emilion, a super-ripe, rich, concentrated and fruit-forward example which defied the very essence of a classic, quintessential Bordeaux – elegant, food-friendly wines known for their balance (between acidity, sugar, tannin and alcohol) and ability to age for a long period of time. Parker, the American, showered high praises on the wine during his routine En Primeur tastings whereas Robinson, a British, dismissed it as an “unappetising and ridiculous” wine. What followed was a clear emergence of style preference of the two camps and an all too visible polarisation, not only within the expert/critic community but also in the way wines were produced in many traditional wine-growing regions around the world.

Although many in the wine industry have dismissed it as nothing more than a mere ‘storm in a wine glass’, it will be unrealistic not to accept the fact that there are indeed two schools of thought when it comes to tagging a wine based on its taste profile. Simply stated, most Americans tend to prefer wines with vibrant fruit falvours, softer tannins, lower acidity, comparatively higher alcohol and an overall richer concentration. This preference could be related to the general California styles where growing conditions more or less favour more exuberant wines.

The British, on the other hand, have often inclined towards more traditional and classic Old World style of wines where the catch word is ‘balance’. Anything over the top and the Brits are the first to press the alarm button, which is not surprising as wine drinking in the country has always been very Europe-centric, where wine styles tend to be rather restrained albeit complex and classy with an expression of the place they belong to (terroir, in other words). This, by no means suggests that terroir has no role in American wines…in addition to the overall growing conditions, winery operations in the USA (like many other New World producers) have a big role to play in deciding the final outcome.

Now, that brings us to the crux of the matter – why so much fuss about how people choose to enjoy their wine? In my view, there are two possible explanations for this. The first and foremost relates to economics. What sounds like a trivial issue relating to perceptions of taste would not have mattered much if it did not have a profound effect on the global wine business, especially at the top, ultra-premium level. One has to simply look at the transformation of the Bordeaux Right Bank (St. Emilion & Pomerol, mainly) to understand this theory. Robert Parker’s tremendous influence on wine prices has resulted in the adoption of an almost signature style by the majority of this part of Bordeaux. No wonder that some of the wines from this region (the likes of Le Pin, Lafleur, Valandraud et al) consistently demand higher prices than most of their more illustrious Left Bank counterparts. This certainly defies logic if one still considers the 1855 Classification as the benchmark for quality and price (not many people do…aren’t we in the 21st century now?).

The second, and probably more of a subjective issue seems to be that both the sides feel that by letting the rivals have the last word, their own wine identities could be at stake. Looks like the custodians of each of these identities have decided not to let the other dictate how their followers want to enjoy drinking wine. After all, it is a known fact that influencing evolving wine taste buds does not take a huge effort.

Although a comparatively recent discord within the larger wine world, the entire palate debate has definitely added punch to the already heady mix of opinions and the more the industry evolves the more this matter is likely to gain attention. We may have just seen the beginning!

Cheers,

Niladri

‘Indian Wine Guru’? No Thanks

Recently, I came across a comment on an Indian wine website that “India is desperately in need of a wine guru…who can generate a mass demographic of wine followers”. Being a subject close to my heart, it instantly agitated my wine senses, forcing my grey cells to go in a hyper mode trying to empathise with this, rather lofty, imagination. The last time someone managed to ‘generate a mass demographic of followers’ in India was probably M. K. Gandhi!

On a more serious note, I am sure the statement is not meant to be as forceful to place this imaginary figure on a revered altar but it does give us an opportunity to discuss why India will be better-off sans a wine guru and still be a thriving wine-loving society.

To start with, let me clarify that this discussion is confined to the meaning of ‘guru’ as portrayed in the larger world nowadays as someone of authority and mass-following and not the literal Indian meaning; that of  a teacher.

Wine appreciation is a widely subjective as well as an individualistic matter. The mental perceptions and their physical counterparts (taste buds) respond in different ways in different people when it comes to wine enjoyment and hence vary immensely from person to person, one of the reasons which explains the existence of so many varieties in styles and types of wines. Now, being a ‘manipulator’ of all our actions, the human mind ultimately decides our preferences which in turn is instigated by many factors. One such influence can be an individual with a larger than life image and a clout so immense that it becomes ‘in-vogue’ and almost an obligation to try and relate to his/her ways to appreciate wines. No one embodies this cult-like status in the wine world more than the American wine critic Robert Parker Jr.

Parker is a wine guru in every sense of the word. Someone who wields the power to make or decimate a brand with a stroke of his pen. Someone whose 100 point rating system has almost become a benchmark for quality in the USA (and many other parts of the world). Someone who has singlehandedly created a national wine identity in the form of an ‘American Palate for rich and powerful wines in response to the more, so-called elegant ‘British/European Palate‘. And most important of all, someone who manages to sway huge public opinion conforming with  his thoughts. Not to mention the mind-boggling impact of his ratings and reviews on wine prices worldwide. On the other hand, to his detractors, Parker is a media-created hype who has mastered the art of feeding on the paranoia, cynicism, indecision, confusion and lack of knowledge of the wine consuming public. This lobby believes that his influence has more been a negative one.

Whatever the fact of the matter is, it is not hard to imagine the effect such a personality can have on a particular demographic of a society. It becomes more relevant from an Indian context as we are still a nascent wine culture and any such influence can only hijack a wine lover’s ability to think independently and follow personal instincts rather than becoming hostage of somebody else’s opinions and preferences.

The Indian wine community will be much better served by qualified wine ambassadors who will share their knowledge and passion for the subject without harbouring the desire to ultimately become ‘the Indian wine guru’. It is also in the interest of the country’s wine sector to promote a collective learning and development through credible means to ensure a consistent and healthy growth of the industry, instead of relying on one person to act as their torch-bearer.

Cheers,

Niladri