Is a Great Wine Palate God Given, Learned or Bought?

Lettie Teague talks to wine collectors, olfactory researchers and reviewers to get to the bottom of the oenophile’s quest: Can a great palate be acquired?

When one wine lover wants to compliment another, the words “great palate” are often bestowed. An oenophile with such a palate is perceptive, discerning and often possessed of an extensive if not expensive wine cellar—or so it seems. (I’ve read one wine lover’s waggish suggestion that the greatness of someone’s palate is directly proportional to the value and size of his or her wine cellar.)

The Merriam-Webster definition of the word is pretty straightforward: “the roof of the mouth separating the mouth from the nasal cavity.” The Oxford Companion to Wine defines “palate” a bit more broadly as “the combined human tasting facilities in the mouth and sometimes nose.” I would amend the “sometimes” to “always,” since the vast majority of what we perceive about a wine is aroma and not taste.

While a palate is a physical fact, a great palate seems much more abstract. What are the criteria? Does someone with a great palate possess a superior ability to recognize aromas and flavors or simply a better-than-average capacity to describe them? How much is innate and how much can be learned? I put these questions to a few talented amateurs as well as experts in the wine and olfactory worlds.

My first call was to Dr. Gary Beauchamp, emeritus director and president of the Monell Chemical Senses Center in Philadelphia. Dr. Beauchamp has made a broad and extensive study of the olfactory and taste systems.

Although he didn’t offer specific guidance as to how a great palate can be achieved, Dr. Beauchamp does think a palate could be improved, especially by repeated and focused tasting. “If you have lots of experience with particular smells, you might be able to pick them out better,” he said.

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