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01.11.2009

Personal Terroir: The Individual Language of Taste

I received an interesting question by e-mail the other day that prompted some interesting thoughts, and with the permission of the person who sent it to me, I'm going to reprint it here, and do my best to answer it, as well as hope that my readers may have additional things to say.

Subject: An Asian palate?

Hi Alder,

I am a sommelier and work as a wine educator in Italy. I am European and usually have American or European guests for my wine tastings. I do know a thing or two about the differences in the palates of these two very different groups and since I have lived in the States for some time, I can really relate to and help my guests in almost every situation, and with almost any aroma. A couple of days ago, for the first time, I had 2 Malaysian guests. And for the first time, I couldn't communicate with them at all. Their not so good English was definitely part of the problem, but underlying was the complete difference of palates and knowledge/socialization of/with aromas (fruits, vegetables etc as we know it didn't ring a bell with them). These two became the first guests who left my tastings with some more theoretical knowledge but no tasting insight whatsoever.

Till that evening I was not aware of any possible problem in this direction. Since then I have been searching for any kind of information about the Asian palate and wine tasting experiences with them. With meek results. I thought I could ask you, as you have such expanse knowledge and experience. I am surely not awaiting any in-depth information from you, but maybe some pointers as to where I might go looking for such information. I would be very grateful if anything comes to your mind.

Thank you so much for time,

Hande Leimer

Your question immediately made me think about a notion that I have carried with me in my head ever since someone (and I'm sad to say, I've forgotten who it was by now) mentioned to me that we might each have our own personal terroir -- a sense of taste produced by the sum total of our experiences. The idea that we each taste things a little differently both as a product of our genetics but also because of factors in our upbringing (ethnic foods or ingredients, local fruits, family dishes, even the pH and mineral content of the water in our hometowns) seems unavoidably true at some level. Just how detailed and influential these differences are I have no idea.

Certainly such differences are obvious in the context of completely different ethnic and geographical cuisines. To use a crude example, the first taste of a hamburger will be very different for an American teen who grew up in Nebraska, one who grew up in a small village in Indonesia, and one who grew up in Somalia, because its flavor will be interpreted in the context of that person's experience. And whether that burger tastes "good" or not will be based as much on the habitual sensitization to flavors that the individuals culture has produced as it will be on the "actual flavors" of the burger.

This seems to be part of what you were facing with these Malaysian guests. I don't know that this means that there is an "Asian palate" -- Asia is a huge place after all, and the staggering culinary diversity across the continent would seem to suggest that, for instance, a Bengali, a Cambodian, and a Japanese person might have very different palates based on their local cuisine and ingredients.

Most certainly anyone who has never tasted a raspberry would certainly not identify, or understand when told it is present, the raspberry aroma in a particular Pinot Noir. That isn't to say they aren't tasting that particular flavor, however... or is it?

Your question cuts deep into the notion of perception. Without rehashing arguments about perception, consciousness, and reality that have swirled here at Vinography before, suffice it to say that I believe that we interpret the world, and indeed experience the world through language. That which we do not have language for, we are not capable of consciously perceiving (though clearly there are things that we perceive below the level of conscious thought).

So someone who has never tasted a raspberry will not only fail to "taste" the raspberry in Pinot Noir, they will also not understand you when you suggest that is what they might be tasting, which is what I gather occurred with your two Malaysian guests. You and these guests had no shared language for describing the flavor and aroma sensations of wine, and therefore couldn't really communicate all that well.

As an aside, your experience clearly points out how the world of wine is centered around a Western European sensibility and vocabulary. Of course, the reason for this is no deeper than the fact that this region has been the dominant wine growing region of the world for the majority of the modern era (at least in terms of volume and renown). As wine continues to expand in appeal globally, the Westernized discourse on wine will either be adopted or adapted or some mixture of both. What sense does it make to describe the flavors of Pinot Noir in terms of raspberries for a billion people who never have eaten one in their life?

The answer is: none at all, mostly because Pinot Noir doesn't really taste like raspberries. It tastes like some combination of molecules that fit into several chemical receptors in our mouths and nasal cavities that also happened to be triggered by those cute little fuzzy red things that you and I call raspberries. The only reason we think Pinot Noir tastes like raspberries is because that's the closest approximation we have in our experience, and more importantly, in language to describe that flavor.

But, it may be that Pinot Noir really tastes more like goji berries (super delicious little things that I only had my first taste of recently) than raspberries, and the only reason that we don't know that is because no one who ever wrote authoritatively on the sensory evaluation of wine had ever tasted one!

So where does that leave you? Certainly not with any definitive answers. But here's what I would say. To a Malay that has never tasted raspberries or cherries or sniffed a pine tree or cold cream or any of the other Western flavors and aromas that we use to describe wine, the wine you poured most certainly will not taste like them.

But it does taste of something to them. And in your position, I would almost certainly suggest turning the tables and learning from them! Of course, they may have come to your restaurant hoping to learn about wine from you, and you can certainly teach them about specific wine producers and an individual wine. But when it comes to how the wine tastes, they're the authority, because they have it in their mouths. I'd look at such experiences as opportunities to hear what their interpretations are of flavor. Maybe they'll tell you that the Malvasia you just poured them smells exactly like a flower that is commonly used in bridal wreaths in their country. How cool would that be? And maybe they'll tell you that while they don't savvy raspberry, that Pinot Noir tastes a bit like over-ripe dragonfruit.

Of course, learning to put words to flavors and aromas is difficult, and takes practice. For months when we first started dating, all my wife would say when asked to describe the aromas of wine was "white grapes" or "red grapes." But now she's got a killer palate.

So your guests, Asian or not, and especially if they are wine novices, may be somewhat tongue tied (independent of any basic language barriers). So the best you may be able to do is to encourage them to keep trying to describe for themselves what they are tasting and smelling, to not worry about "getting it right," and above all explore until they find things that they think taste good to them. Which is really the best possible job description for a sommelier that I can think of.

Good luck.

Oh, and one final thought. As a wine professional I recommend that you personally be always expanding your personal understanding of flavor and aroma by tasting and eating everything under the sun. If you can't make it to Asia, then get to your closest Chinatown or other Asian neighborhood and visit some markets to buy all the strange fruits that you've never had and taste them! It's fun and educational and might give you some taste vocabulary to try out the next time you're tasting with folks who are more likely to have had a papaya than a pear.

Comments (12)

Hande wrote:
01.12.09 at 1:39 AM

Alder,
thank you for your thoughts and recommendations on this. It is reassuring to see that you are suggesting things that I have been applying - at least now I feel better about my techniques. Am also intent on seeing what your readers will advise.

I am also a believer in letting my guests tell me what they are smelling/tasting - not only do I learn from them, it also helps them for the future. I encourage them to come up with their own words for any wine they taste and then decide if they like what they are tasting, so it can guide them in later choices. As you said, (most) people do smell and taste something, only they have difficulties in coming up with the words, so I do encourage them to come up with associations. I have been enjoying (and learning from) all the associations my guests come up with - like a smoky and mineral Nero d'Avola that tasted like "the coalmine where I always drove by on my bicycle when I was a child" (an Indian guest), "blood" (a guest who grew up on a ranch), "the fertilizer that is used for the grass on the golf-range" (a professional golfer)... Seeing the common theme in all these very personal notions. Sometimes, when they really have difficulties, I do give them a little push (in the right or sometimes the wrong direction!) that helps.

I would have loved my Malaysian guests to come up with their own explanation, but they couldn't, so that is when I stepped in with "my" words, and failed. I tried some aromas from my Thailand, Laos, Vietnam and Cambodia trips (like hot chillies, nam pla fish sauce etc), but just as you said, Asia is very diverse, and this try failed, too.

I know it takes time to learn to talk about taste. But we don't always have years (the same story with my husband as with your wife!). As a wine educator I try to give an initial spark that will let my guests go further, guided during the 2 hours with me; and with some insight (gained during that time), also later, when they are on their own. I guess there will always be a guest who won't catch the spark, I just hope this will be rare!

Benito wrote:
01.12.09 at 7:48 AM

A lot of this depends on how you define food. In Europe wine is food; it's so integral to the concept of eating that wine and cuisine have improved each other.

If you grew up in a culture that does not include wine (or some other ingredient or product) as food then it can be an alien experience, just like your standard American going over to China and eating rats or snakes.

Even in America wine is alien to many, because we tend to keep it separate from food. You have to be 21 to buy it. In many states you can't buy it in a grocery store, but only in a special shop on certain days. (Many states make it easier to buy pornography than wine!) An irresponsible drunk is a "wino".

Other cultural taboos could play a factor. If you pour a glass of a Hungarian red wine for a Hindu and then tell them that it's called "Bull's Blood" that person might be uncomfortable with even tasting the wine, like if you tried to market a wine in America called "dead kittens".

There's also lots of foods that just don't match well with most wines, and that most of the world is not well-suited to wine production. This explains why the always food-friendly beer (which can be made anywhere) has become popular in cuisines all over the globe.

Alfonso wrote:
01.12.09 at 1:06 PM

great post, Alder..Now this makes really wonder what I am doing when I being my ascent into the appreciation of sake'.

Thanks for more work ;)

Dylan wrote:
01.12.09 at 5:54 PM

This makes perfect sense. In this situation, it's a matter of your e-mail author to expand their palette further into Asian foods and aromas. The more that they taste, and actively try to associate with wines they teach, the better able they may be to explain what's being tasted. As you mentioned, regional upbringing is a very important factor, and by all means, it's a long road to tasting all there is, or even having it lead to the same impact as someone who grew up with those flavors their whole lives. However, in an effort of understanding, there's no harm in trying to come close.

James wrote:
01.12.09 at 7:20 PM

Great post Alder. Here is my two cents: Perhaps one approach is to discover Eastern flavor profiles through "classic pairings." While an American and a Malaysian, for example, might disagree as to what they taste in a given wine, it is plausible if not probable that they would agree that the wine they are sharing together is still a great match with a given type of cuisine. After all the molecular interaction between the food and wine would be the same, the only difference being the slightly varied sensory experience unique to each individual.

By choosing wine and food pairings that are mutually agreeable between parties with different palates, one could develop a roadmap to Eastern flavor profiles and vice versa. I hope this adds to the dialogue….

01.13.09 at 8:30 AM

This is a wonderful Discussion. I just did a wine class at my wine bar this weekend about the science of taste.

The aroma/flavor thing is always expanding it seems. Science knows a lot about the subject but when attached to wine there is still some work to be done.

If i may suggest maybe try to focus on the texture of a wine for someone not familiar with the current general terms such as raspberry.

Maybe talk about words like viscosity or weight on the palate. You can talk about acidity and how it is effecting the experience of the wine.

Science has a sort of universal language people can relate too.

After they have an understanding of the fundamental structure of the wine you can encourage them to come up with aromas and flavors that their "personal terroir" is telling them.

EvWg

01.13.09 at 9:55 AM

I have enjoyed this discussion and agree with most that has been said. I think that your post also touches on the pretensions that are ever present in the wine world. I believe that many so called experts, are often simply more experienced in articulating their thoughts on a particular wine. I am a great example, being in the industry and being a wine geek, I have a great knowledge of wine styles and I'm comfortable discussing and describing the different wines I taste. Alternatively my wife doesn't know what grape variety is in Barolo and certainly doesn't know what its flavor profile should be, however I'm constantly blow away by her palate and ability to evaluate wine despite her inability to put that evaluation into words. Interestingly she is Chinese-Canadian, I believe her ability comes from her Asian culture where food is central to family life and is shared and discussed daily at the table.

I am also curious as to whether any of the massive companies who are starting to invest in the wine industries in Asian nations (India and China) have given much thought the kinds of questions raised in your post and everyone's comments.

Anonymous wrote:
01.15.09 at 8:23 AM

Great article. Proves that philosophy, phenomenology does matter in everydays life, such as wine tasting.

Alder has written the summary of the postmodern, intercultural way of wine tasting. It was great to read, as I'm interested such as wine and cultural studies.
Now I see, why did I find this blog under a hungarian link called: the world's best wine blog (on the alkoholista.blog.hu, wich is the leader hungarian wine blog.)

Rowland wrote:
01.16.09 at 11:46 AM

I think the difference is less of an European vs Asian dicotomy, but rather one of Temperate vs Tropical. For instance, the Japanese are just as attuned to all the same fruits as the European. Apples, pears, cherries, plums, citrus, raspberry, all of these things were grown in Japan (as well as that part of China and Korea) long before they made their way to Europe. The case would be rather different for the Malasian, or the Tropical person in general, as they have an entirely different set of fruits. Also, I know several colonial Dutch, who were born and raised in the tropics, some in Suriname, others in Indonesia, and they sure couldn't pick out the smell of a strawberry or a raspberry. They will never get over their distaste for temperate fruit.

01.19.09 at 1:35 PM

Wow I absolutely love this discussion. Thanks again Alder! I coordinate a local blind tasting club for my masters program in Paris. My program consists of 37 students from over 17 different countries and all 5 continents and over 7 different languages. This is an amazing wine experiment as you can imagine as most of my colleagues simply like wine but don't know much about it and certainly don't spend hours a day digging into the wine world like myelf. So they're stuck connecting each glass to their own experiences from their home country and their travels and as you've put it their own personal terroir. I love that term!

My objective is to introduce my colleagues to as many different types of wine from as many different regions in the world. I just hosted an MPA Judgment of Paris this past Saturday. That was intense! I always tell everyone that there is no good wine there is only wine you like or don't like. Of course I try to explain the science and theory behind balance and complexity and finish and teroir, etc. And I encourage everyone to take ownership of what they smell and taste and to expand their own palate based on their own experiences and upbringing, not what the big RP says.

Anyways it's been absolutely an amazing experience and it's been a huge hit. Here are some random examples of some tasting notes we've stirred up and the nationalities attached...

Candy bar, French
Elderflower, British
Mirabelle, French
green Jolly Rancher, Japanese
Chinese herbal medicine, Japanese
BBQ, Chinese
Dry pollinated leafs after rainfall, French
red candy Starburt or Skittles, American
Paris metro, American
Tabasco, Japanese
Endive and chicon, French
Green tea ice cream, American
Bamboo, Burmese
Nostalgic American apple cider, Japanese
Smelly rocks, Sinaporean
Graveyard flowers, German
Roasted sencha, Japanese hojicha green tea, Japanese

Thanks again for bringing wine to real people...

robert marberger wrote:
01.29.09 at 1:38 PM

Great discussion and dialogue. Although even as an American of western European dissent, I still draw blanks when my fav Cabs are compared to cassis and creme de cassis. Still haven't come across that taste or smell other then the smell kit.

Alder wrote:
01.29.09 at 4:07 PM

Robert,

Next time you go to a bar, ask for a Kir Royale (Champagne + cassis), or better yet, ask them for a tiny splash of Creme de cassis. I personally get that flavor more from Syrah than Cabernet.

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