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.