Training your wine palate isn't difficult. Earlier this year, I ventured to Florence to meet with expert Filippo Bartolotta to discuss simple ways to gain a better understanding of what's in your glass. This article fist appeared in Wine Enthusiast, August 2018.
Filippo Bartolotta has walked miles of countryside in the pursuit of understanding terroir, and he’s spent years tasting flavors to find the building blocks of vintages. The Wine & Spirits Education Trust (WSET)-certified sommelier is based in Florence, Italy, where he curates wine experiences around the world, as co-founder of the luxury wine tour group, Le Baccanti, and in collaboration with chefs like Alice Waters and Massimo Bottura.
In his latest venture, he tackles the topic of how to train your palate in a newly published book, Di Che Vino Sei (What Kind of Wine Are You). By breaking down eight personality archetypes, Bartolotta believes wine lovers of all levels of expertise can get in groove with their palates. This practice of “wine training” has worked for the likes of actor Dustin Hoffman and former President Barack Obama.
Wine training is exactly what you’re likely thinking: Hours and lots of bottles dedicated to tasting wines. Part emotional and part physical, wine training is about pace, consistency, dedication and exposure. And it’s not just for the academics, collectors or would-be sommeliers, it’s for anyone who enjoys a great pour.
“The truth of a bottle of wine is when you are sitting down and sipping glass after glass, just seeing what happens,” says Bartolotta. Instead of having an experience bound by rigid rules, the only requirement he has for participants is a healthy desire to drink wine. Here are three of his surefire tips.
Don’t worry about memorization
The palate is a complex experiential combination of the four of the five senses: sight, smell, taste and feel. To those, Bartolotta adds another a fifth dimension, experience. It starts out simply, as participants open a bottle of wine to see how and why they like it.
Memorization is the least important aspect. More important is tasting and more tasting to train the palate to recognize flavors, which breeds confidence and natural instincts.
“I don’t like [to guess wines], you miss the whole the concept,” he says. “Instead, it’s all about developing the gut feeling, because your first impression is the most accurate one.”
Establish a daily practice
To understand and identify the nuances of wines, vintages and producers requires daily dedication. Bartolotta has spent thousands of hours in morning-long tasting sessions to solidify his gut feelings. But anyone can train these skills, whether with sommeliers or on their own.
Not many people have the time to taste every single day, of course. Bartolotta suggests that wine lovers dedicate a few hours weekly or monthly to hang out with good friends and great bottles.
Pick a few bottles from the same region, producer or grape variety, sample them and talk about it. Bartolotta suggests doing it again and again until it becomes part of your life. He says that after consistent wine enjoyment with no pressure, the palate becomes more sophisticated. Flavors become familiar, and instinct develops into intuition.
Eventually, tasting becomes a mindfulness practice, says Bartolotta. By the third or fourth glass, it becomes, as Bartolotta says, “a Matrix moment and you’re Neo, synergistically knowing what you are tasting.” The key is to continue to taste and drink, and to hang out with friends is a great reason to expand the selection of wines and experiences.
Compare and contrast
Pop open two semi-related bottles at the same time, say a bottle of Champagne and a bottle of Prosecco. Compare and contrast simultaneously to help you discover subtleties to what you like and don’t like. Otherwise, if you have a good bottle tonight and another next week, it’s difficult it to say which style you really prefer.
Also, get vertical. Much like tasting different styles from the same producer, vertical tastings are when you taste the same style from different years. Tasting the same label, but from three or more different vintages can help understand how the weather and other variables can affect the wine. And given the region, you can also ascertain whether you like hotter vintages versus cooler ones.
Experienced or entry-level, wine training is less about becoming an expert at blindly identifying wines, and more about self-understanding and preferences. As Bartolotta believes, wine was not invented simply to be tasted, it was meant to be enjoyed.