Much has been made of the art and expertise of wine tasting, and justly so. However, how do you learn to taste, smell, and appreciate? Or are you born with an instinctively sensitive palate, and sensory memory?
I’ve spent my entire career in the wine industry; I had no background in wine, I was a foreign language student at university, and didn’t know which avenue to take in my career path. I happened upon wine, and thought I could travel and use my languages! And so it began.
From that day on, I wanted to be a wine buyer and product selector – creating, discovering, introducing wines and stories. How to do it? Years of training, of tasting; hours of lectures, lots of exams. An intrinsic part of the job of a wine buyer, or wine sourcing manager is the ability to taste, to assess, to analyse, to blend. It’s no different with spirits tasters, coffee and tea, cheese, and just about every foodstuff.
I was reminded of this, earlier this year, when I was invited to judge at the prestigious Great Taste Awards. This threw me totally out of my comfort zone. It was a baptism of fire, a veritable assault on the taste buds and the senses; from charcuterie, through ready meals, snacks, honey, oils, cheese, juices, interspersed with ice cream, chocolate, sticky toffee pudding – you name it, I was served it to judge; around 60 products per day.
It took me some time to calibrate. I’m used to tasting wines from dry to sweet, spitting out, assessing. This, however, was a tsunami of tastes and sensations, assaulting the senses, which I had to assimilate, and learn to assess – and quickly. It was a massive learning curve of how to apply skills already learnt, to a totally different category. Yet, the process is the same, from the brain to the tasting function.
We all have 5 taste receptor cells on our tongues, identifying – sweet, sour, bitter, salty, and umami (savoury, think marmite). These taste messages are relayed to the taste cortex in our brains; the smells are a totally different process.
But how do you develop a sensory memory for smells and tastes? How do you recognise characteristics, be it aromas, flavours, or age in a wine? Or indeed in any edible product, especially if your brain is not familiar with that particular smell or taste – it has no memory, with which to process. For example, if you’ve never tasted a banana, your brain can’t assimilate and identify. You may associate that taste with something totally different.
There is a constant debate as to whether tasters in all disciplines are born with a naturally gifted palate, or whether it is carefully, and meticulously honed over time? My view? It’s largely the latter, with an element of the former. I know some intuitively gifted tasters in my world of my wine, who taste with pure instinct, and have encyclopaedic memories. But most of us have had to learn, and train our palates, as with any discipline, albeit with a potentially natural inclination (no different from whether a student tends towards science or art, and languages).

Non–industry friends frequently ask me, how I identify smells and tastes; once I mention, for example nectarines, or rosemary, they get it. But their brains aren’t trained to do that.
They need prompts. I learnt this when Somerfield, my then-employer, decided to insure my taste buds for £10million – a brilliant PR move if ever there was one, just at the time when Somerfield needed to up its publicity. I was merely the vehicle of the campaign; it worked. It hit all the nationals, TV and radio. However, what fewer people know was the process to get this agreed by the insurers, Lloyds of London. The blind smell test (effectively a scratch and sniff test) made me realise that scents and flavours are simply part of a memory bank that we develop, and that those of us who taste, in whatever field, have a lexicon or smells and tastes lodged in our minds, just as actors learn words.
So, when you drink, and enjoy wine, it’s not about what others think. It’s not even about what experts think. We merely guide and provide a little help along the journey, and help you face that wall of wine and drinks, with which you are confronted.
I was a supermarket buyer; I will always champion the supermarkets, as we have some of the best buyers in the business at the helm. I’m also a firm believer in the might of the independents, and their ability to extend and curate their range, and provide face to face communication and help to their customers. With online sales growing exponentially, in my blogs I’ll also be looking into the online retailers. I’ll also indulge in the odd premium and crafted wine, some beautiful gems, that are worth that special occasion.
But for those who read this, please don’t dismiss supermarkets as wines for those who
aren’t particularly interested in understanding wine and just want the type of wine they recognise at good price point – or simply a bargain. I’ve done the buyers’ job. I know the pressures they face daily. They take huge pride in the products that they blend and select, but they also realise the expectations of the average consumer, and in the current climate, more than ever, have to deliver to a price point.
70% of wine is purchased in supermarkets; independents and online wine merchants are also looking at providing absolute value for money at any price point.
So, in our current economic, cash-strapped climate, my mission is simple. To recommend the best value wines I can find (at any given price point), to help a little in the exploration of wine and trying new things; to report on who is doing what, what’s worth trying.
And I will talk about provenance, terroir, history, and the romance of wine.; and probably about restaurants, food judging etc in between. I will write about winemakers, and iconic wines. But most of all, I’ll try and help find the best wines at the best prices.
But back to the title – I don’t know the answer, I’m enjoying judging across all sorts of food categories, as well as wines and spirits. There is no right or wrong; tasting will always be subjective, and there are frequently heated debates within judging panels.

The key message is- enjoy the styles you like, but please explore, and venture to try
something new.

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