The Tastemaker: Filipinas, Papayas, and Training Your Palate

The Tastemaker: Filipinas, Papayas, and Training Your Palate

Drinking wine is easy. Tasting it is hard. That’s why I’m introducing The Tastemaker, an occasional STBNY series about the challenges, pleasures and mysteries of wine tasting.

One of the best wine tasters I’ve ever met is from the Philippines. One the face of it, that doesn’t seem like a particularly interesting statement.

But think about it for a second.

Even if you’ve never been to the Philippines, you could probably guess what kind of fruits and vegetables grow there. Coconut, pineapple, banana, mango, squash, taro, bamboo shoots, okra…the usual tropical suspects. And the Philippines being an archipelago in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, you might imagine it would be tough and expensive to import fruits and vegetable that don’t grow there. So if you’re living in the Philippines, most of what you eat probably comes from the Philippines.

So with that in mind, let’s take a look at some recent Daily Wine Picks from The Wine Spectator:

ZENATO Amarone della Valpolicella Classico 2005 (90 points, $70) Pretty aromas of boysenberry and sliced plum lead to a full body, with unctuous ripe fruit. Round and ready.
SANTA BARBARA Chardonnay Santa Barbara County 2008 (87 points, $17) Clean, fresh, ripe and pure. Medium-bodied, with a mix of lemon and citrus-laced green apple, spice and floral scents.

Boysenberry. Probably not a lot of berry cultivation in the tropics. Ditto for plums and apples. None of these fruits are likely to be in heavy rotation (if at all) in the average Philippine diet. The “floral scents” my friend likely grew up with–ylang-ylang, hibiscus, jasmine, etc. –are worlds apart from the rose/honeysuckle/violet aromas that I (and, I’d venture to say, the author of this tasting note) know well.

Not surprisingly, my friend found tasting in the U.S. really hard at first. She had no idea what a boysenberry tasted like. When she moved here, she spent hours training herself on what boysenberries, blackberries, blueberries, cranberries, strawberries, cherries, apricots, plums, peaches, red apples, yellow apples and green apples tasted like in fresh/cooked/preserved form. She tested herself constantly, and was eventually able to recognize and talk about these aromas and flavors in wine with impressive accuracy and eloquence.

So why am I telling you this? To call attention to the Eurocentrism of wine tasting notes? Hardly. I’m sharing this for two reasons. First, as a reminder that every person’s palate is different, due to biology, culture and experience. If your wine-savvy friend is waxing rhapsodic about the aroma of green papaya emanating from her glass of Chardonnay and you can’t smell it, don’t freak out. Maybe she backpacked around Thailand when she was 22 and dined on green papaya salad every night. There’s probably¬† something you’ll be able to spot that she never would have noticed.

And second, I want to assure you that it’s possible to train your palate. Cook with a new spice or fruit or vegetable. Eat at that Ethiopian/Nepalese/Honduran place down the block you’ve always wanted to try. And don’t just do it once. Come back to these different aromas and flavors repeatedly, talk about them with your dining companions, take notes on them, whatever it takes to get them fixed in your mind. You’ll accumulate a store of sensory experiences you can refer to when you’re tasting wine. You’ll find that some of these new aromas, particularly the ones you really love (or really hate), are easy to suss out, while others will elude you. That’s OK. Keep at it. Be patient, don’t be too hard on yourself–and remember that building a great palate is just as important (if not more so) than building a great cellar.

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