is there a cure for tunnel palate?

Friday, April 13, 2012

The phrase tunnel palate seems self-explanatory. Much like tunnel vision, it describes a condition where a taster has developed a set of constricted flavor preferences, and essentially has a blind spot regarding them.

I have seen various forms of this. It is not to be confused with simple palate preferences, nor with the physiological differences that make each and every one of us unique. A professional wine taster, especially a critic, must carefully and critically map his or her palate to find exactly how that landscape lies. Where are the sensitivities, and where are the things that are less impactful? How does a particular ability – say a tendency to sniff out brett – affect the way you analyze and prioritize wine quality?

Tunnel palate is the result of not doing a thorough map for yourself. It seems to occur most frequently among those who taste a lot of very similar wines – winemakers for example – and don’t have the opportunity or interest to explore outside their region or specialty. I have lost count of the number of times I have heard about a wine that the visitors to the tasting room, the neighboring winemakers, the friends and family all loved – yet, upon tasting that wine, my own impressions are quite different.

This is a major disconnect between some, not all, winemakers, and many wine critics. And as a corollary, it is almost dead certain that the best wines are made by winemakers with the broadest possible tasting experience.

I was set upon this train of thought by a wine that arrived recently from a winery owner of long acquaintance. We have often shared a very thoughtful and open dialogue about wine-related topics, and even though I often review this winery’s wines, sometimes very favorably, not always, my job as a reviewer has never impinged upon our ability to discuss things quite honestly.

The wine that arrived was a late release of a white wine that I had originally reviewed some years ago. Apparently, the wine had gone into some sort of a funk, from which, I was advised, it had recently emerged. The wine was being re-released and the owners were kind enough to send it to me so I could see how it had evolved.

Here is where their impression and my own took radically different turns. I was anticipating something quite extraordinary. So much so that I set out my best stemware and planned to serve the wine with a dinner that I imagined would showcase it well. I opened the bottle and poured. Hmmmm... not at all what I expected or hoped for. In fact, downright odd. Maybe an off bottle, I thought. With older wines, bottle variation becomes more pronounced. I opened the second bottle. Slightly different, but worse, if anything. Weird.

Is this an example of tunnel palate? Maybe, maybe not. More likely it’s a related phenomenon, which is, my kid is the smartest, most beautiful, athletic, creative, interesting kid in the known universe. Any parent can identify with that! And anyone with half a brain – even a wine critic – knows better than to argue about it.


SUAMW said...

"physiological differences that make each and every one of us unique"

Paul, you are unique - like everyone else....

Your statement is a falsehood.

PaulG said...

SUAMW - not sure I understand your point. Or have you mis-read mine?

SUAMW said...

My point is that this purported variance in human sensory physiology is an overplayed myth. Real sensory research(ie diligent, peer-reviewed work conducted by people who actually understand the field) has demonstrated that this is the case. True hyposmias and anosmia have a prevalence of no more than 2%. Empirical work has also shown that "blind spots" can be overcome with repeated exposure and training. In this sense, olfaction and gustation are like hearing and the recognition and identification of aromas and flavors and textures is like music. A middle C is always a middle C and you don't need perfect pitch to recognize it. A myxolydian mode of a particular scale is always such and only training allows one to recognize it - or to note harmonies and overtones which casual listeners do not pick up (but can with training - just as every trained musician was once oblivious to these elements).

PaulG said...

SUAMW - I don't think we disagree. Put aside the scientific mumbo-jumbo and let's just say that tasting can be a learned skill, like listening to music, appreciating art, etc. There are, however, major differences, for example, in the number of taste buds. That makes a difference in perception.

Peter Rosback said...

I have been lead to believe that we all pretty much taste sweet, sour, acid fairly similarly, but sensitivity to bitterness varies considerably. Some register it not at all, some both experience it and experience it longer on the palate. A couple wines I made whole cluster were undrinkable to me due to excessive and persistent bitterness. One fellow who tried it declared it the best wine he'd ever had. 2%? Maybe...

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