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Christina Pickard: There's something wrong with my palate

Published:  21 May, 2013

Being a new arrival in an industry, let alone a country, can be an isolating boat to be sailing in. And while I have been welcomed with open arms into a wine industry full of kind and generous people here in Western Australia, I'm feeling slightly like a fish out of water.


Everything I've learnt about wine has been in London, one of the most globally focused wine cities in the world. In a normal work week in London town, I frequently tasting-hopped from, say, Argentina to Bordeaux, to Sicily to Lebanon. I tasted wines from a vast number of countries and regions on a weekly and often daily basis. I'm only realising now that I'm away from it, what a unique opportunity that was (although admittedly all that choice was exhausting at times!).


Now, well, let's just say the wines in my world have narrowed. Unsurprisingly, here it is all about Western Australia (and occasionally other parts of Oz).


I made it a goal when moving to Australia, to spend the next few years here learning as much as possible about Australian wine. One of the downsides to having the wines of the world at one's disposal is that, while a decent overview of most regions is formed, more often than not, it is merely surface-scratching at the best of times. So even though it's a massive change, it'll be good for me to focus on one region and one winemaking country for a while.


So I'm not complaining about the fact that Aussies are so, well, Aussie-centric. Australia has a booming wine industry it deserves to be proud of, and supporting the locals is certainly a good thing. Plus, it's not like the same mindset doesn't exist in other winemaking countries.


The problem is, my palate isn't yet used to Australian wine.


We become accustomed to taste, like we do with so many things. Like muscles that stretch and coil around certain flavours and textures, we are drawn to wines that bring us pleasure. But those pleasure-bringing wines change as we change. Like a person, our palate is rapidly and persistently in flux in the early years when wine is new and ripe for exploring. The wines I was drinking when I first started in this industry are not the same that now grace my dinner table.


However, there comes a point when your palate grows up, and while evolution still takes place - new boundary-pushing wines will continue to be made to challenge even the most grown-up of palates - I know there are some elements to a glass of wine that I will always crave, always derive pleasure from (and equally, elements I will always get displeasure from).


I drink a lot of natural wines, made with very low levels of sulphur, native yeasts, and minimal additions or manipulations. Part of what initially drew me to natural wine - and still does - is that they are different. They push the envelope of winemaking and challenge my palate. But drink enough "challenging" wines and they become the norm.


These wines have made me sensitive to sulphur as well as to the false flavours imparted by some cultured yeasts and other additives and "procedures" in the winery, not to mention the overuse of oak. At tastings here in WA, I will often berate a wine that seems to me too "fussed with" - pushed into being by force and plenty of winemaking "tricks of the trade". I am met with blank stares by my fellow tasters.


The wines drunk in my home back in the UK were mostly European, and if they weren't they were made in a similar vein, namely with fresh acidity, little to no oak influence, textured with pure bright fruit but often focused more on savoury qualities like earth and stone, smoke and sea salt. These are the wines that bring me the most pleasure. Of course, I, like any sane human being, go weak at the knees over the complexities of a top-of-the-line aged wine - a Gran Reserva Rioja, a Gran Cru Burgundy, or even at 20-year-old Margaret River Cabernet, but, like most of us, I cannot afford to drink these with any regularity. I am therefore speaking of everyday wines, the bottles that get sipped over supper, or tipped back on a Friday night with friends. My wine choices are generally rustic and gluggable but also expressive of place and grape. I am easily bored by wines that focus primarily on rich ripe fruit and oak and could come from anywhere.


I can hear some of you argue that, as wine styles of the world become more and more homogenous, plenty of European wines taste like a tree and a berry had a baby. And plenty of Australians are far from being the jam-on-toast wines they once were, particularly lately as the trend for leaner styles (often criticised as "anorexic" here in Oz) takes hold. But there is still something Australian - in the modern sense - about most of the wines I taste. It's a chicken-and-egg conundrum. Despite some of the stylistic changes here, it still seems ingrained in the Aussie psyche that wine must have fruit flavours - lots of them - and as ripe as possible. I asked several well-reputed wine writers and restaurateurs here in WA about whether wines focused more on tertiary characters (what we would call "terroir-driven") would sell here. Their answer was a resounding "no". "People here want wines with fruit. They're not interested in dirty wines," one told me.


And so at weekly tastings here in Perth, where, after each flight, we go round the room and read out our scores for each wine (they are very into scoring wines here in Oz - wine competitions are an institution here - but we'll save that subject for another post), I started to think something was wrong with my palate. Wines that were being given top marks by the rest of the table were barely making the grade for me.


Then one week a young winemaker from Burgundy, apprenticing with a wine shop here in Perth for a few weeks, joined us at a tasting of nearly 30 Shiraz. In the first flight, the two of us were alone in scoring nearly all of the wines very low. The second flight was the same. By the third there was one wine that stood out to me among the sea of peppery oaky spice, ripe berries and chunky tannins. It was smoky and meaty, with the fruit like a supporting character rather than a leading role. It was restrained, elegant, and exceptionally food friendly. The entire table gave it mediocre scores, but the young Burgundian and I showered it with praise and high numbers. "This is just like a northern Rhône," the Burgundian whispered to me, as if it were a swear word not to be uttered in the home of Shiraz. Just what I was thinking. It was very European indeed. It became clear that day that there is nothing wrong with my palate. It's just tuned to a different station, like realising one is on FM radio when everyone else is on AM.


And now for my disclaimer.


I have only scratched the surface of the sheer volume of Australian wines out there. Attending Rootstock, Australia's first natural wine fair in Sydney a few months ago (which was sold out weeks before and bursting to the gills with curious excited punters) confirmed what I already knew; that there are a rapidly growing number of Aussie wines being made with a gentle touch and a focus on expressing terroir as honestly as possible. They are complex and wonderful and totally unique in the land of Oz. And there are plenty of others outside Rootstock who are working in a similar spirit. Western Australia admittedly seems to be slow to the pitch. It's a famously conservative wine region, but even here there are a handful of young upstarts bravely marching to their own beat and making cracking wines in the process. A lot of the bigger names are also upping their game, and restrained winemaking is most certainly on the rise (even if backing off the chemicals to get more terroir-expression still seems a ways off). However, these winemakers are still very much in the minority... for now anyway.


Will my palate start to change the longer I am in Australia?


I doubt I will every have a truly "Australian" palate. I'll always love a classically European style of wine, however, kicking and screaming, I may become more tolerant to certain flavours and styles. In the meantime, I will keep tasting and learning as much as I can about this nation and its wines, for it deserves my full attention.


But boy is it a relief to know there's nothing wrong with palate.