The Fuzzy World of Palate Fatigue
Last time you were tasting wine, did your mouth feel like it just did nine rounds in the ring?
That’ll be palate fatigue – a much-discussed topic that everyone has an opinion on, and which appears to be wholly subjective. Sounds a lot like wine.
So, how many wines can you taste in a day? Eighteen might be your limit, while some judges on the old-school Australian wine-judging circuit boast of tasting 300-plus wines on a single occasion. Unfortunately, tasting wine is not a competitive sport nor a measure of virility. Sorry to disappoint you, gents.
While there’s plenty of anecdotal evidence on palate fatigue, research is surprisingly scant. A trawl through scientific journals and a survey of some of the world’s leading sensory analysts drew a blank. There have been plenty of studies on palate cleansers – should you eat a cracker, drink water, chew wax? But no one’s broached the thorny question: when does palate fatigue kick in?
So, what do we know?
In 1986, Dr. Jean-Xavier Guinard, currently a sensory scientist at UC Davis, found that tasters who had a break of 20 to 40 seconds between samples reduced – but did not eliminate – the “carry-over” effect from one wine to the next. Four years later, two other researchers (Lyman and Green) found that even with one-minute breaks there were large carry-over effects. In some cases, astringency in red wines can linger for up to six minutes before your palate is fit and raring to go. This suggests that a line-up of 20 or 30 reds at a wine competition, tasted in a relatively short time frame, can produce seriously flawed results.
Of course, waiting six minutes before tasting the next wine is not practical. At the Sydney International Wine Competition and many other wine shows, most judges have 30 seconds to taste a wine at the first pass, and those deemed to be “of interest” may get two to three more chances, explains competition organizer Warren Mason. Indeed, Ann Noble, the inventor of the aroma wheel and a former professor at UC Davis, believes that wine experts are aware palate fatigue occurs and mentally adjust their expectations.
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