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Jefford on Monday: Understanding Young Palates

It was another high-decibel dinner with the kids last night.

“Have you put citrus in this?” John (who’s five) asked me in an accusatory tone, searching for new reasons to refuse to eat the dish I’d prepared. I had, actually. Just a little lemon juice. It was beef stir-fried with carrots and peas and served with noodles. They love soy sauce, so I thought I’d discreetly up the ante with some chopped garlic and ginger, too. Not fresh ginger, which I knew they’d find a challenge, but finely chopped crystallised ginger. Just a little.

“Ugh, pa!” – this was Joe (who’s three). He grimaced, shuddered, and spat out a tiny morsel of ginger. Having identified the problem, the rest of the ginger fragments were pushed aside, along with the garlic and much of the rest of the dish. He ran off, as he usually does at meals, around the house. Half a dozen times.

I sat and surveyed the ruins. I wasn’t going to let on to John, but I was impressed with his instant diagnosis of my sauce construction. Joe’s unfeigned shudder set me thinking, too. I’d eaten the same food, but barely noticed either flavour; they seemed ultra-discreet, just a background nuance. Yet to the boys, these were violent and disconcerting flavours.

Palate acuity peaks when we are eleven; after that, it is a long, slow slide downhill. Older wine-tasters don’t like to admit it, but their senses are never as acute as they were in younger years. Age’s trump card is experience and memory: you can fit things into a context younger tasters don’t have, and dredge the memory bank for sensorial similitudes. But older tasters would be ill-advised to rubbish a younger palate when it uncovers surprising details.

It’s easy to measure these changes in your own palate by recalling your reactions to taste benchmarks – like Guinness, for example. I vividly remember finding the flavour of Dublin’s stout a huge challenge when I first tried it: almost painfully bitter, with that heavy, sodden blanket of flavour which reminded me of wet coal in the scuttle when I brought it in from the shed. Nowadays, even the classic bottled version seems a gentle, softly contoured drink.

I haven’t, of course, started the boys on any wine yet, but it did set me thinking about the kind of wines which the untutored yet highly reactive palates of late adolescence might enjoy.

I’ll avoid Barolo and Madiran, that’s for sure. Classic German Riesling in the fruchtig style was a wine I loved when I was eighteen. In wine-drinking terms, it’s like taking a few steps into the garden on a spring morning: everything around you is crystal clear, beautifully disposed, graceful and delicate, and the flavours themselves, especially from the low-alcohol Mosel, are a kind fruit essence lent dignity by fermentation. The only difficult bit is learning how to sip rather than gulp.

New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc didn’t exist when I made my wine-drinking debut, but I suspect that would be a good choice, too: exuberant, rounded and vivacious, again packed with allusions to a familiar natural world, even though the repertoire is now principally vegetal.

Red wines are more difficult, since what are positive traits for an addled old palate like mine (the bitterness of stones and herbs, the active grip of extract and tannins) would be toxic for fresh, unseasoned tongues. Cru Beaujolais seems to me to be a good starting point: a cascading Chiroubles, a forthright Juliénas. I’d then probably move to non-Burgundian Pinot Noir in general, with New Zealand’s Pinots once again looking youth-friendly thanks to their beguiling fruit, natural poise and (at present) lack of extractive force. How, though, do you carry new drinkers to reds with middle-palate texture and wealth?

Two grape varieties strike me as being ideal: Merlot and Tempranillo. Both have travelled, but in this case both strike me as being most charming on home territory. There is great Tempranillo dotted across Iberia, but for 19-year-olds it would be hard to beat a well-aged Rioja, as soft and gentle as milk on the tongue, yet brimming with the glow of ripeness (La Rioja Alta’s 2004 Viña Arana Reserva is spot on).

As for Merlot, I’d favour Pomerol over St Emilion: the gravels seem to make for a more open-textured and affable wine than the limestone, at least in the early years. Not everything from Pomerol need break the bank: you can still get the modestly delicious Clos du Clocher 2000 or 2001 for £30 to £40 a bottle, for example.

Those are my guesses – but you may have just lived through the experience. What did your young adults love – or loathe?

Written by Andrew Jefford

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