In wine circles, especially international wine circles, it's accepted as gospel that there is something casually referred to as the "American Palate." Ignoring for a moment the fact that almost all generalizations are faulty at their root, how on earth could there be something that joins 300 million people spread out over thousands of miles, and descended from hundreds of cultures?
Well, that's a mighty fine question and one worth a bit of investigation. As much as we like to believe taste is defined by our informed choices, the facts are that four, or perhaps five factors determine how we taste. The universally accepted tastes are salty, sweet, sour, and bitter, with umami fighting for acceptance, though not mine. So what is going on with the so-called "American palate"?
Well, it's long been suggested that Americans like wines that are, well, fruity. Fruitier than wines preferred in other countries, and by other we are referring of course to primarily the European wine producing countries.
Now, while "American" wines may be fruitier than their European counterparts, attributing that to the "American Palate" might just be putting the cart before the horse. The climate in most American wine growing regions tends to be fairly warm. It only stands to reason that the wines they produce might be a bit fruitier than their cooler climed cousins.
Perhaps the fact that American wines are by their very nature fruitier has lead to the development of a preference for this fruitier style? If that were so we should be able to see that the less fruity, more tannic, and perhaps bitter wines of Europe are not finding a market here in the States.
So wines like Barolo, Bordeaux, Burgundy, dry German Rieslings should be poorly represented on our domestic shelves. One problem, of course: We are the main export market for all of these regions! So, what's up with the American Palate then?
Well, there probably has been a generation or two, weaned on soda and foods devoid of bitterness, that have been almost trained to enjoy a style of wine that is fruity to the point of seeming sweet and devoid of bitter tannins.
More damaging has been the rise of certain wine critics who have embraced these styles of wines. But here's the Ah Ha! moment -- the truth is that there are people who really enjoy slightly sweeter wines, as most wine lovers do when starting out. So many among us have fond memories of our first wines, Liebfraumilch, White Zinfandel, Mateus. We graduated from this sweet stuff and have developed palates that enjoy a much broader range of flavors, allowing us to appreciate a broader range of wines.
So that American palate, well it's more of a beginner's palate, sometimes woefully misguided by those we assume know more than ourselves. There is no single American palate, it's simply a broad range of palates, with many budding wine amateurs skewing our American results! And the misguidance of several acclaimed wine critics who still maintain an inordinate amount of influence on what is considered to be "great" wine.
Yes, we have a lot to learn, but this "American" palate at least seems to indicate that we are well on our way!