Wine Words: The American Palate

Separating the truth from the myths

 


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!


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Comments

  • Are you suggesting the entire "American Palate" is an immature an underdeveloped palate? This sounds like you are calling American wine drinkers and American wines...well "N00bs"? Is this really what you mean't? I think many would find this not only insulting, but just plain wrong. The wines produced in California are rich, full-bodied and have plenty of tannin and structure. Sure there are cheaper and more palatable 'drinking wines' produced for the casual wine drinkers ($2 buck chuck, yellowtail, etc...), but attributing those to the mass 'American Palate' seems to be painting in pretty broad brushstrokes.

    Aug 10, 2010 at 4:14 PM


  • Snooth User: dmcker
    Hand of Snooth
    125836 9,118

    Looks like you've covered the bases well, Greg. Never underestimate the power of sodapop upbringings and all that sugar in fastfood (or quickprep home meals sold out of supermarkets and convenience stores) to funnel consumers in certain directions. Some adults never seem to break out of that rut, though plenty ultimately do.

    Had an almost-mother-in-law who always demanded 'good tasting' wine and never seemed to like those I usually served even if they were Bordeaux First Growths or California Cults. I quickly deciphered that the key to tastegood for her was sweetness, so I both took sweeter rieslings and moscatos and dessertwines to their house, and always had a bottle or two sitting around when they came over.

    In Japan, where I currently reside, the traditional progression into wine over past decades came via German rieslings, since they're closer to Sake in appearance, and easydrinking with their commonly sweeter attack, that was then followed by segues into French or Italian wines as palates developed. With the current generation having been raised on McDonalds and plenty of fruitforward wines in the marketplace from Australia, South America and California, this progression is, however, changing, to the detriment of riesling demand....

    Aug 10, 2010 at 4:17 PM


  • Snooth User: dmcker
    Hand of Snooth
    125836 9,118

    You could also extrapolate to foreign cuisines, with one easy analogy being 'Chinese' as it is expressed in the far-greater-majority of eateries and frozen-food packages across the land....

    Aug 10, 2010 at 4:20 PM


  • Good piece in current Wine Biz International mag about trend towards sweeter (i.e. fruitier) wines in the Aussie branded sector driven by U.S. market. Article mentions that HFCS is added to a lot of supposedly savoury foods in America and that US people have a higher perception threshold for sugar.

    http://www.pauljkiernan.wordpress.com

    Aug 10, 2010 at 4:35 PM


  • Snooth User: pplepiew
    133188 2

    The influence of patriotism in America cannot be ignored in this thread. American wine lovers, be they NOObs or connaisseurs, have supported the remarkable efforts of their winemakers and the result is a widespread acceptance of the wines they produce. And since the largest wine producing region of the USA is California, with weather conditions favoring sun-ripened fruit gorged with sugars and rich in flavor, it's quite understandable that a majority of American palates have been leaning towards fruitier wines with softer tannins.

    My 2 cents worth, anyway (1.94 cents because I'm Canadian).

    Aug 10, 2010 at 5:01 PM


  • First wines in college: Cella Lambrusco & Riunite Bianco along with your aforementioned Liebfraumilch and Johannesburg Riesling! OMG. Only to be topped by New Year's celebrations with Martini & Rossi Asti Spumante! I smiled at the recollection of how sweet I liked those first wines and how my palate has changed. I still consider myself to be a relative wine newbie, but I'm enjoying the process of learning and tasting new things. I've lived in remote South America for the past 20 years and so most choices are from Chile & Argentina. Don't know how that skews my "natural American palate"!

    Aug 10, 2010 at 5:06 PM


  • Well, frankly, the first wines I ever drank were straight from the guzzle of a demijohn of Gallo rosé, back in Texas, at the christian age of fourteen (one should never leave a gun just lying around), and the drinking of it had more to do with "adult alcohol" than "taste", the latter not having been a consideration.
    Jump forward...uh...some twenty years. Living in Belgium, the country (uh?) of my origin. Started getting interested in wines. Cheap wines. VDQS. (French, of course). Then I tasted a Pomerol. Reverse revolution! French wine constituted 95% of what I would drink, the rest Italian and an occasional Riesling Spâtlese (sweet stuff).
    In the late 1970's, I visited California, camped in Napa...learned about the more "drinkable" New World wines.
    American taste? I remember how, back in the early 1970's, a famous Burgundian wine guru wrote about how the palates of the young folk were being destroyed by Coca Cola, hamburgers and chocolate ice cream. In general, I believe he had a point. Wine had evolved into something one would drink at parties, as an aperitif, slouched in front of TV... Where have all these eclectic french cuisine meals gone to? To the restaurant, at best! I still -this is a generalization- find that the "Atlantic" French wines are much "dryer" than nearly all the "World Wines", have more tannin, are more "difficult" and, frankly, depend on food to mellow them, temper the tannins, under which conditions they remain great, world class, wines, at times insuperable, indeed. What do I drink most? Spanish reds. I admit to defeat. I'm not American, and I've a great track record of wines tasted and drunk, but the "goût américain" has definitely gone global. Except in France. Of course.

    Aug 10, 2010 at 5:47 PM


  • I think that wine preference is a personal thing, and that while it is true that a person's palette will change, as well as get more complex, I believe that a person's preference for wine - including an American's - is totally unique to the extent that all people are unique. That's why the world of wine is so wonderful and inviting: There's a wine for everybody!

    Aug 10, 2010 at 6:20 PM


  • I think the article is absolutely correct. Exposed to fine dining at an early age, I find a great deal of American wines too fruity. However, I prefer wine with my food. Europeans are accustomed to enjoying wine with the appropriate foods. However,many Americans prefer to sip wine without food. I believe drinking wine in the absence of food contributes to many Americans' preferences for the sweet and fruity beverages.

    Aug 10, 2010 at 6:27 PM


  • Snooth User: dmcker
    Hand of Snooth
    125836 9,118

    As another example, and following upon GoS's comments about sugar tolerance, recipes for European-style pastries, whether Viennese, French, Danish, Italian, what have you, in Japan have considerably less sugar in them than American versions, whether for cooking at home, or in products marketed by supermarkets or boutique bakeries. Big-business food purveyors have recognized this penchant for decades, though what they serve to market seems to get steadily more sugary with time, as they work to turn that penchant into a greater-repeat-business dependency.

    I wonder if this has anything to do with the intensifying increase in US obesity?

    Aug 10, 2010 at 6:28 PM


  • Sugar. I think that covers it. Looking at the aforementioned "Yellowtail" success in the US, it is mass produced fruity wine with high residual sugar when compared to "serious" wines. The all pervasive presence of sugar in US mass produced food is evident to offshore visitors. The bread tastes sweet and many meals seem to have sugar added.
    Does this skew a palate....maybe. As pointed out above as your palate matures so you learn to look at other dimensions of taste. An "American Palate" may be a generalisation for mass produced wines but nobody could point at a good Napa Cabernet or Oregon Pinot Noir and fit wines like that into that category. Viva le difference!

    Aug 10, 2010 at 6:46 PM


  • Snooth User: April Yap
    546515 4

    Yes, this article also made me wonder, what really is the American palate when it comes to wines? It is really hard to know unless you ask right? But your presumptions or hypothesis may have a point. I have a suggestion though, you could look at the number of sales of the American wines vs. the European counterparts and see thru statistics which wines would sell better. Or, you can make a study on this and ask surveys on what kind of wine the average American would consume.

    Aug 10, 2010 at 9:35 PM


  • Snooth User: Stephen Harvey
    Hand of Snooth
    220753 1,449

    To confirm as an outsider, it does strike you that when you travel to the US that there is more sugar in everything.

    It is also true that when Casella crafted the recipe for Yellowtail it was done deliberately with a slightly higher residual sugar content to appeal to the US market and 0 to well over 5m cases in a couple of years is pretty solid evidence that they got the analysis correct.

    I also would note that until the 5-10 years ago E & J Gallo produced more wine than Australia as a company. Yes I did try the Gallo jug wine when in the states in 2002/3 and at best you would describe it as deplorable and mostly a little on the sweet side.

    But lets not forget that there is over 307m of you living there and if 8.5% of the US population can be categorised as having a reasonably developed palate that equates to the entire population of Australia.

    Hence there is a lot of people who just enjoy a cheap bottle of wine and do not see it as the experience most of us on this site do. It is also important to remember that for over 80% of the population it is unlikely that they have a budget to spend more than $50 a week on a mixture of alcoholic beverages and by the time you allow for beer most people are looking for a good $5-10 bottle and maybe straying to 10-20 monthly and +20 on very special occasions, maybe only once a year. My point is that the fine wine palate will always be a very small % of the population. This means the "average" palate will always be totally different to the fine wine palate.

    There is no doubt we all enjoyed sweeter wines when we were younger and began our wine journey and this is easy to understand when you consider the dominant impact the soft drinks coming from Coca Cola and Pepsi have on children and younger people. An interesting side fact is that there is less than 5 places in the world where Coke is not the dominant non alcoholic drink [One of them is my state of South Australia where Iced Coffee outsells Coke - why is a great mystery to everyone, including Coke]

    So it is only natural we see many young people commence their drinking life enjoying/preferring "Commercial Spirit" and Coke or some sweet fizzy drink like Fanta, Lemonade with an assortment of flavours etc etc.

    I imagine that like us the US consumes plenty of JimBeam and Coke, Bacardi and Coke, Johhny Walker and Coke etc etc

    Even with wine, many young people will buy cheap cask/jug wine and mix it with similar stuff. I can name 4 sons of prominent Aussie winemakers who at 18 were drinking Berri Fruity Lexia [basically sultana or gordo ] from a 5L cask [It is from the Constellation Aust stable]

    I might say that 5 years later they all are starting to enjoy the finer products from their fathers stables

    In summary - the mass produced product, whether it is MacDonalds, KFC, Budweiser, Gallo, Ford etc will be default setting for the average US taste.

    I might add that the advertising you see at Superbowl/NBA/Baseball etc reinforces the image of the US palate for the non-American.

    So sadly we all have to live with the outsiders perception of our culture and in this case our wine driven by the mass produced/mass marketted product.

    The Australian companies is just as concerned about the generic view of our wine as you are of yours.

    Aug 10, 2010 at 10:38 PM


  • Palate Smalate, it's all about business. Why Americans drink what they drink is due largely to the marketing/distribution and pricing of wines sold in America. Large, and I mean grossly large amounts of money are made in the business of alcohol in America, to include wine. The business is dominated by a few, and controlled at all levels, and facets, because everyone takes their cut.
    You can debate the so called "evolution of palate", which may or may not have merit in terms of human development, however what is clear is America has a palate for business.
    Wine products on the market in America have gotten stereotypical with a sweet "taste profile" due to the assessment , and study of the "business" of what is in the best interest of doing business. Wine, and alcoholic beverages in general, BIG business is not a surprise, but let me remind everyone that wine, and alcohol in general, is a VERY closed business. The struggle for power is intense, and the products that make it to the market place are there because "it suits the palate", it starts and ends with a business decision and it better make money. On the palate wine amazes, stimulates, and above all else pleasures us in ways that can make us remember the experience long after the bottle is empty. The Biblical implications aside, wine is powerful stuff. Where there is power, there is the ability to influence people, and that means business. Offer candy to a baby and you get cheers and glee, over wine to an adult and you get cheers and glee. Which candy, and which wine, are a matter of business, not taste profile.

    Aug 11, 2010 at 6:11 AM


  • The fruitier wines of the "North American Palate" ring true - Canadians are the same - and is what Thankfully gets people interested in wine from a younger age and out of the coolers and beer. I remember when I just legal enough to drink and had dinner parties with L'ambiance - how refined I thought I was :-). Now 20 + years later and part of the industry as a rep and educator - I see the value in wines for the masses. Most eventually graduate to less fruitier wines and expand thier repitoire for wine and even if they don't - the point is they are drinking wine and enjoying it. People always ask me what wine I would suggest - being in the KNOW - my answer is simple - what ever you enjoy! There is no right or wrong wine - just open and cheers!

    Aug 11, 2010 at 9:05 AM


  • Snooth User: shals
    549478 17

    True that wines of America tend to taste more of ripe fruit but the best wines from the old world still have some great fruit, coupled and balanced with tannins, oak and alcohol. Amarone is a perfect example of bold fruit from old world... sweetness and fruit don't necessarily go hand in hand.

    Aug 11, 2010 at 10:24 AM


  • Snooth User: April Yap
    546515 4

    This blog post really interests me. With the number of threads that has responded to this blog, I really find in fascinating to visit this link over and over again. I really like what Stephen-Harvey posted. That yes, indeed, America is already accustomed with the ‘sweeter side’ of wines and also their take on beverages and even food. However, American in France’s comment also made me think harder of the possibilities of America’s wine palate preference is being dictated by business driven motives.
    Personally, I think that America just grew up to be accustomed with the ‘sweeter wines ’. Due to the fact that vineyard’s geographical location is mostly placed on ‘sunny areas’. And with the warm weather, grapes grown for wines in America ripens faster therefore they produce sweeter wines. In effect, American wines are able to use more ripe grapes that then create a sweeter blend of wine. And since it is the kind of wine that is mostly available on the US market, then this is what people usually purchase (added with the idea that purchasing products from your own country can affect the nation’s stimulus, but that’s another story). And so, the US palate has just basically learned to love and embrace their own blend of sweeter wines. And this is just the effect of their 'accustomed palates'.

    Aug 13, 2010 at 9:41 AM


  • As Vitis Vinifera says, "The wines produced in California are rich, full-bodied and have plenty of tannin and structure”, is the definition of the American palate. Defines an explosive wine: lots of structure, full body, much tannin (natural, oak or added?), colorful (chinesse ink), much alcohol.
    Force the grapes to give excessive feelings, including selection of oak woods that enhance certain flavors. The aroma of the wood must be seen in second order should not be the first actor of the film. It is the style imposed by Robert Parker to differentiate and opposite to the European style.
    The European-style look for the three "E" (in Spanish): Estructura, Equilibrio and ELEGANCIA. Structure (reasonable, average). Balance (aromas and bouquet Vs body) and ELEGANCE (opposite concept to explosiveness).
    Some European winemakers mimic the Parker-style because it allows them to sell their products in the U.S. market, but do not represent the traditional style (Garnacha wines, for example).
    I remember some Californian wines produced in the 70 and 80 (Napa Stony Hill, Santa Cruz Ridge, Napa J. Phleps, Napa Stag's Leap, Sonoma Gundlach-Bundschu, Mondavi´s older) who had great style, though they had so much complexity.
    All wines have their own personality.
    Varieties should express your personality without force.
    Sorry for my english.

    Black Magpie

    Oct 24, 2010 at 12:49 PM


  • Snooth User: Rich102
    478209 14

    One point that hasn't been addressed is the relative value of American (and South American and Australian) wines versus those of Europe. Someone who has been drinking 5 to 10 dollar American etc. red wines who tries a similarly priced French or Italian wine is very likely to be disappointed, not because the wine isn't sweet, but because it's thin, often dirty-tasting, sometimes metallic, sometimes bitter (although not often-- too many wine faults are lumped under the term "bitter") and generally just not a very good value, nor very enjoyable to drink, even with food.

    IMO, with the European reds, one has to go to a higher price point for decent value. Just as one usually has to go to a higher price point with American and Australian wines to get something decently dry. (South America, particularly Argentina, seems to do better on average in the lower price ranges.)

    There are, of course, exceptions, and I try a wide variety of wines looking for them and celebrate those of whatever nationality that I find.

    Oct 24, 2010 at 1:59 PM


  • I am an American wine-appreciater at a very amateur level, but Yellowtail is certainly NOT on my list of acceptable wines. Sure, I began my wine journey with easier to drink Pinot Grigios, then moved to the lighter reds like Pinot Noir. Now though, about six years into things, and still having an appreciation for the sweeter things in life, I really don't like a lot of sweetness in my wine. I like the smoother, full-bodied Montepulciano, and I enjoy certain drier wines like some Chiantis, and heavier Zinfandels. I don't believe that this fits that generalization at all. I think all children like sweet things, and bold, high-tannin wines require an experienced palate, not a European-specific palate.

    Nov 04, 2010 at 6:26 PM


  • Perhaps more Americans have access to a huge array of wines from nearly every wine producing area of the world and like to try new things. I suppose this could skew the stats (preferences average) for Americans versus the Europeans who may tend to primarily enjoy the wines of their own "Old World" regions and styles?

    Apr 12, 2011 at 5:24 PM


  • Snooth User: Racefish
    766007 56

    For many of us that were first exposed to "dry" wines that were somewhat foreign to our taste profiles, those of us that weren't put off and wanted to learn more about the world of wine were more adventurous.
    The first serious wine I bought was a Mouton Rothschild 1964. I had the misfortune of having it with country ham, which in hindsight was very poor in the pairing department. The upside was the wine outshone the ham.
    Since those early days, I've had a chance to try some really good domestics besides the imports. We rarely spend over $15.00 per bottle but when we do, we study the wine before the purchase. There are more wines in the world than I could possibly taste, much less buy and consume.
    Over time, my tastes have changed and the ones I keep coming back to are the California Cabs, the New Zealand Sauv Blancs, and the Aussie Shiraz. Now with Chile and Argentina coming into the market and producing some very good inexpensive wines, my cup indeed, do runneth over.

    Apr 12, 2011 at 6:08 PM


  • Snooth User: ChefJune
    359212 33

    hahaha I remember many longs ago entertaining a new man and serving him Harvey's Bristol Cream. I thought I was SO sophisticated!

    However, you didn't capture MY palate in your profiles.

    Aug 30, 2011 at 1:52 PM


  • Snooth User: TC Wineguy
    1284216 18

    I would venture to say that you make a contradiction in the last 2 paragraphs. You say that we 'graduate from sweet wines' to enjoy a 'broader range of wines'. By broad range, you should be including Sweeter wines as part of that spectrum, and not saying that we have 'graduated.'
    I find sweeter wines to be exactly part of a broad spectrum, and appreciated when paired with very spicy foods, hot-day sipping, and other occasions. They should be embraced as part of the 'broad range' and not excluded, for then we close our mind & palate to all possibilities.

    Aug 01, 2013 at 7:26 PM


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