Cleansing the Palate
Copyright 2002 by Robin Garr. All rights reserved. Originally printed October 11, 2002. For more information go to wineloverspage.com.
A Canadian correspondent recently asked, "What does "cleansing the palate" really mean? What are you really accomplishing?"
Good question! First, though, it should be noted that when a wine taster talks about his palate, he doesn't mean exactly the same thing as a doctor does: In winespeak, the "palate" isn't just the physical roof of your mouth but your entire tasting apparatus...your sense of taste, as distinguished from your sense of smell.
But why should it need to be "cleansed"? This comes up most often in the context of wine judging at formal competitions, or people in the wine business tasting samples to decide what to buy. In such cases - or even when you're tasting wine analytically for your own pleasure or hobby interest - you want to be able to judge each wine separately, without having the flavor of the previous wine lingering in your mouth - er, "palate" - when you go on to the next sample.
So it makes sense to eat or drink something to clear the taste of the previous wine from your mouth before going on. In my experience as a wine judge and at trade tastings, the "cleanser" of choice is simple: Plain water and white bread. There's a good reason for choosing this simple fare: If you have something good to eat like a bite of beef or a couple of shrimp between wines, the pleasant combination of wine and food might alter your impression of the next wine.
This is why the hosts of a social wine tasting, where the purpose is focused more on enjoyment than analysis, often serve cheese or other tasty snacks.
An old joke in the wine trade goes, "Sell with cheese, buy with bread or fruit," suggesting that when you're trying to sell wine, you want to make it taste as good as possible; whereas it's in the buyer's interest to examine the wine as objectively as possible. Although I hope this wisdom is uttered more with humor than with cynicism, there's truth in it. It's worth thinking about, and examining the snack trays, the next time you attend a commercial wine tasting.