A serious wine event can mean many things: A wine dinner with numerous courses and pairings; or one or two special vintages opened to commemorate an auspicious day. Approaching such an experience requires some thought about what beverage to drink before the evening’s star wines take the stage. It’s inadvisable to jump right into the wine of the night, but the same goes for drinks so intense they fatigue the palate. It’s also a bad idea to consume drinks so high in alcohol your tongue is toast when the Château Lafite Rothschild is offered around.
Our senses of smell and taste evolved partly out of survival. These days, in addition to using them to avoid corrupted water sources or rancid milk, they enable us to enjoy life’s nuances. Counter-intuitively, while taste is an important sense to the wine lover, it has significant limitations. The most important tool in the wine lover’s arsenal is actually the nose. While humans have the ability to taste but a few flavors, we can distinguish millions of aromas.
It stands to reason that a sense as nuanced as smell is somewhat fragile. While our noses are certainly amazing, they can also become fatigued—inured to certain smells after prolonged exposure. When I explain this idea I commonly use Staten Island and very spicy foods as examples. A visitor to Staten Island’s large landfill might be extremely put off by the smell, whereas a native of the area would hardly notice it. (Both individuals would be able to smell things other than the landfill at their normal degrees of sensitivity.) On the flavor front, imagine eating a very spicy food, then being asked to distinguish the subtle differences between several kinds of vanilla ice cream—it would difficult, to say the least.
The easy lesson to take from this is: Stay away from spicy, intense and highly alcoholic beverages when a special wine is on the way. But even when a person is being careful, palate fatigue can still set in. Most wine professionals attending giant wine tastings understand this and take steps to mitigate the effect. I seek out a refreshing beverage to help get my palate back after some big and intense wines. My favorites are the sparkling or low alcohol wines—something refreshing but not too sweet or acidic. Champagne works quite well, as does Riesling from cool regions like the Finger Lakes or Germany.
When I’m looking to keep my nose in good shape during a long tasting, I have a quirky trick to “reset” my sense of smell: I sniff myself. It sounds a little crazy, but this is a very effective measure against olfactory fatigue. The odor of your own skin is your “default setting,” so to speak. When you smell yourself it’s a completely neutral aroma, and it goes a long way towards restoring the nose’s sensitivity and allowing the appreciation of different scents.
Another tact is to take advantage of some of the fun cocktails being created these days. Bartenders are using all kinds of ingredients to create interesting and refreshing drinks. Ginger beer, ciders, Perries, Moscato, Lillet and many other characteristic ingredients are now found in cocktails that are low in alcohol and satisfying. Some of my favorites include:
Aperol is 11 percent alcohol by volume with flavors of sweet orange, mandarin, herbs and spices. Pour this over ice and add some Prosecco to make a refreshing Aperol Spritz.
St. Germain is 20 percent abv and made with elderflower. The classic St. Germain cocktail is a blend of 2oz Champagne, 1.25oz St. Germain and topped with sparkling water.