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The Boomer Palate (July 17, 2008)

No critic in any discipline, be it literature, music, dance, architecture, theatre, film or cuisine – at any point in human history – has had as much power and influence on his or her chosen field as Robert B. Parker. Parker's 100-point system dictates what wines will sell and what won't. A Parker score of 90 points or above will ensure that that product will fly off the shelves globally. Eighty-seven points just won't cut it.

The one-time Maryland lawyer and founder of the newsletter The Wine Advocate champions super-ripe, richly extracted, powerful wines. So much so that the French, who have most to lose by not pleasing Parker's palate, have coined a verb that describes the process of making wine that will appeal to him – parkeriser. Loosely translated, this means "to produce a wine with as much flavour as possible for a desired Parker score."

So much power concentrated in the palate of one man may seem dangerous, but I don't consider this necessarily a bad thing. Since the 1980s French producers have relied too heavily on their past reputations and have not responded quickly enough to competition from the New World. Many of the fabled wines of Bordeaux and Burgundy were picked under-ripe whenever the weather forecast threatened rain around harvest time or were aged in barrels that deserved to be cut in half and used as flower pots.

If Robert Parker has made winemakers around the world think about producing wines that are big and bold, this is only in accordance to what is actually happening to the palates and preferences of the most influential sector of the wine-buying public.

In lock-step with Parker's personal taste, the ageing Baby Boomer palate will have a profound effect on the way wines are made in future. There are roughly 85 million baby boomers in North America who have reached an age when they are beginning to lose their taste buds.

We are born with thousands of taste buds on our tongues and the sides and roofs of our mouths. As we grow, the number of sensitive taste buds shrink to the area concentrated on the tongue. Then we begin to lose them. Women begin to lose taste buds beginning at about 40 to 50 years of age, while men hang on to their taste buds until about 50 to 60. And in addition to their loss, the taste buds that remain begin to atrophy. Our sense of smell diminishes too, which, according to scientific evidence, happens around the age of 60 in men. This means that we require richer, stronger flavours to make an impression on the palate.

If we put this in wine terms, a lean, sinewy red Burgundy from a mediocre year will not have the flavour impact – and as a result the satisfaction – of a ripe Pinot Noir from Oregon, California or New Zealand.

I am already beginning to see how Parkerised wines from Europe are turning up in our liquor stores. The prime example is the region of Languedoc-Roussillon, whose wines are positively beefy compared with classic Bordeaux and Burgundy. But even châteaux and domaines in those august regions have began to produce riper wines. And if you look to the newer regions of Spain, like Priorat, Yecla and Jumilla, their bold, fleshy wines have more in common with those of California, Australia and Chile than they do with the more traditional Rioja and Navarra. And compare the wines of Chianti Classico with those of Bolgheri and Maremma, Tuscany's own New World, and you'll see what I mean.

It could be argued that Parker's palate has unwittingly homogenized the world's wines and we are losing regional identity by lauding extract over terroir; but ultimately our ageing taste buds will dictate our preferences, and austerity be damned.




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