The so-called wine expert poured a little sample of the wine he had taken great care to open, raised his wine glass, sniffed it with his nose deep in the bowl of the extra large wine glass, then remarked, “It’s just a simple little wine, but you’ll be amused with its audacity.”
Do the descriptions of wine, made by wine tasters, wine judges and wine writers (even me) make sense to their listeners and readers? Sometimes, so-called experts do try to impress wine novices and the public in general with their so-called “expertise” in wine knowledge.
Sometimes what they say is truly a good appraisal of the wine in question. But it seems too many try to “show off” their skill with complex and fancy words.
Do they really mean anything to anyone else?
This was a question that some scientists at the Mellon Institute of the Chemical Senses, located in Philadelphia, asked a number of years ago. I was one of the people asked to be a part of their study. Briefly, they took an assorted lot of wine consumers and so-called wine experts and asked them to be part of a study.
“Do wine writers communicate anything of meaningful value when they describe a wine?” Do the readers understand what they are saying, or is it just a bunch of fancy words meaning little to anyone?
Well organized, with a hint of clarity
The experiment was done (as well as I can remember) by having the volunteer subjects smell and taste several wines and write down their descriptions of what they were experiencing by "tasting" the various wines.
The participants included wine novices, people who had just become interested in wine, wine consumers who had been enjoying wine for at least five or more years, and then what they called “experts” (Wine makers, distributors, and writers, that is, anyone who made some income related to their wine knowledge.) The results were very interesting.
The experiment was carried out by having the subjects taste several wines and writing down their description. They returned a week or two later and repeated that exercise but were not told which wine was which.
They were then given cards with other subjects' wine descriptions and were asked to select the wines that the other person’s cards were describing. This second step was repeated as a third test.
In this final test the researchers had really mixed the cards up but experts and some of the experienced wine consumers were still able to match the descriptions of other experts with the wines but were barely able to match the written description of the novices with any wine.
The novices could on occasion match expert’s descriptions to wines, but not those of other novices (except some could match their own.)
Expected, but lacking communication
The results were almost what one might expect. Wine professional and experts communicate very well with other wine experts. Wine professionals could even communicate with many of the “novices” wine consumers.
But the novices were only able to communicate a little to the experts and essentially had no communications with the other novices. This is indicative that the experienced wine writers, wine makers and other professionals do learn “wine speak,” the language of wine descriptions.
Many wine descriptions are rather basic and easily understood by even a novice. Color and clarity are rather simple; such as very clear, or slightly cloudy. Descriptions of wine aroma are also easy to understand as they are mostly related to the smells of other food product or common odors such as the aroma of apples and cherries or even oak or rubber.
Some are a little more complex like hydrogen sulfide, a chemical used in stabilizing wine and preventing oxidation. When used in excess it has the smell of rotten eggs or burnt rubber. These are odors we can all relate to.
Accurate, though a touch esoteric
What can get a little confusing is when the wine writer uses a rather special example for comparison such as an unusual fruit, like kiwi or kumquat. But at least you could try to sneak a smell of one of those fruits at the supermarket. There are only a few aromas and flavors of fruits,vegetable or woods used in describing wines than are not common to the average person.
One that surprised me some years ago was a wine that was described as having the aroma “of lychee nuts.” So my wife and I went to an Asian grocery shop, bought a can of lychee nuts and the wine (an Alsatian Gewurztraminer) that allegedly had this characteristic, and we compared them. Yes, there were some similarities but the wine’s aroma was much lighter in that component than the canned lychee nuts.
It is fun to try to find simple substances that are similar to some of the many complex aromatic components of wine. There are kits available that can be purchased to help train your nose (actually your verbalization of aromatic sensory experiences) to be able to identity the name of common wine aromatic components.
One kit supplied a scratch and sniff card with several dozen typical wine aromas, but somehow some of the aromas were not even close to what they were supposed to be representing.
Stick to the basics
Almost any good wine reference book will have a glossary of wine term definitions. You can find a couple of good ones online. Simply Google “Words To Describe Wine” and you will find several good lists.
Long ago I came to the conclusion that all the wine descriptions in the world are not nearly as good as one small taste. So whenever you get a chance to actually taste a wine, take advantage of it, and try to think about what you are experiencing.
If you can, try to name your reactions, and that will help you remember what you like about that wine. That experience is worth all the written descriptive words about wine in the world.