A professor of viticulture puts a stopper on wine hooey.
Whenever I read that a wine is "lush and creamy," "elegant," "lovely," "graceful," "generous," "luscious," or "smooth," I gag. These days, I gag a lot.
I've had cheesecake that's lush and creamy. Tequila and whiskey divide into smooth and rough. My wife is elegant, lovely, graceful, and even luscious. But contrary to what you read on the back of some bottles, these terms are meaningless when applied to wine. The label on Castlewood Grove's chardonnay claims that its wine has a "superb nose." White Oak chardonnay boasts a "mouth-filling richness," McDowell's syrah is "ripe-flavored and appealing for immediate enjoyment," Turnbull's cabernet sauvignon has "legendary concentration and elegance," and Truchard's version of the same grape has "great character and distinction." Others describe tannins as "polished," grapes as "rubenesque," and fruit flavors as "forward," "abundant," and "bright."
Most wine critics similarly enjoy gyring and gimbling in the wabe. Take this sentence about Napa Wine & Co.'s sauvignon blanc, excerpted from Connoisseur's Guide to California Wine and printed on one of those little cards that wine merchants put in front of bottles. "From the first sniff, one is impressed by the precise, deep but never bombastic aromas in which green apple and crenshaw melon scents [sic] and by a creamy, vanillin accent of oak, and it is wonderfully balanced on the palate with ripe richness set off by firming acids and brightness."
Why do these people write this way? Is this what happens when your job requires you to drink before noon?
Ann Noble, a sensory scientist-flavor chemist in the viticulture and enology department at the University of California, Davis, would ban from the wine-tasting lexicon whole pages of words that she deems imprecise, vague, or hedonic (her word).
"What the hell is 'stylish'?" Noble asks me. "Is a Volkswagen stylish? Is a Humvee stylish?" She hates "harmonious," disdains "fragrant," and despises "dense," which she says "doesn't mean exactly anything." Winemakers, she says, favor fuzzy terms for a reason. "The labels are for marketing an image," she says.
Having researched how people assess wine, Noble now teaches scientific techniques to describe it precisely. To this end, she has developed a lovely, impressive, and wonderfully balanced tool, which she calls the wine aroma wheel. The words found on Noble's wine aroma wheel do not make me sick to my stomach.
Noble divides her wheel into three rings. The inner ring has the 12 "specific and analytical words" that she believes best describe wine aromas: fruity, vegetative, nutty, caramelized, woody, earthy, chemical, pungent, oxidized, microbiological, floral, and spicy. The middle ring subdivides these 12 words into 29 more specific categories, and the outer ring offers 94 still more precise descriptions. A sophisticated nose might thus distinguish a fruity wine as smelling like citrus, berry, tree fruit, tropical fruit, or dried fruit. The outer ring ups the olfactory ante again, dividing these terms into such exact descriptions as strawberry jam vs. strawberry.
Noble's main aim is not to teach wine appreciation. Rather, she strives for a standard terminology that cuts through the babble of winespeak. Her undergraduate course "Sensory Evaluation of Wines" is the first step in this process, teaching students how to link aromas to wine. It's a "kindergarten of the nose," she says.
Noble's Web page contains the nose-training workout that she uses in "Sensory Evaluation of Wines": First, students pour wine into a bunch of glasses and then drop a different "physical standard" into each one. For white wines, the physical standards include clove, bell pepper, brine from canned asparagus, and apricot puree. The point of making these physical standards is to educate your nose to recognize these aromas in an undoctored glass of wine. Next, the students pour samples from a variety of white wines.
"From this point on, anything goes: Smell the wines first, smell the standards, start to see which terms describe which wine," writes Noble.
When I told Noble that I was tackling the workout, she replied, "Your nose is going to start to talk to you because the contrasts really stand out."
Following Noble's instructions, I put a little cheap white wine into 15 glasses and then spiked each one with a different physical standard: peach puree, apricot puree, brine of asparagus, strawberry jam, wet cardboard, fresh strawberry, pineapple juice, soy sauce, green olive, melted butter, coffee grinds, fresh lime juice, cloves, vanilla, and shaved almonds. I identified the contents of each glass with a label, stretching plastic wrap over the tops to prevent aromas from escaping. Into another set of labeled glasses I poured three different chardonnays (which I expected to have dramatically distinct attributes), one gewürztraminer, and one Riesling. After putting all 20 of the glasses on the dining room table, I enrolled my wife and 9-year-old daughter in the kindergarten of the nose.
As Noble instructed, we sniffed each standard, smelled the untainted wines, and then went back and forth between the standards and the wines. "My nose isn't talking to me," my wife said. Next, each of us wrote down descriptions of each wine's scent, but limited our vocabulary to words that matched the scents wafting from the physical standards.
Our daughter, who has great character and legendary intelligence, was a bit dense this evening and instead of describing the wines' aromas offered blunt descriptors such as "I don't like it." Fair enough. Interestingly, my wife and I listed different combinations of aromas for each of the five white wines under assessment. But when we spoke about the choices we made, resniffing the 20 glasses before us, we agreed on descriptions for four of the five wines.
As a final exercise, we shifted the labels identifying the white wines to the bottoms of the glasses, where we couldn't read them, and then tried to guess which wine was which. Save for the gewürztraminer, which I thought smelled of wet cardboard and my wife had called clovelike, we failed the test—misidentifying four of the five wines. Had I lost my wine aptitude or was my nose just fatigued? An hour later, I retook the test and scored 100. I had heard my nose, loud and clear.
Although my anecdotal evidence suggests that Noble's method works, I don't expect winemakers to begin printing labels that brag about a gewürztraminer's wet-cardboard finish. The French will continue to eschew back labels altogether, and the more conscientious American vintners will limit the label lingo to useful information about the winery's location, the soil in which the grapes were grown, and the climate. And make no mistake, a winery need not cram a label with absurd adjectives to sell a wine. Recently, I bought a bottle of Napa's Schuetz Oles on the strength of its label alone: "Planted in the early 1960s, above Calistoga on a rattlesnake infested rocky hillside, this Petit Sirah produces a dangerously red wine," the label reads. "BE PREPARED: DO NOT DRINK IF WEARING WHITE CLOTHING!"
Now that's stylish.
Jon Cohen writes for Science magazine. You can reach him at email@example.com.