An informative blog from Nathalie today – what are the origins of wine tasting descriptors, how accurate are they, and how much should we really be depending on them?
If you’ve ever shopped at The Urban Grape, you’ve probably heard our staff talk about wine with some pretty colorful descriptions. Maybe we compared a dry Mosel riesling to an oyster shell. Or perhaps we told you that Napa cabs often have distinctive undertones of tobacco. Either way, we use comparative descriptions in wine retail because they help us convey what customers should come to expect out of certain varietals or regions. Using comparative tasting notes also sparks intrigue and excitement for the consumer when they actually open the bottle: rather than just sipping and saying, “yes, this is good” you’ve been tuned in to identify flavors that otherwise might have gone unnoticed. The reasons we use this language are clear, but how and when did this jargon become standard fare?
In a 2015 article in the New Yorker, author Bianca Bosker writes about the evolution of wine language dating back to the ancient Greeks and Romans, noting that descriptions of certain vintages were phrased as definitive judgment rather than focusing on aromas or flavor. It isn’t until 1984 that UC Davis professor Ann Noble elaborated on the concept of comparative descriptions when she “…published the Wine Aroma wheel, a circular chart of six dozen descriptors that could be used to describe wine by smell … [and] argued against terms that were … ‘the result of an integrated or judgmental response’ and [instead favored] ‘specific and analytical ones.’” And so the common lexicon of wine was born, and has maintained a hold on the way we on the industry end discuss wine.
Lately this new standard has undergone changes of its own. If we think about the evolving marketplace and the growing emphasis on the “artisanal” or “hand-crafted” we can understand how elaborate descriptions have grown significantly in popularity. Flowery descriptive language is no longer reserved specifically for the wine world; you can find it on the back of small-batch candy bars, single-origin coffees, and undoubtedly within the craft beer industry. Bosker references a tasting held by long-time wine celebrity James Suckling first in 1992, and then again in 2009. In both years, he tasted a bottle of Haut Brion’s 1989 vintage, but where in 1992 he needed only a single phrase to elucidate the taste, “‘big and meaty, with lots of fruit and full tannins, but featuring a sweetness and silkiness on the finish…’” his 2009 descriptions rambled on for seven full sentences, “evoking ‘ perfumed aromas of subtle milk chocolate, cedar, and sweet tobacco.’” This demonstrates the linguistic shift towards more grandiloquent terminology but also elucidates a cultural shift on the consumer end. In theory, this seems like good progress for an industry that relies on the interest and excitement of the consumer. Beneath the surface, however, we can see a flaw in this trend; flamboyant terminology doesn’t make a wine better and may not actually help a consumer appreciate the wine. In side-by-side studies conducted in 2007 by the Journal of Wine Economics, amateur wine drinkers were given two glasses of wine and two descriptions. They were then asked to pair the wine with its corresponding description. Turns out, the subjects did no better at identifying the wines than if they had guessed randomly, without instruction (Bosker). So if long-winded descriptions don’t actually prep a consumer’s palate for tasting, what do we actually taste, subjectively, when we drink wine?
Expectations, conclude neuroscientists Lauren Atlas and Tor Wager. They argue that taste is influenced in two interrelated ways: conscious influence, such as packaging, prior knowledge, pricing, or color, and unconscious influence, which can be shaped by day-to-day factors like your present company, the weather, the music, the food. All of this can influence a consumers appreciation and understanding of wine (Konnikova). Ultimately, the personal experience the consumer brings to the table matters as much, if not more, than the words used to describe the wine.
So rather than relying solely on the grandiloquent possibilities of wine descriptions, some wine experts have resorted back to ancient modes of wine criticism: judgment. Certainly, the role of a critic is to convey the quality of a bottle, rather than to stroke the ego of their own vocabulary, and yet, criticism backed by judgment alone leaves us wanting more. For example, some wine critics have found means of identifying chemical compounds in wine which result in distinctive esters, a mode of aromatic identification encouraged by the non-profit association, the Guild of Sommeliers. Moving away even further from comparative criticism, author Matt Kramer writes in his manifesto, True Taste, that even objectivity itself proves to be a fuzzy concept in the wine world. In place of flowery descriptions, Kramer employs only a six word vocabulary to evaluate a wine’s qualities: “‘harmony, texture, layers, finesse, surprise, and nuance.’” A seventh word is ultimately incorporated in reference to the job of the wine critic, which is, in Kramer’s opinion, to provide “insight” into wine (Bosker).
No wine can exist in a vacuum: as wine drinkers, our prior experiences will always do some informing of our perception of a bottle, the same way we couldn’t appreciate Picasso’s cubism period as much without it being preceded by his blue period. So no critic’s evaluation, whether enunciated via grandiose language or by a mere passing of judgment, is absolute. I always tell my clients that the most important criticism of a wine is their own, the pleasure they experience, glass by glass. Perhaps the real emphasis shouldn’t be the words we use to talk about wine. Words can only define so much. Perhaps we as consumers should, for even just a moment when we drink, consider the enjoyment that comes when we read between the lines.