When the wine critic James Suckling described a Château Haut-Brion in the pages of Wine Spectator in 1992, he needed just a single phrase to sum up the taste: “Big and meaty, with lots of fruit and full tannins, but featuring a sweetness and silkiness on the finish.” At the time, the field of wine criticism was gaining momentum-the magazine’s circulation that year surpassed a hundred thousand-and written tasting notes were moving beyond encyclopedic reference books aimed at wealthy men. When Suckling sampled the same Haut-Brion again-a bottle from the acclaimed 1989 vintage-in 2009, his description of the wine’s flavor carried on for seven sentences, evoking cigarettes, pastries, and saunas in his promise of “perfumed aromas of subtle milk chocolate, cedar, and sweet tobacco.”
It’s possible that the renowned Bordeaux wine had evolved during the intervening decade and a half, but, then again, so had the tasting note. In recent years, flowery, elaborate flavor descriptions have become commonplace in the wine world and beyond, regularly speaking to us from wrappers of artisan chocolate bars, menus of craft beers, and display cases of gourmet cheese. Stumptown Coffee advertises Rwandan beans redolent of “crisp melon and subtle powdered cocoa.” Silver Haze, an award-winning strain of marijuana, gives off an “intense, mineral nose.” Wine stores, sommeliers, critics, and importers share tweet-length assessments of rare vintages via online oenophile apps.
But, as extravagant tasting notes have become de rigeur in the marketing world, they’ve also arguably lost their practical function as consumer guides. A 2007 study published in the Journal of Wine Economics gave amateur drinkers two different glasses of Bordeaux along with a professional critic’s tasting notes, and asked them to match each review with the correct glass. An “unctuous” 2000 Clos du Marquis supposedly evoked “crème de cassis, vanilla, and cherry”; the 2000 Château Talbot had flavors of “licorice, herb, earth, and leather.” The subjects performed no better at identifying each wine than if they’d guessed at random. Read any wine review or bottle label today and you will likely empathize with their confusion. Swallowing a substance that tastes of “strawberry bubble gum with tar” sounds like punishment, yet somehow Suckling extols this Montalcino as “delicious”; a drink with flavors of “graphite” mixed with “pâte de fruit, hoisin sauce, warm ganache, and well-roasted applewood” calls to mind a dinner party gone wrong, not a Wine Spectator Pick of the Year. And how can one know whether a bottle that the bimonthly newsletter Wine Advocate dubbed “liquefied Viagra” pairs better with salmon or pork?
Frustrated with the state of modern winespeak, some academics, sommeliers, and critics are attempting to rein in tasting notes and develop new idioms that convey quality more concretely. A group of researchers known as the American Association of Wine Economists has waged a nearly decade-long crusade against overwrought and unreliable flavor descriptions. In 2007, the association’s Journal of Wine Economics ran an analysis of wine critics which concluded that the industry was, in no uncertain terms, “intrinsically bullshit-prone.” “We, the wine-drinking public, are happy to read their evaluations, because we are largely ignorant of the quality of wines,” the study’s author, the Princeton economist Richard Quandt, wrote. (He and the president of the Wine Economists, Orley Ashenfelter, shun tasting notes in their own wine club.) Another contributor, Jordi Ballester, is a researcher at the Center for Taste and Feeding Behavior, in Dijon, France, who’s spent his career weeding out wine bullshit-or what he more politely terms “fuzzy concepts.”
In Ballester’s experience, the virtually limitless diversity of wines-paired with the “elevated language” that plagues élite hobbies-make the field especially susceptible. His past research has examined whether intrinsic wine quality exists, how experts deem a bottle worth aging, and what logic, if any, governs tasting notes. The buzzword “minerality” is his latest “victim,” Ballester told me, and was the subject of a paper shared at the Wine Economists’ annual conference, in May. The term, which has become popular in the past decade, is often attached to higher-acid white wines like those of Chablis, a region of Burgundy famous for its limestone soil. Last fall, Ballester dispatched a doctoral candidate to ask Chablis’s winemakers and consumers what “minerality” calls to mind. (According to a 2009 paper presented to the Geological Society of America, grape vines do absorb inorganic nutrients from the land, but the notion of granite or schist seasoning wine in any detectable way is “scientifically untenable.”) The researcher collected hundreds of answers, from “salty” and “gunflint” to “chalky” and “mineral water.” “We never found a consensual definition of minerality,” Ballester told me. “So how can we communicate like this?”
Like “minerality,” the very idea of describing a wine’s flavor is a relatively new phenomenon. The ancient Greeks and Romans, the Western world’s original wine snobs, generally used broad and imprecise descriptions for their vintages, preferring to pass judgment rather than dwell on aromas. In “The Odes,” Horace wrote that wines from the Sabine grape, apparently the ancients’ Yellowtail, are “humbly cheap.” The Falernian, from Southern Italy, by contrast, was “strong” and “powerful”; Pliny the Elder wrote that “there is now no wine known that ranks higher.” (Evidently no stranger to hangovers, Pliny elsewhere warned that wines from Pompeii are “productive of headache, which often lasts so long as the sixth hour of the next day.”) In the centuries that followed, oenophiles continued to focus on critiquing and praising wines rather than dissecting their flavors. Samuel Pepys, a high-ranking Admiralty officer whose diary offers a rare record of seventeenth-century drinking culture, reviewed an Haut-Brion in a meagre half sentence that would dismay the Wine Spectator crowd: “A good and most particular taste that I never met with.” By the late nineteenth century, better winemaking methods had helped to raise wine’s status as an art form, and oenophiles were beginning to evolve into the loquacious species they are today. From the nineteen-seventies onward, the variety and affordability of wines fed a market for experts who could help drinkers to navigate between bottles. Three centuries after Pepys, Robert Parker, the celebrity critic who introduced a hundred-point scale in the Wine Advocate, raved of an Haut-Brion’s “sweet nose of creosote, asphalt, blueberries, black currants, and jammy raspberries,” adding, “This is profound!”
The figure most responsible for the emergence of the modern sommelier lexicon was not a swish-and-spit celebrity like Parker but a professor of viticulture and enology at the University of California at Davis named Ann Noble. In 1984, Noble, drawing upon the work of other sensory scientists at Davis, published the Wine Aroma Wheel, a circular chart of six dozen descriptors that could be used to describe wine by smell. Like Ballester, Noble, who is now a professor emeritus at Davis, told me that she was motivated, in part, by a desire to eradicate fuzzy concepts. She organized her chart into broad categories such as “spicy” (cloves, black pepper, and licorice) or “fruity” (strawberry, lemon, and melon), and in an accompanying user guide argued against terms that were “hedonic” or “the result of an integrated or judgmental response,” and in favor of “specific and analytical” ones. (Minerality didn’t make the cut.) For the first time, winemakers, critics, and consumers had a common lexicon to draw upon. One researcher at the Burgundy School of Business told me that the Aroma Wheel is considered “the Ten Commandments” of the wine world. (Calvin Trillin wrote about Noble, and the challenges of telling a red wine from a white, in 2002.)
But even with a standardized vocabulary, the flavor of wine-like any form of taste-is dependent in large part upon the biases and predilections of the person doing the tasting. Scholars who have studied the language of wine critics have shown how cultural ideals of masculinity, class, and even physical fitness have influenced flavor descriptions in past decades. (Who knew that a wine could be “broad-shouldered” or “sinewy”?) Today, in a farm-to-table food culture that worships at the altar of the artisan, hundred-point favorites are often presented as farmers’ markets in a bottle, with comparisons to “wild strawberry” or “wet hay” conveying a rustic gastronomic ideal. Where Noble’s list included suburban-pantry references like “canned green beans,” a recent Wine Spectator review for a Châteauneuf-du-Pape mentioned “baker’s chocolate, espresso, bay, licorice root, black currant preserves, and steeped fig.” It seems possible that what we “taste” in a fine wine isn’t so much its flavor as the qualities of good taste that we hope it will impart to us.
Bias sneaks in in subtler ways as well. A doctoral candidate at Harvard University’s Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience Lab recently uncovered “euphemistic signs of quality” in the winemakers’ notes that appear on bottle labels, with words like “nutty” and “refreshing” corresponding to wines that had received low ratings from critics and rarified terms like “brioche” and “cru” corresponding to high-scoring ones. Similarly, research presented at the American Association of Wine Economists conference in 2013 showed that reviewers reserve florid prose for expensive bottles and use simpler, more pedestrian language to describe Two Buck Chucks. In other words, the fancier a wine appears-or is meant to be-the fancier the words critics conjure to describe it. It’s easy to see how this tendency helps to reinforce the status of high-end vineyards: spending hundreds of dollars on a vintage with aromas of “leather,” “eucalyptus,” and “Japanese maple” sounds more justifiable than splurging on one with flavors of “canned olives with black pepper.” (Maria Konnikova has written for this site about the psychology of wine tasting.)
So how best to confront the obfuscating nature of modern winespeak? One option is to think of flavor in terms of chemistry rather than gastronomy. In April, the Guild of Sommeliers, a nonprofit association of fine-wine specialists, created a cheat sheet encouraging wine professionals to name the chemical compounds that are responsible for the odors in a glass. When discussing wines with other experts, the guild suggests identifying hints of raspberry and strawberry as “esters,” peppercorn or rosemary aromas as “rotundones,” and gooseberry or grapefruit notes as “thiols.” A Sauvignon Blanc with notes of, say, green pepper might more accurately be said to smell of pyrazines, traces of which are present both in the vegetable and in grapes. This approach doubles down on the rigor of Ann Noble’s aromatic taxonomy, tethering smell more firmly to science. Geoff Kruth, a master sommelier and the chief operating officer of the Guild of Sommeliers, told me that the goal is to “make a connection between understanding the intrinsic, objective factors that are in a wine and the ways to describe them.”
To Matt Kramer, a Wine Spectator columnist and the author of a new manifesto called “True Taste,” the very notion of objectivity is a fuzzy concept-“a great myth of modern wine tasting,” he writes, and one that exists in “such a confined fashion . as to render it more a laboratory reality than a real-life one.” While the Guild’s chemical vocabulary indulges the Fitbit generation’s reverence for data, scientific rhetoric, and quantifiable hedonism, Kramer instead seeks to recapture the critical experience of drinking wine. In his view, only six words are necessary to evaluate a bottle’s essential attributes: “harmony,” “texture,” “layers,” “finesse,” “surprise,” and “nuance.” Australian Cabernets are “graceful wines of elegance and finesse.” A Sauvignon Blanc’s “denser textures” feature aromas of fig and melon. In contrast to the modern convention of meticulously describing the subtleties of flavor, Kramer prioritizes conveying judgments of quality-the critic’s most fundamental task. (He includes a seventh term, “insight,” to refer to the job of the wine critic.)
Yet there is something a bit dreary about Kramer’s call for such unvarnished expressions of judgment-something as inaccessible, in its way, as references to thiols or pyrazines. If such approaches can help to bring much-needed precision to wine reviews, they also seem less likely to stimulate a drinker’s curiosity or imagination in the way that a fruit salad of flavor descriptions might. At a recent dinner party in Manhattan, I heard one guest, a sommelier, liken a Barolo he’d recently tasted to a “male ballet dancer.” I laughed the comment off at the time-yet another example of oenophile pretensions-but a few days later I found myself scanning the shelves of my local wine store, wondering what a Baryshnikov in a glass might taste like. Those of us who enjoy wine apparently appreciate a little mystery along with our fermented grape juice. As Geoff Kruth, the master sommelier, told me, “At the end of the day, we’re selling poetry.”
Source: The New Yorker