Look in almost any wine magazine and you’ll find extravagant prose describing the aromas and flavors of wines. For example, here’s the first wine review I read today:

“A bouquet of vanillin oak, cedar and mocha with wisps of cinnamon.  Full-bodied tobacco, tea and dark cedar flavors with tart acids in the background.  Persistent, coffee-spiked finish.”

That’s nine different aromas and flavors — not bad for an $8 cabernet sauvignon!

Three questions come to mind.  Is this real?  Is this useful?  And should I care?

Real?  Well of course there are aromas and flavors in wine. They — not the alcohol — are the sources of pleasure for wine drinkers. But are these descriptions real in the sense that all of us can find, or even aspire to find the same aromas and flavors?  Let’s check the experts.

Not to long ago, two authorities – one from California, the second from Bordeaux – went head-to-head and compared 40 cabernet sauvignons from California and France for the Wine Spectator and reached very different conclusions about quality. In fact, the two experts disagreed on nearly 90 percent of the 40 wines. So its no surprise that they also disagreed on HOW to describe the aromas and flavors of the wines. In fact their tasting notes included no descriptive words in common for 60% of the wines and only one word in common for 25%.

For example, one authority found “bell pepper, green olive, ripe, plush currant and black cherry” in a cabernet by Stag’s Leap.  But the other found “berry, earth, chocolate and coconut.” Currents and cherries may be berries, but peppers and olives don’t remind me of earth, chocolate and coconut!

So does that mean that the aromas and flavors described in the wine magazines aren’t real?  No, I’m certain that the descriptions are real…to the people that wrote them. But you and I can’t expect to find the same aromas and flavors in wines.  After all, we have different taste buds and different tasting experiences.

Does that mean that the excessive prose that we’ve been conditioned to accepting as a normal part of wine descriptions isn’t useful?  Well, I wouldn’t use it as a buying guide, but perhaps the prose has other value. During a recent tasting in my home, I commented that a particular champagne had a strong tobacco aroma and flavor for me.  A friend exclaimed “Yes, that’s it!”  Clearly, for him the description clicked, helping him interpret what he was tasting.
However, several others looked at me quizzically and took another sip or two of the wine.  After a few seconds one of them asked “Have you ever smoked?”  Clearly, that former smoker hadn’t found anything resembling tobacco in the wine. So we talked about the wine, continued to disagree, but learned from each other. 

And THAT’s the most important point about trying to describe aromas and flavors — it adds to the understanding and enjoyment of wine. So the next time you read that “notes of floral and mint trickle through the core of cherry flavors” in a wine you’ve purchased, take it with a grain of salt (or mint, or cherry).  Try the wine yourself and see what you find.  Expect to agree and disagree.  Expect to learn.  And learn to enjoy!

John Vankat, PhD
The Wine PocketList