How are wine descriptions meaningful to regular wine drinkers like you and me?

“Ripe, rich and round, with lots of spicy, earth-scented black cherry and berry flavors, hinting deliciously at chocolate on the smooth finish.”

A beautiful wine description, isn’t it?  And seemingly so informative that anyone would know what to expect from the wine.  Although descriptions such as this are de rigueur for most wine writers, I’m  skeptical that they are useful.  Therefore, I performed a test to see if wine drinkers can relate to wine descriptions.

Tasting Test

Awhile back, I led a tasting for a local wine club.  I selected two flights (groups) of syrah/shiraz wines from different parts of the world.

Comparison of the same grape varietal from different wine regions is standard stuff for a wine tasting, but I decided to add a twist.

I obtained tasting notes for each of the wines from the wineries — who better to describe their own wine?  The tasting notes focused on, but were not limited to, aroma and flavor components.

It was a blind tasting, so no one knew the specific wines.  In addition, the wine descriptions contained no identifying information.

The tasters — who identified themselves as either inexperienced, moderately-experienced or experienced — were asked to match each wine with its description.


The average number of correct matches in the first flight (five wines) was:

– 1.7 for inexperienced tasters
– 2.3 for moderately experienced tasters
– 1.6 for experienced tasters

For the second flight (three wines), the average number was:

– 2.1 for inexperienced tasters
– 1.3 for moderately experienced tasters
– 1.2 for experienced tasters

I’m not impressed by these numbers.  By random chance — by guessing — the tasters should have averaged one correct match in each flight.  So although they did better than expected by chance, most groups didn’t do THAT much better.

And look at the lowly numbers achieved by the experienced tasters.  Ouch.

My Conclusions

I had expected the matching test to be difficult because I doubted that wine descriptions — at least those featuring aromas and flavors — provided much insight for wine drinkers.  Therefore, the overall lack of success in matching wines and descriptions didn’t surprise me.

Nevertheless, WHY were people so unsuccessful?

Perhaps it’s related to each of us having different experiences with foods and drinks. When faced with a new wine, our senses tend to focus on what is familiar — it may be chocolate for me and earth for you — so we find different aromas and flavors in the same wine.

I was surprised, however, that the experienced tasters were least successful.  Why the failure? Perhaps greater experience gives wine drinkers more sharply defined tastes.  If so, differences among experienced tasters would be more pronounced, resulting in less agreement on aromas and flavors and more difficulty with this matching test.

So is description of wine aromas and flavors fiction? Not to the writer of the description: For him or her, it’s fact. But evidence from this tasting indicates that wine description focusing on aromas and flavors frequently has little meaning to others.  Apparently, one person’s fact is often another person’s fiction.

So the next time you read about spice, earth, cherries, berries and chocolate in a wine, don’t necessarily expect to find them. The fact that you don’t is an expression of your personal experiences and preferences — and that’s exactly what you must express to enhance your enjoyment of wine.

Describing Aromas and Flavors

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

FOOTNOTE: Syrah / Shiraz Preferences

The syrah/shiraz tasting described in this article, exposed confusion regarding aromas and flavors in wines.  However, there was no confusion about which wines were preferred.

All three levels of wine tasters selected the Australian wines as the best two of the eight bottles poured that evening. And most supermarkets and wine shops carry Rosemount Shiraz “South Eastern Australia” ($12).  It’s a wonderful starting point for enjoying Australia’s signature wine.