Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Wine Description: Thank You For Letting Me Be Myself

The following are two verbatim wine reviews from separate publications:
First Wine:
“A full, warm and seductive wine with flavors of sweet berries, damp earth and chocolate. Another wine with loads of honest flavor.”
Second Wine:
“Color: ruby. Nose: Black cherry aromas with unattractive medicinal/rubbery overtones. Palate: better than nose – ripe though not intense fruit – minty/medicinal flavor – tannins are on the harsh side – hard to see it improving.”
Reading these descriptions, it would be easy to discern which is the better wine. Or would it? It turns out that both reviewers were tasting the exact same wine, an inexpensive Australian red, at about the same time. Notice that there is almost no overlap in the two reviews. The wildly diverging descriptions are a reflection of differences in the tasters’ perception, something that cannot be standardized from one taster to another no matter how much experience or training they have. The same wine elicited a favorable response in one taster, and a very unfavorable one in another.
Here’s another example, in this case the same sparkling wine, written up in two different wine magazines: 
“This well-integrated, perfectly aged brut is still crisp and showing hints of fresh apple, along with beeswax, citrus and gooseberry. It shows off with a gorgeous mousse, and persistent flavors that linger without cracking up.” 

“Has mature aromas and flavors and enough freshness to carry the day. Offers toast, pear and white pepper flavors that grow nicely in the mouth. Finishes with persistence.” 
Here we see that the two reviewers had some commonality in their experience with this wine: both rather liked it, and both noted its ‘developed’ character (perfectly aged/mature) and its length (persistent flavors that linger/Finishes with persistence). [Fellow linguistic pedants, please ignore the blatant tautology contained in the phrase ‘persistent flavors that linger’.]
But what’s notable is the lack of any overlap in the ‘smells like/tastes like’ terminology the two tasters used, those descriptors I’ve put in boldface. Is one taster nailing the description, while the other is just grasping at straws? Are they both just making stuff up? I would say neither is the case. Each taster ably described what he or she perceived to be the attributes of the wine, but they happened to come up with completely different words.  
We run into this phenomenon so often in the wine community that it no longer has any capacity to surprise or perturb. 
“I’m getting smoke, plum and dried herbs”, says one taster. 
“I’m getting woolly-mammoth notes,” counters another fellow, who happens to be a visiting caveman. 
The first taster could take the obnoxious route, with a response along the lines of,  “Well, if only you’d taken xyz wine course/visited the region/met the owner, you’d agree with me,” or he could just say, “Huh. Isn’t that interesting,” and leave it at that.
“Wine writing is … a series of elaborately plausible compliments paid to wines,” writes Adam Gopnik in The New Yorker.The real question is not whether…wine writers are big phonies but whether they are any bigger phonies than, say, book reviewers or art critics. For with those things, too, context effects are overwhelming. All description is impressionistic, and all impressions are interpretive.” 
This, by the way, encapsulates one of the three great challenges in coming up with back label text: by definition, the terms we use to describe the wine inside the bottle are wrought from the personal sensory experience of one or two people. Expecting customers to experience the wine in the same way is asking a lot, though we do it anyway. (The other two challenges: condensing a lot of thoughts into a few well-chosen, cliché-free sentences, and avoiding terms that most people won’t understand.)
This week, Tricia and I engaged in one of our regular reviews of the 2010 Rieslings in tanks (Kelby is away for a few days). Each of us smelled and tasted independently and made notes. I reproduce those notes here to show that two very qualified individuals, who also happen to have actually made the wines they are tasting, will still describe them in different ways. I also thought it would be fun to commit the notes to this blog, and then do it again in a few months’ time, to demonstrate how these suckers can evolve in the tank.
Please note that what you are about to read was not meant to be anything more than internal-memo-style jottings. Writing for an audience is an altogether different exercise. The // slash marks are our shorthand way of separating aroma notes from flavor and mouthfeel notes.
There are seven individual tanks of Riesling in the winery, whose volumes range from 55 gallons to 2500 gallons. Rieslings 3,4,5,7 and 8 have been subsumed into larger blends, so you won’t see them listed here. Here we go:

Riesling 1 
Tricia: Smoke, camphor, lime, sandalwood // Lemon, toasted marshmallow, smoke. Finish is very tropical: mango, guava, passionfruit. Mouthfeel very plush but acid keeps it lively.
Peter: A little reduced. With aeration, faint fruit cocktail and marigolds. Not opening up yet // Much better in mouth. Perhaps balanced a little too dry for this style [semi-dry]. Some phenolics.
Riesling 2 
Tricia: Lemon curd, bay leaf, roasted fennel, banana, papaya // Creamy, banana, lemon, vanilla. A little broad. Love the lime fruit. Needs a touch of acid.
Peter: Forward tree fruits, apricot, mandarin orange. Clean // Bigger mouthfeel than normal for a dry style. Very clean. Balance almost perfect. No phenolics. Long. Wants some minerality.
Riesling 6 
Tricia: Pineapple, lime, tangerine, juniper // Juicy mango and lime. Some electricity here. Mouthfeel lush. Acid nice through midpalate. A touch heavy in finish? Try touching up acid. Long tangerine finish.
Peter: Still quite yeasty. Fennel, mint, smoke. Almost no fruit yet // Tight, slatey, lime peel, archetypal Fox Run dry style. Flavors explode midpalate. 
Riesling 9
Tricia: Apricot, banana, pear // Oily shale, salt air, banana and lemon zest.
Peter: Raspberry starting to show // Very lean, tense; acid dominates and wraps around other flavors. The most austere. A little too much wood smoke.
Riesling 10
Tricia: SO2, lemon, peach // Peach and lemon, tea. Lemon ice persists. Very long and clean.
Peter: SO2. Very clean tree fruit – apricot and peach // Flavors build. Very soft, but acid’s almost perfect. Long. These tree fruit flavors are not typical of a dry style.
Riesling 11
Tricia: Brioche, peach, mango // Burst of tangerine, mango, raspberry. Electricity happening here – rich but also intense; bright spine of acid. Long finish of mango, lime and honey.
Peter: Germanic. Cantaloupe rind, honeydew melon, some funk // That German smell, juicy, lots of fermentation flavors. Still progressing.
Riesling 12
Tricia: Lemon, apple, ginger // Peach, honey and jasmine. Also Golden Delicious – finishes golden apple, lemon, vanilla, tea and blackberry.
Peter: Apple skin, spice, mango, papaya, a little marmalade // Apple skin, cinnamon, marmalade. Acid’s high but meets the sugar.
Kelby was not able to participate in this tasting, but you may have read his descriptions of three of these wines in Monday’s post. If you’re up to the task of cross-referencing, the wines he writes about are our numbers 12, 11 and 10 respectively. Guess what? His descriptions are different again.
- by Peter Bell, Winemaker

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  1. Thanks for making us feel better about not interpreting aromas and flavors as advertised!

  2. Absolutely. Enjoying wine is what it comes down to in the end - and seems absurd that describing and enjoying wine could be anything other than individual and personal.

    Merry Christmas!