Tasting notes with flowery language and long lists of descriptors divide opinion: Many wine geeks seem to expect them, and writers oblige, but on the other hand the wine-drinker-in the-street, when not ignoring them completely, will probably dismiss them as nonsense. Personally, I look at them quizzically, and ask myself if they are really communicating anything of value. There are a number of contentious issues in tasting note style and content, but in this and the next few blog posts I want to tackle just one: the number of aromas mentioned.
By aroma I mean something that is detected by the nose. It can be detected either ortho-nasally, by sniffing; or retro-nasally, through a passage between the back of the mouth and the nose. Because retro-nasal detection occurs when food or drink is in the mouth, most people get a strong but false impression that it is the tongue doing the sensing. Examples of aromas are orange, apple, vanilla, chocolate and coffee, as opposed to other non-aroma sensations like sweet, salt, acid and bitter, which are detected by the tongue.
The problem with the number of aromas in some tasting notes is that a series of experiments performed in the 1980s and 90s showed that people are incapable of identifying more than four in a mixture. So how can tasting notes meaningfully refer to more than four? For example, a tasting note taken from International Wine Cellar, lists ten aromas by my counting: fresh fruit aromatics of mandarin orange, black raspberry and grilled watermelon spring from the glass. On the palate, pretty nuances of rose petal, gardenia and oolong tea mingle with herbal notes of sandalwood, star anise, fresh thyme and fennel seed. So what is happening here? Was there a problem with the experiments that were performed? Or, after the first four most prominent aromas mentioned in the tasting note, are we merely reading the results of an overactive imagination?
I shall be weighing the evidence for these alternatives over the next few blog posts, starting with an examination of the science. I’m trying to keep an open mind, but am currently leaning a little in the direction of the scientific research.