How many identifiable aromas in a wine – the dilemma

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.

Author: Steve Slatcher

Wine enthusiast

4 thoughts on “How many identifiable aromas in a wine – the dilemma”

  1. I agree about the over use of such flavour descriptors, especially the standard ones which get trotted out almost every time a certain style of wine gets tasted – used without thinking.

    But that doesn’t mean I reject them. In conversation with others drinking the same wine with you, they often work if others get the same, or different, things.

    As for only four – even four often sounds meaningless. Yet wines do change in the glass and often develop an entirely different flavour or bouquet as they warm up and take air.

  2. I was trying to avoid getting distracted by more general issues surrounding flavour descriptors, David. Another time maybe. The one thing I will say here is that it is unfortunate when they are used to the exclusion of more structural elements.

    You are right that wines can change in the glass, and that could account for some of the reported aromas without breaking the “scientific limit” of four. It is one of the things I was planning on discussing later in this series.

  3. I remain sceptical about a lot of tasting notes that read like a shopping list of aromas and other characteristics yet have to admit that some people I respect, and indeed buy wine from, often write in that style. Whether there is a subconscious invention of such aromas is something about which I wonder. Personally I am more interested in perceptions about the weight of a wine, its balance, acidity, sweetness or dryness and predominant flavour, be that black or red fruits, oak or whatever. Given that we each perceive tastes and aromas in an individual way it beggars the question about how useful lengthy descriptors can be. Stretching the point to food as well it perhaps makes a nonsense of sommeliers trying to match food to wine for the benefit of customers.

  4. I think a lot of food matching is nonsense, especially when great precision in the matching is claimed. My feeling is that there are broad classes of wines that will work and will not work, and that is about that. But even the broad classes are determined conventionally in some cases. My favourite example is that in Norway you will often find red wine matched with cod. That said, there is still some value in convention providing you don’t take it too seriously: it helps to get a consensus around the table about what sort of wine to drink.

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