How many identifiable aromas in a wine – my conclusion

I have now done enough scene-setting and pussyfooting around: see my previous three blog posts (in chronological order 1, 2, 3). It’s time for me to nail my colours to the mast and say what I really think about tasting notes that mention many different aromas when science tells us we can only identify four in a mixture.

Jan_Brueghel_I_&_Peter_Paul_Rubens_-_Smell_(Museo_del_Prado)First of all, I cannot find any particular problem with the scientific evidence for our poor ability to identify aromas in a mixture, and I see no reason to doubt its applicability to wine. If anything I would expect it to be an easier task to identify aromas in the experimental situation than with wine, as in the experiment there were always subsets of the same 7 or 8 odours, as opposed to the much larger number that people find in wines.

There is a lingering doubt in my mind because the experiments presented odours only to the nose. With wine however, aromas are also detected when it is in the mouth. Does that cause a greater number of aromas to be detected in total? My personal experience suggests that happens only very occasionally, and to a small extent. However, in the tasting note example I gave in the introductory blog post for this small series, the aromas detected on the nose and palate are markedly different. I may return to this issue in the future, but my initial feeling is to go with my personal experience. And what about letting a wine develop over a few hours or days? Does that let additional aromas develop and become identifiable? It is possible, but again in my experience it is rarely the case.

I acknowledge that there is also experimental evidence that it is possible to tell if a single very familiar odour is present in mixture containing up to 12 odourants. Additionally there is anecdotal evidence of perfumers and chefs being able to detect single missing ingredients in complex familiar recipes. But these tasks are very different to identifying aromas in an unfamiliar wine.

For now, let us take the identification of an odour object in a wine literally, by which I mean that identification means there are key aromatic compounds in both the wine and the actual odour object. With this literal interpretation, I think it is fair to say that the limit of four correct identifications will apply. Indeed, the experiments suggest that even with fewer named aromas it is unlikely they will all be correct.

The literal interpretation of aromas I have just described is not totally unreasonable. Certainly in some cases it seems that the same chemical is responsible for the aroma in both the wine and the real aroma object. Rotundone, which is found in black pepper and Syrah, is one example. However, aroma objects mentioned in the tasting note may merely be reminiscent of the real thing. Or, as some less kind people might put it: imagined or made up. In these cases, there can clearly be no limit of the number of identifiable aroma objects, but by what criteria can we judge the value of such lists?

For me, the main criterion for a successful tasting note is its ability to communicate the experience of drinking the wine to the reader. And here I mean to communicate accurately; not just to give an impression of what the experience might hypothetically be.  When I am tasting, the correspondence with tasting notes independently written by others is usually minimal. I have seen no formal studies into how common this experience is, but we can also get hints by comparing tasting notes of the same wine written by different people. Usually there is little similarity, and sometimes the differences are huge. It is interesting to speculate about to what extent the differences are due to the subjective nature of taste, and to what extent it is imperfect communication; but differences there are.

Speaking personally, the tasting notes I find communicate best are those where the aromas listed are few and vaguely described. For example, it can often be accurate, and still helpful, to identify citrus fruit in a wine. But when someone else describes a wine as tasting of lemon, I often decide it is closer to lime. And does anyone actually care? It is difficult to imagine a disgruntled customer returning a bottle of wine to a shop because the type of citrus fruit was incorrectly described on purchase. The precision of description is linked the issue of the number of aromas: one person’s citric could be another’s lemon, lime and clementine. The level of detail we use in tasting notes is another interesting topic to which I might return.

In summary, as promised, here are my colours on the mast stated with an unjustified sense of certainty. There are two reasons why I am suspicious of tasting notes with a long list of aroma objects:

  1. If you take a more literal interpretation of aromas in tasting notes, it is impossible to produce correct lists containing more than four aroma objects .
  2. I am not convinced about how useful long lists are anyway. I favour a shorter tasting note that contains only the dominant aromatic components, and one that is not over-specific in its aroma descriptors.

In the words of Carveth Read: It is better to be vaguely right than exactly wrong.

About Steve Slatcher

Wine enthusiast
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6 Responses to How many identifiable aromas in a wine – my conclusion

  1. Alan March says:

    Fascinating series of articles Steve, thank you. For what it’s worth I heartily agree with your conclusion. I find that trying to write lengthy, descriptive notes makes me lose sight of the key questions about quality of fruit, winemaking and, indeed, do I like it? I admire those who can and, of course, aroma is crucial to wine appreciation but I note more now impressions and stick to one or two such as citrus rather than the type of citrus. Interesting that so many French tasting notes use general terms.
    Thanks again, I’ve really enjoyed the articles and they have made me think!

  2. Many thanks for your comments, Alan. Writing the articles made me think too. It was not nearly as straightforward as I suspected as I set out. In outline my preconceptions stayed, but I am not nearly as sure as when I set out.

    I was desperately trying to stop the posts becoming a general rant about tasting note styles I dislike, but in this comment I will add one further thought. I really wish more tasting notes would include comments on the basic dimensions of sweetness, acidity, body, intensity and astringency. I think they are critical when it comes to food matching, and it is sadly often the fruit salad tasting notes that tend to omit them.

  3. Very much agree with all of that, Steve. I try (note try) to restrict my notes to obvious characteristics, including aromas. That said, I do often distinguish lemon and lime sometimes, usually in cases where it is so obviously lime.

    I would probably class myself among the less generous who do raise an eyebrow at long lists of Gillies.

  4. Don’t worry David – I often distiguish between lemon and lime too. I am not sure others use the same distinction, but it means something to me at least.

  5. Tony Dashwood says:

    I’ve only just come across your blog so I am a bit late to the party. I found your discussion on this topic fascinating, I imagine I am at a much lower standard of appreciation and am currently studying for my level 3 WSET which I am doing for my own interest rather than a professional neccessity. But I have felt for a while that there seems far too much emphasis on (and marks attributed to) the descriptors and not enough on the overall impression of the wine.

    Fascinating, thank you.

  6. Thanks Tony. Not sure about our relative standards of appreciation in practice, but I have done a lot of head-scratching and reading 🙂 As with most things in life, a little knowledge mainly serves to teach you how much you don’t know.

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