Sunday, November 06, 2005
Realistic Flavor Descriptions
In a letter published in the November 30th issue of Wine Spectator a reader wrote asking why can’t tasting notes contain flavor descriptions that “we, the common people, can more readily understand and relate to.” This request came about because of descriptors like “suave toast”, “vanilla pastry”, and "buttered brioche” that have appeared in tasting notes in the magazine.
But its not just the Wine Spectator that has fallen afoul of waxing lyrical over the wines they recommend. Here are some descriptors from another critic - "melted licorice, white flowers, crushed rocks, candied toffee, liquid minerals, spice box". What do these terms mean as descriptions of flavor? Presumably they signify something to the person who wrote the tasting note. But the problem is whether such a descriptor has a flavor connotation for anyone else? This is quite a serious problem because its often said, especially by those who decry awarding points to rate wines, and even those who don’t, that the description contained within a tasting note provides the most valuable information in terms of palate appeal. This is, of course, only true if the description has meaning to you. If you know what suave toast or liquid minerals means in terms of a flavor then you have a chance of appreciating the tasting note that contains those descriptors. But only if your perception of suave toast is the same as that of the individual who wrote the tasting note. How do you determine that? Some would say that you have to compare your description of the wine with that of the critic so that you can align your palates. Sounds like a useful exercise but do you write your tasting note before or after you read that of the critic? Chances are that if you write it after you may be influenced by the critic’s description. And what if you do detect a toast flavor that is just not quite true toast? Do you assume that the critic knows what he/she is talking about and put the slightly different toast flavor that you detect down to being suave toast? If so then let’s hope that the critic really does know what he/she are describing.
And that, of course, is the more serious problem. How confident can you be that the critic can correctly identify an individual flavor? It seems that for trained individuals its relatively easy to identify a single flavor in a mixture (Jinks and Laing, A limit in the processing of components in odor mixtures. Perception 28(1999) p395-404). However once a mixture reaches 16 components the ability to identify a single component falls to chance. What was also interesting from this study is that there were a number of “false alarms”; that is identifying the target odorant when it was not present. This failure to identify the target occurred in some cases when only one or two components of the possible 16 were present.
Fortunately most tasting notes contain fewer that 16 odor descriptors; many have less than half a dozen. That is an interesting finding as it has been shown that “only 3 or 4 components of a complex mixture could be discriminated and identified and that this capacity could not be increased by training” (Livermore and Laing, Influence of training and experience on the perception of multicomponent odor mixtures. J. Expt. Psychology: Human perception and performance. 22 (1996) p267-277). In this case the total number of odorants tested was seven and the total number in a mixture was five. Some of the participants in this test included professional perfumers and flavorists. So don’t be too alarmed if you can only give names to 3 or 4 flavors in any one wine. You are actually doing pretty well, as long as you are correctly identifying those odors. But beware the individual who reels off flavor after flavor in a description. In all likelihood its wishful thinking, either that or he/she has abilities outside that of trained professionals.
What does all this mean in terms of realistic flavor descriptors? Well clearly they are only realistic if they have meaning to those who have an accurate impression of that flavor. So the description of a wine may not provide any realism to many wine drinkers. Nonetheless describing wine using evocative, attractive, but yet obscure, flavor descriptors is a considerable gamble on the part of any wine critic. The possibility always exists that the reader will be more amused than impressed, more angered than pleased. And in the case of the individual who wrote the letter to the Wine Spectator, begin to ask for a more realistic approach to describing the flavors of wine. The problem is whether realistic flavor descriptors will have more meaning than the obscure descriptions that make wine sound so attractive.