Friday, January 21, 2011

Fact or Fiction: More than 5 primary flavour descriptors in a wine review = wine bullshit?

As is the case with most topics on wine, there is a 3000 word treatise waiting for me to post on the topic of wine writing bullshit, and all the associated reasons behind why this term exists in the first place.
Irony being a wonderful thing, I am probably contributing to this topic at the moment (to add to the collective mass of wine writing bullshit, look out for a comparative analysis on wine wankers and wine snobs coming soon).

However, to focus on the second fact or fiction question (first one is here), it is a relatively narrow and qualified one: if you read a wine review that has more than 5 primary flavour descriptors do you tune out, become angry or condemn it as being wine bullshit?

If your answer is 'fiction'/5 descriptors is fine, would you draw the line at 10 descriptors? 15?  If your answer is 'fact'/5 descriptors is too much, to quote You Am I, how much is enough? 3? 2? a generic 'tastes like red/white wine'?

Interested to hear your  thoughts on this as there are many variables (Grange vs Yellowtail = considerably different number of flavour descriptors, etc), and I have not even mentioned how many descriptors should be used to define a wines nose/bouquet.......


The Sediment Blog said...

Ah, but what constitutes an individual flavour descriptor?

Is "rich chocolate" one or two descriptors?

And what about something like my colleague CJ's description of a wine, as "It was like thin treacle poured over a flagstone floor."?

Andrew Graham said...

We should get a comment from Stewart @winewithoutbs on this post (he being the authority on such matters ;) )

Edward said...


The other interesting thing is whether it is possible to discern more than 4-5 elements of what is on the nose.

This is something I read and wrote some time ago.

Even the most expert noses (perfumers) seem to be unable to distinguish the components of a mixture, once that number exceeds four.

In fairness this presumably is what someone can detect with one sniff. When I write a tasting note, I tend to scribble down what I smell and taste over several minutes and usually hours. So I capture different aspects at different times.

How many words? I think the wine tends to dictate this - the more simple and unoffensive a wine the fewer. The more interesting (good or bad) the greater the number of words and metaphors.

Brown said...

Andrew - Stewart had a bit to say when I posted the article. His beef (from what I can gather) is the use of expressions that the 'average punter' would not understand/be able to relate to (arguably like the one posted by CJ in Sediment Blog's comment above - eg: 'like thin treacle poured over a flagstone floor'). I have no doubt WinewithoutBS would label that comment BS, but for some/many it may perfectly sum up the wine.
Have been meaning to enter into that BS or no BS debate in more detail - I guess this is my passive aggressive entre into it :-)

Brown said...

Thanks for you thoughts - very interesting, and I agree with most of what you write. The studies into smell and taste are very interesting and ongoing. I have no doubt a super-taster has the ability to pick out tastes and smells I only dream about, though in many ways this acts as a barrier for many super-tasters 'connecting' with the majority of consumers.
We also write our tasting notes over several hours and like to taste the wine the next day (sometimes two-three days later with appropriate weather) in order to see if the wine will reveal itself further. It is always an interesting experience trying a wine after 3-4 hours in the decanter to find it has taken on a completely new flavour profile or has mellowed nicely.



stu said...

To answer your question, no I don't get turned off and cry 'BS' at more than 5 descriptors.

I've no idea what the 'average punter' is these days. My belief is, if you're interested in wine AND want to learn more, then you should be interested in seeing the wine for what it is, or how someone with a more experienced palate sees something.

As an example, I've not as yet tasted river pebbles, but i have felt them in the hand and understand how their smooth, fine grains could translate into a textural mouthfeel. Yet I have fired a fair few guns to know what gunsmioke/ cordite is. I'm probably crossing over into what's BS/ what's not territory.

Wine is a very subjective 'thing'. Dominant flavours I pick out may not be congruent with what another finds. That's also the reason I like reading from a large source of reviewers/ scribes; paid for (Winefront, Wine Companion) and not (here, Andrew G, Jeremy WWEI, Chris Plummer, Edward Wino-Sapien etc). But then I want to improve my appreciation of wine.

What I really like in the reviews i read is, not just a checklist of descriptors reeled off, but some understanding how things are in balance with each other; the structure of a wine - else many reviews could be rendered as tasting notes for cordials from a supermarket shelf.

As ever, I've rambled around the topic/ OP but not reducing something to the lowest common denominator is something I am quite passionate about. And that's not a dig at anyone either.

Brown said...

Well said Stu, some very salient points made.

In particular, I loved this:
"What I really like in the reviews i read is, not just a checklist of descriptors reeled off, but some understanding how things are in balance with each other; the structure of a wine - else many reviews could be rendered as tasting notes for cordials from a supermarket shelf".

That is pretty much my thoughts too. Checklists are of little use to me, and I want to see an overall sense of what makes the wines tick. My reviews are nowhere near this level (something I can aspire to in the future!)

I also concur with your comments about cordite, pebbles, etc. I dont need to lick a box of pencils to get that smell or even flavour in a Cabernet,but I have used pencils in the past. If someone with more knowledge and experience points it out to me and enables me to identify it myself in the wine, I see no problem in using it in reviews.
Stewart from @winewithoutBS has his views on the descriptors, and to be fair to him, he is not alone in thinking that these (sometimes)abstract descriptors are BS. However, if a super complex, evolving wine has several phases where several descriptors are identified, so be it - it is not automatically BS to note the change or list several descriptors.

One of the things I wanted to focus on was whether even people who are fine to see 5 descriptors listed have a limit in a review - eg: do we also have a BS metre/tolerance level?



Red said...

There are plenty of times I've consumed a complex wine over an extended period of time, and in the end have more than 5 descriptors in my tasting notes. There's no consideration for me as to whether this is BS or not, as it just is what it is. People who claim otherwise are typically engaged in some anti-intellectual exercise.
To answer your specific question I don't think I have a specific limit, but I guess where some wine writers could be more clear is the timeframe and setting in which they've identified their multiple descriptors. If I read a tasting note from a busy, loud and noisy wine tasting and it contains 7 descriptors, my wine BS metre might be alerted, whereas those same 7 descriptors from a wine writer who has consumed the wine over 3 days would not concern me in the slightest.

Anonymous said...

I very much agree with the above few comments, but I couldn't give a black and white answer to the question for myself. I know when I'm tasting crazy quality complex wines the words seem to spill onto the page with no regard for a potential readers attention span. And if I taste a wine of little character I am usually hoping to overhear the opinion of a more practised palate so that at least I can write something!
In the case of a professional scribe I agree whole heartedly with the comments above, in that the reader (well me anyway) is looking for an overall impression of the wine. Definitely the structure and how it all fits together. What is exciting about it, should I expect a breathless "wow" or should I expect varietal definition in its simplest form? And how do all of the components interact? If the fruit is Ribena with a sprig of mint, I would be hoping for a comment on acidity & tannin balancing it out. Dare I say it, I would also enjoy a reference to earth; be it forest floor, barnyard or otherwise as I can understand how that might compliment or contradict sweet syrupy fruit.
I often think of it like public speaking; you can go into as much detail as you like, but most people will remember a maximum of 5 key messages. Personally, my love of the industry and interest in seeing it thrive says that should be 3 messages within the readers comfort zone, and 2 that make them want to buy a wine they haven’t tried & learn more.

Would love to hear your findings,
(twitter: dkwinesup)

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