Wine Snobbery 101

“Everyone has the ability to taste and analyze wine, you just need to have the vocabulary and focus to do it,” said Ann Noble, a retired UC Davis professor of Viticulture and Enology. With that, we launched into two days of Sensory Analysis classes, an overview of the sensory properties of wine (appearance, aroma, mouthfeel, flavor, aftertaste) and some of the psychological factors that influence the perception of wine. And though her appearance was unassuming, Noble turned out to be a colorful, crusty character full of dry, sarcastic comments such as “You just have a pinot fetish” and “You’re a prostitute when you’re a researcher because you need money!”

Indeed, Noble’s presentation on her research was impressive. Up till now, I had always been skeptical of professional wine tasters. First off, there have been lots of reports that wine ratings are inconsistent, even with repeated ratings from the same judges. Supposedly, lots of experienced wine drinkers can’t even tell red from white wine. Secondly, wine writers and aficionados tend to use ridiculously flowery languages to describe wines, like “Now, that’s a little girl from Morey-St.-Denis! A virgin. She needs to air a bit. Then we can all prod it, taste it and love it as we truly deserve, as God appointed us.” Yeah, okay.

Noble argued that wine experts who conduct labeled tastings are necessarily biased, and that results based on a few individuals are invalid. On the other hand, using a sensory panel of people trained to describe and quantify attributes of wine under ideal conditions (blind tastings, quiet room, no interfering odors) generates in statistically valid results. The panel provides objective, accurate and repeatable measurements. You can then use statistical techniques like principal components analysis to weight the importance of the descriptive variables, or partial least squares regressions to relate sensory data to chemical or consumer preference data. I am pretty sure the rest of the class was tuning out this section, but my inner stats nerd was in heaven. Who knew my stint at the Fed would be useful in oenology??

Anyway, the sensory panel must be trained to adhere to a defined list of standards. The problem with discussing wine is that most of us are trying to describe the indescribable. Moreover, it is difficult to find the vocabulary to describe what we perceive. Enter the Wine Aroma Wheel. So, instead of subjective terms like “elegant,” “round,” and “backward,” we focused on evaluating precise, analytical terms like “fruity,” “citrus” and “sulfur.” With a series of 26 glasses in front of us, we each tried to describe the aroma wafting from each glass, and if possible, to name it. My pulse began to quicken. Some of the glasses had contents which were immediately obvious, like bacon bits or butter. Others were less obvious. Was this peach or apricot? Cloves or nutmeg? Wait, I know that smell, I can almost taste it…but I can’t name it. Argh. After an hour of intense olfactory assault, my nasal passages felt like they had been scrubbed with saltwater.

At the end of the standards training, I discovered that I had nailed the lychee and bell pepper aromas, but had missed items like orange and canned green bean. Yes, canned green bean. I would have never thought to describe a wine with that phrase, but we later tried some wines that really did have vague whiffs of canned green beans. No joke. Some students struggled with aromas foreign to their cultures, like soy sauce or guava. After all, it’s pretty hard to identify the aroma of something you haven’t eaten before.

We went on to discuss some of the volatile chemical compounds that have been identified as being associated with certain odors. Little known fact: the volatile compounds in the anal gland of a fox smell very similar to Concord grapes, hence the scientific name vitus labrusca, or fox grapes. There are also compounds that trigger receptors for sweet or bitter tastes. In particular, your sensitivity to 6-n-propylthiouracil (PROP) is genetically determined, and if your TAS2R38 bitter receptors are sensitive to PROP, your tongue has a greater density of fungiform papillae, or a greater density of taste pores. In other words, you are a so-called supertaster. Caveat: sensitivity to PROP doesn’t affect your ability to taste other tastes or other types of bitterness, and does not affect your ability to smell. So if you are not PROP-sensitive, this does not dash your chances at becoming a world-famous wine expert or chef.

Having prepped our fragile egos with that information, Noble handed out strips of paper dipped in PROP and asked us to put them in our mouths, while facing each other (the better to see the grimaces on each other’s faces). Some of us immediately winced while others didn’t taste anything/claimed that something was wrong with their paper. As for myself, I definitely found the paper unpleasantly bitter, but I wasn’t rushing to spit it out or anything. I guess that means I’m not a supertaster. Or maybe my tolerance for bitter foods has improved since I started eating bitter melon regularly.

Finally, we turned to analyzing actual wines, with whites on day one and more complex reds on day two. In library-quality silence, I inhaled the aroma of my wine and jotted down phrases like “citrus, honey, and green olives.”  I put down a glass and moved onto the next, then returned to the previous glass to find that it had changed in character. After half an hour of rumination, we convened to discuss our findings, and though there was certainly variation, there was also plenty of consensus in how wines were perceived. One was buttery and fruity, another was vegetative, and yet another had elements of fruit and vegetable. With additional time, we could have compiled the results into a spider chart to rank the wines on a specific set of characteristics.

Ah yes, we haven’t even mentioned drinking the wine. By the time we reached this stage, I was mentally exhausted and not in the mood to sip and analyze wine. I dutifully swished my wine and jotted down adjectives, but this was not really the highlight of the day. In fact, I was disappointed that some wines tasted drastically different from the way they smelled. Of course, this didn’t stop me from vying for some of the leftover opened bottles to take home. With a circus-like air, Nobel revealed the varietals, regions and vintages of what we were drinking. Our apartment managed to procure a nice Sauvignon Blanc from Veneto (we preferred the Tyrol Gewürztraminer but were beaten to the punch). The rest of the whites included a 2006 Chardonnay from Sicily and a Viognier from Langhe. The reds included a 2007 Dolcetto di Dogliani, 2005 Sant’Antimo Cabarnet, a new-style 2005 Barolo Nebbiolo from Alba (too astringent for me) and an old-style 2000 Barolo Riserva from Castiglione (my favorite of the bunch).

All in all, the sensory analysis class was useful even if I have no intention of ever entering the wine business. At the very least, I learned a lot about how to describe my own preferences in wine, and will no longer resort to buying wine based on how much I like the label.

5 thoughts on “Wine Snobbery 101

  1. I’m wondering whether you took Wines at Cornell and whether it was helpful here. I’m guessing you didn’t, otherwise I thought you would have mentioned it…

  2. Nope, never took the Cornell wines class. Partly because I wasn’t that interested in the subject at the time, partly because I wanted to be nonconformist and instead of wines, took Desire for my crazy, off-beat senior year elective (we watched porn in class, among other things).

    1. Actually, these tasting sheets are recycled from previous classes, and I didn’t write the Chinese in the corner, so I’m not sure what it says. 朱…something I can’t read. I’m guessing it’s someone’s name?

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