Wine Talk

Snooth User: shawkes

wine descriptors

Posted by shawkes, May 25, 2010.

In 1976, Amerine and Roessler ( U.C. Davis professors) counseled tasters to avoid emotive and anthropomorphic terms such big, finesse, hard, intense, lingering, long, rich, silky and velvety.  They stated in their book "Wines, Their Sensory Evaluation" that these words should be avoided at all costs.  How does the forum feel of this?

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Reply by dmcker, May 25, 2010.

Seems inane to recommend avoiding most of those terms. There are plenty of other terms seen in tasting notes that are debatable, but 'finesse' or 'lingering' or 'big' or 'rich' or 'long'? You've killed half of French wine description right there! ;-)

I wonder why you/they use the term anthropomorphic for those descriptors. Is it somehow illegal to use terms that have meanings in other human contexts? Than how is one human to communicate to another? Can't other mammals linger? Can't a mountain be big? Can't a river be long? Or a taste in one's mouth linger lengthily? Is the soft sleekness of silk or the rich plush of velvet somehow not transferable to other contexts? Did Amerine and Roessler ever try to critique literature, particularly love scenes?

I'd be curious to read more context from them regarding the statements above...

Reply by outthere, May 25, 2010.

Did Amerine and Roessler ever try to critique literature, particularly love scenes?


Reply by Carly Wray, May 26, 2010.

I'd also like to hear a bit more of the context; is the issue that the terms are especially subjective? And isn't that part of the joy of tasting notes?

I have no problem with any of those terms, and I have a feeling that Amerine and Roessler would take issue with 97% of the words I choose to describe wine. I'm fond of both the emotive and the anthropomorphic approach -- I say bring on muscular, friendly, aggressive, reserved, flirtatious. I want tasting notes to give me more than a list of approved adjectives or types of fruit.

Reply by Flamefighter, May 26, 2010.

I prefer descriptions that use everyday adjectives such as big, bold, lingering, etc.  These words mean something to me.  Perhaps the reviewer and I will differ on what constitutes bold or lingering but at some point are taste will merge so I find them useful.  

What drives me crazy is when a review uses descriptions like road tar, old cigar box, leaf mold, etc. Who would want to drink something that reminded someone of road tar?


Reply by ptr3381, May 26, 2010.

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Reply by VegasOenophile, May 29, 2010.

I think it largely depends on the taster/reviewer.  Many people with aptitudes for writing are bound to use very descriptive language, even sometimes inventing new parallels in what we taste to using terms or descriptors we'd not even thought of before.  It's about using the language to explain how the wine makes us feel, which is a huge part of the overall tasting experience.  Perhaps I am defensive of this because I am one of those people who often uses such language.  Tasting wine for me, is a sensory experience that merits no less than full attention to noticing every detail as much as possible.  Why not use evocative language when describing something when we enjoy something?  Because, after all we want others to share in it, so we are emotionally "selling" our point of view.  Our opinion. 

Some people are very technical and analytical.  That's fine.  However, it shouldn't mean that others of us can't be otherwise.  Wine is all of those things and none of those things, depending on the person tasting it and it will always be different from person to person.  It's a tad overboard when we start critiquing how people critique.

Reply by Matchupichu, May 29, 2010.

I don't understand why there should even be a rule book reguarding the scent analysis of wine. As VegasOenophile stated above:" tasting wine for me, is a sensory experience that merits no less than full attention to noticing every detail as much as possible.  Why not use evocative language when describing something when we enjoy something?"  This makes total sense.  I find it absurd that some UCDavis professors decided to cut out all the emotion when describing wine, wine is a very emotional product.  Both the vinter and grower put in heaps of effort to make their wines.  Their work is to translate the soil, climate, and passion into a bottle of wine.  The idea of this antianthropomorphism is akin to looking at art and not being able to use how the painting makes you feel to describe it;  very silly indeed.  I'm rather fond of describing the wines I drink in the way that I feel, if people have questions when I say this wine is slutty or that this wine austere, then I would be happy to explain; by the way, are these professors still teaching?  I'd like to see them go back to college and attend a philosophy class!  Do their wardrobes only consist of  greys and blacks with belt-buckle hats? ...Stoics.

Reply by ananas984, May 29, 2010.

From my personal experience, proper use of those words, in their right place, can be quite useful and accurate in wine description.

There's nothing vague about saying that Barolo is "big", because we can all agree that Beaujolais is not. Overpowering characteristics of a given wine - through its acidity, aroma, tannin - create impressions of "size" on the nose and palate.

Also, "velvety", "creamy", "smooth", "linger": those are all valid descriptions of texture. How many times we've heard that Chardonnay is "creamy"? I agree with that description. Also, impressions of acid, tannin, and even aroma, do have their actual length on the tongue.

On the other hand I do like to be analytical, so I try to avoid such terms as "friendly" (good wine with matching food is always a happy occasion), "colorful", and so on, because - when it comes to wine - such terms could have an illusive content and I have a hard time remembering what those words actually meant.

Reply by dmcker, May 30, 2010.

Again, it would be good to hear more context, since it's quite possible we're going off on tangents that never really initiated from the true intent of their writings...

Reply by Miguel Nunes, May 30, 2010.

It's part of human experience finding and even creating words to translate our perception of a subject. In spite of the fact that some analitical behavior is needed in many fronts of life, to rule the explaning of feelings only means limitation that doesn't match tating of wine.  

Reply by Manoavino, May 30, 2010.

I was curious about this and found this a article in Slate,
Cherries, Berries, Asphalt, and JamWhy wine writers talk that way. That puts some perspective on this.

"Amerine and Roessler proposed that oenophiles abandon this vague terminology, rooted in the British class system, in favor of a more rigorous lexicon that treated wines not as living creatures with personalities but as agricultural products with precise flavors and aromas. Other researchers, notably fellow UC Davis professor Ann Noble (creator of the famous Wine Aroma Wheel), refined this new diction. Raiding the garden and the kitchen pantry, they prescribed a new, food-based nomenclature, in which wines were to be described as evoking specific fruits, vegetables, nuts, flowers, and the like."

If anything this approach has added to our wine lexicon. That being said I love using crazy words to describe my wine experience that goes beyond the simply the taste and scent.

Reply by dmcker, May 30, 2010.

Interesting article pull, Mano. Not sure about the British class system aspect, since most such critical wine description can be found in French to this day. Chalk that remark up to Slate's political position, perhaps.

I also raised on eyebrow at the opening quote of '"Great people talk about ideas, average people talk about things, and small people talk about wine,' Fran Lebowitz once said.' That was an obvious ripoff of a famous quote to the effect "Great minds talk of ideas, average minds of events, small minds of people" that has been ascribed to Eleanor Roosevelt, though there's some dispute about that and I originally heard it attributed to Bertrand Russell, who definitely was a great mind.

The author does get into some interesting territory, and approaches linguistic relativity and the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis (so why do the French critics talk somewhat like the British critics if different languages tend to result in different thought processes?), while also touching on how language etches, strips and directs thoughts in ways that develop a momentum of their own so somehow, through long descriptions attempting at precision, we end up dropping huge chunks of the tasting experience behind that didn't make it into the denotatations of the vocabulary employed. I'm sure we've all felt at various times like the quote here: '...legendary French oenologist Emile Peynaud elegantly explained the conundrum. 'We tasters feel to some extent betrayed by language," he wrote. "It is impossible to describe a wine without simplifying and distorting its image."'

Also interesting was another quote from the article about numerical ratings as opposed to tasting note descriptions: 'This linguistic failure is surely one reason that numerical scores for wines have proven so popular; points are simplistic and distorting, too, but they at least give you something to hold onto—more so than, say, "spice box," "melted asphalt," or "liquefied minerals."'

Even with these linguistic frustrations, I, personally, much prefer written tasting descriptions, at length, to numbered valuations, though both together is fine. I can glean much more info from a writer's use of language than I can from some arbitrary number thrown up without justification. Thus, for example, I think reviews on Snooth of just 3 cups or 3 1/2 or 4 or whatever are worthless without a proper review to accompany the rating. Especially as we really know nothing about the palate of the person doing the rating, since we're only sharing tastings in cyberspace, and not in the same room together, tasting the same wine together, where we'd be in a much better position to judge the rater's credibility.

But back to the article, and to the original query at the top of this thread. Here's a quote about the language employed before Amerine and Roessler's monograph: 'At the time, wines were generally evaluated anthropomorphically and tended to be described as masculine or feminine, coarse or refined, noble or common, ingratiating or overbearing'.

OK, here I see where the term anthropomorphic is coming from, since I didn't in the original poster's use of  'big, finesse, hard, intense, lingering, long, rich, silky and velvety,' even though I did see other potential issues with those terms. And it's at this point, Mano, that your quote about what A&R initiated enters in. And, of course, what Robert Parker did to the wine criticism industry as he picked up the baton and ran with it.

This is where we get to the crux of how wines are described these days in all sorts of fora:

'In 1978, Robert Parker began publishing The Wine Advocate, and although Parker has never shied away from slippery adjectives (he often uses words like hedonistic, sexy, and intellectual), his tasting notes have always stood out for their no-nonsense, just-the-flavors-ma'am approach. Here's Parker, for instance, on the 1996 Chateau d'Yquem (the great sweet wine of Bordeaux): "[l]ight gold with a tight but promising nose of roasted hazelnuts intermixed with crème brûlée, vanilla beans, honey, orange marmalade, and peach … "

'Over the last two decades or so, this type of tasting note has become the industry standard; most critics nowadays make a point of listing the exact aromas, flavors, and tactile sensations they perceive in a wine. These grab bags of specific and often obscure tastes and scents breed a certain awe and deference among many wine enthusiasts (Gee, he really must be gifted if he can smell all those things—I should heed his recommendations), which is undoubtedly part of their appeal. Wine writers perhaps also feel pressured to use the "right" lingo for fear of losing street cred in the eyes of their peers and other industry insiders. But while the cherry-and-berry imagery may be good for establishing critical authority, its value to the layman is open to debate' (My underlining)

The article goes on to discuss how this type of description opens up the tasting critics to all sorts of ridicule from the public at large. Rather than quote much more of the article, here, I'll just suggest that it bears reading in its entirety. I will pull one last quote, though: 'Actually, many wine writers, distinguished and otherwise, are acutely aware of the mockery their fanciful jargon attracts. Why cling to it, then? One reason is because it seems to have some basis in reality. Anyone who follows wine criticism closely knows that there is considerable overlap in professional tasting notes. If one critic claims to detect tobacco on the nose of a La Rioja Alta Rioja, chances are another critic will independently sniff out some tobacco as well.'

And that's, I assume, why Greg DP uses the terms he uses, why I use some I do, and why many well known critics do, too, I'm sure. The aromas and flavors really are there. Of course I also think there's a definite place for some of the other pre-A&R terms, like 'big, finesse, hard, intense, lingering, long, rich, silky and velvety,' and others. It is so hard, after all, to describe those fleetingly ephemeral hints and notes and nuances of aroma and flavor that waft and wash across our palate as we down this nectar (usually, anyway, as we learn how to choose better, since there's also so much plonk out there) that we all love so much. We need all the tools we can bring to bear in trying to get across to others what we are experiencing in those brief moments. 


Reply by dynowine, May 30, 2010.

In the 1997 movie "Contact" a straight-laced scientist (Jodie Foster) is first to take a risky virtual "ride across the galaxy" via unknown alien technology.  

En route she is flabbergasted by the scenery in the heavens.  Her only comment:   "[Oh my God], They should have sent a poet".


Reply by VegasOenophile, May 30, 2010.

How can all tasters of wines subscribe to a set lexicon of nuts, flowers, berries, etc., when we all tend to taste different things within the same wine?  I mean look at any wine on this site with more than one written review.  I bet you they hardly match up! lol  That being the case, why would we say "this is an acceptable description and that one isn't" based on word use?  It's all rather ridiculous and I for one, shall continue writing as I do and explaining how I view, smell and taste the wine.  Cheers!

Reply by zufrieden, May 30, 2010.

Great response to a very contentious issue.  In the end, however, I think that a certain amount of peer review of wine assessment allows for a little critical whittling away of the more absurd positions and modes of expression (all of course determined by public display and trials thereof).  

Let us just say that the better critics know their audience and how to connect with it through certain common adjectives associated with emotion and other less tangible (private) language.  To suggest we move away from the poetic into the (putatively) empiric is not without some merit, but everything is a matter of degree; leave it to the readers to decide.  To paraphrase the quotation: Great People talk about, understand, interpret and appreciate all things, ideas and sensory delights.  The principal of humanity induces the Great to enjoy and understand - including the tastes and predilections of all within the hierarchy of life.

So, I say, let all ideas contend; the necessary discipline will follow in due course.

Reply by TerriF, May 30, 2010.

Oh good!!! I didn't see "Yummy" on their list....thank heavens, I can still use "Yummy," lol :))

Reply by zufrieden, May 30, 2010.

You bet, Terri.  You can use Yummy; I think I can understand that.


Reply by GregT, May 30, 2010.

Hey D - thinking about doing a dissertation are we?

Nice job tho.  And good points.  One reason I hardly ever write up notes for people other than myself to read is that they're so idiosycratic and personal.  "Rotten fruit", "St Nick Incense", and any number of others mean something to me but probably mean nothing to someone else who has his or her own memories and impressions of those elements.

It's why, contrary to many people, I think the number score is far more meaningful insofar as conveying a quick impression.  Using roughly 3 or 4 points as a general range, and getting tighter as we approach 100, I figure under 80 means the writer hated the wine, 85 to about 87 is good, not great, to 89 it's very good, and then 90 to 93 it's worth picking up.  After 95 it's something the write really really loved.

I don't really get some of the flavors and aromas that some people seem to find.  Tobacco is an easy one, tea, dried strawberries, etc., and I understand what people are trying to convey when they talk of size, power, etc.  Not that I'd necessarily agree but that's another issue.\

Reply by dmcker, May 31, 2010.

If I were going back to school now, Greg, I'd probably study architecture, gardening or (yikes) even viticulture, so no dissertation on the horizon. Better yet, how about celestial navigation so I can sail offshore more safely? The lenghty post above was just the result of having a few too many minutes where I didn't need to do anything else.

I will definitely disagree with you about the scores being highly meaningful without a description of the wine to accompany them. I need to know a lot about the taster to be able to lend any credence to what he or she has to say, and just a score ain't near enough.

I also have days where I catch all sorts of nuances while tasting, and other days when I don't catch squat. Physical condition, environmental factors, etc., are so key. Plus I also tend to get hung up on the faults of what I consider poorly made wine, so as I fight with the winemaker philosophically I don't bother as much to focus on all the fine details. That's when I really want to use blunt, generic terms, and not try to wring out a truly poetic moment...

Reply by GregT, May 31, 2010.

But if you know about the taster, doesn't the score serve as a nice shorthand?  For example, say I happen to know that taster X hasn't had much wine from some region and I have.  His note doesn't mean all that much to me, but if he scores something highly, I may be curious to see what he found.  If he scores it as low as he usually does, I just don't read the note at all if I have no respect for the writer, or I read it to find out what the problem was if I do respect the writer.

Or, say I happen to know and kind of like a wine.  Taster B does too and writes a note about it.  If I would score the wine roughly the same, the note doesn't convey much to me.  I'm not going to learn about something that I didn't pick up myself in my own tasting.

Worse is when you taste with some writers, some well-known, others less so, and you see them writing a line or two.  Then when their reviews come out, there are paragraphs of prose.  Now if they picked up some tech sheets, that's fine.  But if they fill their prose with descriptors and flavors and experiences that they just didn't even have, then it's weird as hell to read their notes.

I just got done doing a tasting of wines that had divergent and similar scores from 2 well-known critics.  I put down my scores and then we unveiled the wines.  Predictably the old wines scored badly although they were my highest scoring wines.  The others were interesting.  Contrary to what one might think, there was not necessarily aways a correlation between ripeness, fruit, or other objective characteristics, at least in one case.  I found nothing to hang on to that would give me a sense of critic A vs B.  So again, the notes are useless.

However, I'll give you this much - you're patient and willing to put the work into deciphering other people's impressions.  Maybe there are more people like that than I imagine?

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