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Speaking in tongues

Kelly J. Hayes

“Bell pepper! I’m getting bell pepper on the nose,” says one young aficionado with excitement. “Yes, I got that too,” replies his compatriot. “There is a herbaceous quality as well.”

For many wine drinkers, this kind of chatter makes for the kind of experience that can a ruin a good glass of wine. What’s wrong with just pouring a sauvignon blanc and tasting it without having to analyze the “cut grass” or the wine’s “steely profile”?

Well, nothing.



But on the other hand, there is also nothing wrong with wanting to discuss the characteristics of the wine either. The dichotomy comes in when one person speaks the “language” of wine and the other is in the dark. Sometimes tasting with the aficionado and his compatriot can make for a boring evening. Kind of like going to dinner with people who speak Spanish when you only took high school French.

In 1990, Ann C. Noble, a sensory scientist and flavor chemist (how’s that for a dual major?) at the University of California Davis Viticulture and Enology Department (that’s the wine school), tried to develop an easy-to-use tool to help make it easier to for people to describe what they are smelling and tasting in their glasses.




Her invention, the Wine Aroma Wheel, is as simple as it is profound. It consists of three concentric rings that break the taste of wine down into 120 separate descriptive words that correlate to other things we may taste or smell in our everyday lives. The goal was to use words that would provide a standard, nonjudgmental vocabulary to describe what is in the glass. (You can find the Aroma Wheel at http://www.winearomawheel.com)

The descriptives closest to the center, in the first ring, use broad descriptions such as “fruity,” “earthy,” or “chemical” to give an initial identification of the wine’s aroma. The second ring breaks down the flavors even further. For example, if you have identified the smell or taste of a wine as “fruity,” something that is a fairly easy term for most people to use, then the next step is to figure out if the fruit you smell is similar to a “berry,” or perhaps more like a “citrus” fruit, or a “tree fruit,” such as an apple or a pear.

Now we go deep. In the third tier, if we have already determined that the wine is, say, “fruity” and has a berry flavor, we can pick the berry. Does it smell like raspberries? Perhaps it has a darker aroma ” blackberry, maybe?

With just a few short and decisive choices, our senses, both our nose and our palates, have determined that the wine we are drinking is fruity with lots of berries on the nose, most likely blackberry. There. You’re speaking in tongues, just like a wine geek.

Like learning any language, especially a language of the senses, using the Wine Aroma Wheel requires that you do some study and memorization. There is a companion piece that suggests the best way to make use of the Wheel is to set up your own smell analysis using actual items from the Wheel mixed with 2 ounces of wine. Put a drop of vanilla extract into the small pour of wine and get a solid noseful of how it smells with the wine. Slice a bell pepper and drop a piece into the glass for a minute or two and see how that smells.

There are other tools to help you learn how to become a more communicative taster as well. Alder Yarrow, on his acclaimed blog vinography.com, features a downloadable “aroma card” that is filled with descriptive terms that go far beyond Ann Noble’s objective terms. Try “red vines,” or “umami,” or even “peeled willow bark” on for size and see how they smell to you.

The point is there are many ways to see, smell, taste and drink a wine, and there are just as many ways to describe what you have seen, smelled, tasted and drunk. If you are interested in becoming more facile in the way you communicate with people about what you are getting out of a wine, then there are tools that can help you do it.

And never forget, the best tool to use is wine itself.

You can never taste enough.

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