Wine descriptions and reviews often include impressive, sometimes extravagant details on specific aromas and flavors. My reviews are an exception and here is why.
A description I recently read for a Chardonnay reported aromas and flavors of butterscotch, citrus, warm baking spices, ripe pineapple, orange Creamsicle, kiwi, other tropical fruits, baked apple, clove, Nilla wafers, orange blossom honey and wet stones!
Although this Chardonnay is a fine wine, are these many different aromas and flavors real? And are such descriptions useful to readers?
Real? Of course wines have various aromas and flavors. Indeed, they -- not the alcohol -- are the sources of pleasure for wine lovers.
But are wine descriptions useful in that different wine experts describe similar aromas and flavors when evaluating the same wine? Or do different wine writers tend to report different aromas and flavors -- the result of their individual noses and palates -- which would mean their reviews could confuse, even mislead readers?
I examined whether different wine experts find similar aromas and flavors by comparing reviews of the same wines. I selected six wines I’ve recently tasted and recommend below. I include my own comments on each wine, followed by lists of specific aromas and flavors reported in the first two reviews I found.
Penley 2016 Shiraz “Atlas, Coonawarra, South Australia ($20): This very good buy is strong on the palate. Forward fruit is quickly joined by tannins, producing complexity which combines with strength and extended length on an attractive finish. One reviewer described toast, caramel, roasted plums and briary sweetness. The other wrote about mint, herbal accent, cherry, blackberry and raspberry. Thus, the two reviews include one similarity and six differences.
Sanford 2015 Pinot Noir “Sta. Rita Hills” ($35): Appealing on the palate with forward fruit coupling with pleasing acidity to produce fine balance. Its lengthy finish features fruit with beautifully melded tannins. One reviewer reported cherry, currant, floral accents, cedar and spice. The other referred to dried sage, sour red-cherries, fresh red fruit and red flowers. Therefore, the reviews noted two similarities and five differences.
Beringer 2015 Cabernet Sauvignon “Estates Selection, Knights Valley” ($36): This very good value in California Cabernet is strong with rich fruit, good balance, rounded tannins and a lengthy finish with attractive complexity. One reviewer wrote about walnuts, fresh herbs and dark fruit. The other stated dark berry, light mocha and cedar. One similarity and four differences.
St. Francis 2015 Merlot “Reserve, Sonoma Valley” ($44): Beautiful in the glass and forward on the palate with expressive, but well-balanced fruit and a framework of integrated tannins yielding fine complexity, personality and a lingering finish. One reviewer described dark cherry, blackberry and plum pudding, chocolate mousse and Asian spice. The other found plum preserves, exotic spices and earth nuances. One similarity and six differences.
Sequoia Grove 2015 Cabernet Sauvignon “Napa Valley” ($45): Attractive on nose and palate, featuring a full-bodied attack, excellent balance and enjoyable complexity. Tannins strengthen in mid-palate and call for pairing with red meat. Finishes very long. One reviewer stated smoky oak, dark berry, mocha, cedar and sage. The other said cedar, earth, sage, blackberries, mulberries, spice box, spice and toasty oak. Three similarities and six differences.
Clos du Val 2015 Cabernet Sauvignon “Estate, Napa Valley” ($65): Polished and pleasing across the board, featuring luminescence in the glass and highly appealing development of power and complexity on nose and palate. Be certain to uncork 90 minutes before serving to enjoy maximum development. One reviewer reported dark cherry, plum, lavender, spice and menthol. The other found currant, blackberry, graphite and lead pencil. Thus the two wine writers noted no similarities and nine differences.
The obvious conclusion is that wine writers disagree much more frequently than they agree when describing specific aromas and flavors in the same wines. Indeed, the above examples averaged four and a half times more differences than similarities.
Does this suggest specific aromas and flavors aren't real? Of course not, because surely they are real to the people who describe them.
But the key question is whether such descriptions are useful to others? The above evidence indicates they are not. Indeed, I contend such descriptions can be counterproductive for readers to learn about wine.
The reason is that each of us, including wine experts, has different taste buds and different tasting experiences, and therefore we cannot expect to find the same aromas and flavors in wines.
Does that mean the extensive prose on aromas and flavors we've been conditioned to accept in wine descriptions isn't useful? Well, I wouldn't rely on it as a buying guide!
Rely instead on descriptions of core characteristics of wine, such as strength, body, sweetness, fruit, balance, tannins, complexity, integration, refinement, personality and length. Focus on these basics, not only to emphasize the essence of wines, but also to facilitate understanding wine and communicating about wine with family and friends.