Monday, December 14, 2009

Graphical Representation

I've been a bit agitated recently with the subjectivity of tasting notes. One man's raspberry is another's black cherry, after all. I'm an advocate of structural descriptions like acidic, tannic, and full bodied, just to name a few, as opposed to description by analogy like naming very specific smells and flavors. But the question is, how does one best convey these structural terms?

Ann Noble's Aroma Wheel
offers a great starting point:

While there are specific aromas listed, aromas are grouped into families such as fruity, herbaceous, woody and so on. The broader families are what I'd term as structural descriptors, as opposed to analogous descriptors. However, the aroma wheel doesn't paint a full picture because it only addresses smells.

To bring flavors and mouth feel into the picture, I've come up with a polar plot representation that I'm hoping will offer a relatively straight forward graphical depiction of a wine. It's still subjective, of course, but it largely dodges terms that rely heavily on individual experiences:
The 9 (it could be more or less, certainly) structural categories are:
Body - A measure of weight or viscosity, ranging from light bodied at the smallest radius to full bodied at the largest radius.

Aroma - The strength of the aromas, with a very 'tight' wine having a small amplitude.

Fruity - The presence of fruit character, ignoring whether it's blackberry, cherry, citrus and so on.

Herbaceous or Earthy
- These are sort of arbitrarily grouped, but represent the strength of aromas and flavors of bell peppers, mushrooms, veggies, leafy stuff and basically anything that grows or come from dirt.

Funky - This encompasses meaty, barnyardy and sulfrous aromas and flavors or even aromas like ethyl acetate (nail polish remover smell) that could be considered flaws. It's kind of a measure of umami, as well as generally unexpected qualities that are neither fruit nor veggie.

Floral or Spice - Again, an arbitrary grouping to limit the number of categories, but I think of these as both 'high-toned' aromas.

Oak - This category includes vanilla, toast and certain spice aromas as well as the occasionally astringent woody flavors and mid-palate weight resulting from barrel aging.

Tannin - Purely a measure of the intensity of mouth-drying tannins, though there is some ambiguity as tannins can be astringent, soft, sweet, fruity and so on depending on their source and maturity level.

Acidity - This is how sour a wine tastes, as well as how mouth watering it is. The more sour, the higher the acidity and the larger the amplitude plotted.
Here I've plotted a 'stereotypical' Parkerized wine and an Old World wine as an example. The graphical representation really highlights that the modern, California style wine stresses fruit, oak and density in the mouth, while a typical French or Italian wine will often be focused upon aromatics, earthy and funky qualities, and acidity. It also suggests the two styles are near polar opposites in terms of acidity, funkiness, fruit expression and use of oak.

Since I've been critiquing standard tasting notes, I guess I ought to propose an alternative. Well, here it is. I'll be using these polar plots with my notes to offer a graphical representation of each wine I post here. I'll be interested to see how this little experiment turns out. My thinking is that at the very least it may make it easier to justify the use of terms such as balance or complexity. Chances are if you see a curve that's more spiky than round, a wine is not balanced and probably lacks complexity as well. Meanwhile, a mundane wine may have a round shape to its plot with small amplitudes, indicating that it's balanced but provides little of interest to the taster.


Jeff said...

It's refreshing to see someone actually acknowledge how subjective tasting notes, etc are. Great to plot stuff (I used to buy coffee for a living and this is a pretty regular way to "measure tastes..." Check out this link-- I'm surprised that I haven't seen this approach more with wine. I think it's probably a little too scientific for a food item that is ultimately about cultivating "romance," or something along those lines, for most people. I'll be interested to see how this works out for you. It's hard to communicate something as personal as what you taste to someone else since we all have such vastly different life experiences and contexts...

Jeff said...

Oh one other thing--you'll have to click on view cupping scores to see the plot. The top coffee here is a very good cup, and won a lot of awards...interesting to see where it falls on the spectrum--it's basically a circle, because what people are looking for is something that is well balanced amongst all its' elements. Imagine what would happen if the wine world started thinking that would be chaos.

CabFrancoPhile said...

Very interesting. So the cupping scores are actually used in competitions?

I actually saw a similar polar plot used on a Loire wine website. But the one I've made has more dimensions, basically all the stuff I try to describe in words. I bet UC Davis has something similar.

Romanticism is a huge obstacle, for sure. Without that element, no one could justify the price they pay for rare wines. When you bring rational thought in, it turns out well made wines are 99% similar, and the biggest differences we perceive are often due to biases like knowing price or producer reputation.

I've omitted numbers on the plot, though I'm actually scoring 1 to 5 in each category. 1 is very little, 5 is a lot and 2-4 are medium. I want to avoid splitting hairs (none of the 89 point = bad 90 point = great BS), so the plot focuses on the contour, not numbers.

Jeff said...

Well, they don't "plot" per se, but they have a pretty specific scoring template that isn't supposed to be as subjective as wine. Sort of like the 20 point system that you see from the Brits. (Here's a link-- guy just uses a graphical representation, and he's really influential, at least for the home roasting market. And he's also big into Cup of Excellence, which is probably the closest analogue to Wine Spectator or the Wine Advocate.

You might check out this video--I think you'll get a kick out of it on the whole romanticism thing. There's also a good Didier Dagueneau quote that is probably applicable--"a glance at the label is worth 20 years of tasting."

CabFrancoPhile said...

Results like that tasting are what I have in mind. They don't address aging capacity or even how a wine fares over a full glass. But trophy wines are often (conspicuously) consumed in a side by side fashion. So it's not an unrealistic situation.

maulmatt! said...

That aroma wheel is excellent. Thanks for posting...

I understand how you feel. I found it difficult to use the extrapolated descriptors in describing wine until I took the CSW class and got a little background on the chemistry of grapes, yeasts, fermentation, aging etc; and how most of the descriptors do have some sort of scientific accuracy....

CabFrancoPhile said...

For the most part it does seem you can extrapolate backwards from descriptors. Jamie Goode's Wine Science has an awesome list of aromas and the chemistry that corresponds to each aroma. But I don't know if I say methoxypyrazine, 4-ethylguaiacol and isoamyl acetate if that's any more helpful than saying fire roasted bacon wrapped poblano peppers glazed in banana compote. I definitely prefer the chemistry, but that's probably more difficult to master than description by analogy.