Normative noses: restricting the senses

Posted By Chris Kaplonski on Apr 6, 2016


I wondered, back in December, if certain kinds of tasting notes were soulless. I want to return to this point, and take it in a slightly different direction. I want to think about the ways in which tasting notes can be unduly restrictive.

One of the starting points for this is further reflection on the WSET fortified wines exam I sat about a month ago, and in particular, one of the wines, an Oloroso sherry. The other starting point is what this particular wine – and the need to write a certain style of tasting note – lead to.

Part of the exam, not unreasonably, is writing a WSET-style tasting note. At the Diploma level this involves breaking down the aromas into ‘clusters.’ Primary versus secondary or tertiary aromas, but also within each of these. So, not just that there is a nuttiness to the nose, but what kind of nuts? Walnuts? Hazelnuts? Cashews? What kind of tropical fruits? And so forth. On the one hand, this is all perfectly fine. I have an academic article (currently under review at a journal) arguing that much of this language is justified. (See also this previous blog entry.) The reason it so often comes across as pretentious is that wine descriptors are in fact different from how the same words are used in everyday speech. The problem, from this point of view is not the language, but the bad job we do of describing what it actually means and what it is used for.

However, my complaint here is different. It is not about the language, but the expected use of it. In particular, in their cluster approach, WSET expects a certain number of descriptors in each cluster. They want, for example, say three clusters, and at least two specific terms within the clusters.

Let me return to my Oloroso sherry. To me – and others I talked to after the exam – it didn’t smell like much of all. Simple, and not in a particularly good way. I don’t remember what I wrote, but I think I had two or three descriptions, not the five or so WSET would have liked. The main result from the exam point of view is simply that I lose points for an incomplete / inaccurate description. But this is where I started thinking.

What make WSET’s description accurate, other than they claim it is? Their exams are about calibrating your senses to theirs. The instructors are explicit about this. But think further about the implications of this. Yes, it can be helpful to have a standard on what ‘high’ alcohol, since that can be linked to actual ABV levels, and learning to judge that can be useful. But what if you don’t have a particularly acute sense of smell, or simply don’t smell what WSET (and, to be fair, most wine writers) expect you to smell? Does that make your evaluation of the wine any less accurate? To the exam markers, yes, of course. But in the real world? I doubt it. The real world, and our sensory experiences of it, is messy. I don’t pick up floral notes very well, but does that make me any less qualified (whatever that means?) to comment on wine?

In other words, in learning what Oloroso sherry or a top-flight Burgundy should smell like, you are imposing normative standards. You are restricting and limiting people’s sensory experiences, telling them what they should be. There is arguably a place for normative standards – if you a devotee of the AOC sort of classification, which includes typicity as a determining factor. Such terminology also allows wine professional to communicate more easily. Even if you concede a use in cases of classifications, you are often limiting wines; natural and some biodynamic wines are often sold as a ‘lower’ class of wine because they run afoul of typicity.

I’m not sure these outweigh the limitations out in the ‘real world’. In the pub after the exam, drinking beer (of course) some of us had the same reaction. We did exactly what they keep telling us not to do. WSET says ‘write what you smell / taste,’ and then work out what it is. Sure, if you have enough smells to make the exam markers happy. Some of us worked out that it was an Oloroso, but then went back and said ‘I don’t have enough descriptors.’ So we did the big No-no. We said ‘What’s an Oloroso supposed to taste like?,’ and added a few of those descriptors to bulk out our tasting notes. In other words, it wasn’t really a tasting note – it was an attempt to make the examiners happy. And that should worry the examiners.

More fundamentally, and troubling to me, you are telling people what their sensory experiences should be like. You aren’t allowing them to make up their minds. In effect, you are telling them what to smell, what to taste. And if you truly want people to appreciate wine, and not just parrot other opinions, this is the wrong road to lead them down. I’ll continue to do the WSET tasting notes to pass (I hope) the course, but I will also not be using them when I run wine tastings. I want people to feel free to describe what they smell, not what they think they should. I want people to experience – and hopefully enjoy – wine because of how they encounter it, not because of what someone tells them they should be getting out of it. After all, isn’t that why we really drink and enjoy wine?

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