The tool that transformed wine tasting

The tool that transformed wine tasting
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WHEN I PUT my nose in a glass of wine, I can generally and reasonably describe what I smell. But if I used a Wine Aroma Wheel, do I detect even more?

First published in 1984 by Ann C. Noble, a sensory scientist in the Department of Viticulture and Oenology at the University of California at Davis, the Wine Aroma Wheel is seemingly rather stingy for such an influential tool. A circle-shaped graphic – originally printed on paper, now in laminated plastic – it contains 119 odor descriptors, arranged in three levels that radiate outward, and ranging from general terms such as “fruity” to more words. specific words such as “berry” and “citrus” to even more specific words like “blackberry”, “raspberry”, “strawberry” and “blackcurrant”.


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The wine aroma wheel has spawned many imitations over the decades. (And Professor Noble sent many “cease and desist” letters to their creators.) With the scope of available tasting tools now quite crowded, does that make the Wine Aroma Wheel less relevant or useful today? hui? I decided to (belatedly) give the wheel a spin.

“How can you even rate your own wine against others if you don’t use the same words?

Professor Noble created the Wine Aroma Wheel with the aim of establishing a specific vocabulary of tasting terms so that wine professionals can better understand each other. “How can you even rate your own wine against others if you don’t use the same words?” she asked, rhetorically, when we spoke on the phone a few weeks ago. The tool was an immediate success in the trade and received so much publicity that consumers demanded it. The laminated version available for purchase today debuted in 1990. After Professor Noble retired with emeritus status in 2002, she hit the road, lecturing at tasting groups across the country. She has also taught short courses in the United States, Italy and Australia.

It’s hard to understand how radical this invention was when it was introduced. “People didn’t have words to describe wine,” said Professor Noble, now 76 and still living in Davis. The words they used tended to be nonspecific like “elegant” and “masculine,” which the professor found infuriating. “What is an” elegant “wine?” she asked.

To develop a precise set of terms for the wheel, Professor Noble put together words used to describe wines by students in different lab sections of her Sensory Wine Assessment course. “Each table would list all the words they found and we would rate them,” she said. She also looked at previously published lists of wine terms and lists distributed to people in the wine industry to gauge their willingness to use different words or not. After meeting fellow wine professionals, she further winnowed her assembled lists to the 119 words ultimately deemed worthy of Wheel.

Winemaker Mia Klein was among the students who helped choose the words and “one of the best noses” of the bunch according to Professor Noble. Ms. Klein continued to build a historically rich career in Napa; Araujo Estate, Dalla Valle and his own label, Selene Wines, are some of the notable names on his resume. She considers the time she spent with the teacher Noble trainer, for herself as well as for her profession. “A lot of the work in Ann’s lab was working on the wheel,” Klein recalls.

Before talking to Professor Noble, I bought my own wine aroma wheel. (They go for $ 9 at It came in pale shades of green, pink, yellow, orange, and lilac – not wine colors, I noted, or even colors that echo the words. on the wheel. I asked Professor Noble if the shades meant anything. “Pastel colors are easier on aging eyes,” she replied. The colors of the original wheel were more primary and much darker, she noted.

As someone with aging eyes, I enjoyed the current color scheme. But my 29-year-old stepdaughter Molly, a graphic designer, disagreed. “I will update them,” she said. “They could be more dynamic.” She did, however, recognize the value of the wheel itself. “I love the concept. It’s very easy to follow, ”she says. But Molly wondered if an opportunity was missed. “An interactive app on your phone would be more appealing to millennials,” she said.

Professor Noble said she considered creating an app before handing over the management of the Wine Aroma Wheel business to her good friend Isabelle Lesschaeve, an Atlanta-based sensory scientist, in 2019. Although Ms. Lesschaeve did not no immediate plans to build an app, she hopes to incorporate the wheel into an online tasting program next year.

When I invited a few friends on a social distance visit to try out the wine aroma wheel with a few bottles of wine, their responses were mixed. My friend Allison didn’t care about the colors. “They really don’t say anything,” she said. But she found the guide to aromas typically associated with different grapes, printed on the back of the wheel, helpful. (Sauvignon blanc, for example, is referred to as “floral, fruity, vegetative or herbaceous.”) My friend Alan was more skeptical. “I think it’s a gimmick. People who say they feel these things don’t really feel them, ”he says. “It’s a way for people to act like they know wine.”

I found some of the words from the Wine Aroma Wheel more relevant than others to the wines we were tasting. “Citrus” and “fresh”, “hazelnut” and “cherry” are terms I regularly use to describe wines. But some of the more esoteric and unappealing words – “hay / straw”, “rubber”, “plastic”, “sweat”, “wet dog” – seemed less useful to me. (Guess I should be thankful that none of the wines we opened when we took the wheel to the test smelled of sweat or a dog.)

While I’m not spinning my wine aroma wheel again any time soon, I certainly think this tool would be useful for wine drinkers who haven’t yet developed a lot of vocabulary to describe this. that they find in their glass. Her terms were, after all, very seriously considered and voted on by smart people and “good noses” like Ms. Klein. And so I raise a glass (of “elegant” wine) to Professor Noble and his mission to banish vague and pretentious language from the wine world.

Write to Lettie at

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