In 1992 the most common descriptors for chardonnay were melon, peach, fig, buttery and butterscotch, followed by honey, nutty, pineapple, toasty and mango.
IN 1992 a paper presented at the annual Australian Society of Wine Educators Conference analysed the common aroma descriptors used by journalists. It looked at the major grape varieties – riesling, sauvignon blanc, semillon, chardonnay pinot noir, merlot, cabernet sauvignon and shiraz. The list is a useful teaching tool to help novice tasters look for the right descriptors. But over time have these descriptors changed? What was fashionable in 1992 might not stack up in 2019.
Recently I was reading the tasting notes of wine judges from a major Australian wine show over a three-year period so it was an opportunity to check if the aroma descriptors have changed.
In 1992 the most common descriptors for chardonnay were melon, peach, fig, buttery and butterscotch, followed by honey, nutty, pineapple, toasty and mango. Reviewing some 500 tasting notes from the wine show revealed that peach just narrowly beat lemon as the most common aroma descriptor. You must go down to number 16 in the rankings to find lemon in the 1992 list. The popularity of lemon indicates that our current chardonnays are lighter and more acidic, as it is a term that is often used for lighter-bodied, crisper styles such as riesling. But what is more interesting is the third most common aroma found in chardonnay – sulphide.
Sulphide indicates the presence of sulphur on the nose. It can also be described as a struck match, which appears as number nine on the list of 61 aromas. The use of sulphide needs to be put into context. Some wine judges commented on them “doing their work” and providing “gorgeous subtle complexity” or adding to the “complexity of the nose,” however some were described as “sweaty” and “grubby,” which brings up the point that a sulphur aroma was and still is classified as a wine fault. The key to sulphide wines is a case of measures. A little sulphur can add complexity as long as there are other aromas present. Too much sulphur and you start to get unwanted, clearly faulty, aromas such as rotten eggs (hydrogen sulphide), rubber, or cabbage/onion (mercaptan).
Coming in at number six on the list is reductive. This may also be a reference to sulphur aromas being present and indicates the wine has been kept in anaerobic conditions – basically it is the opposite to oxidation. Sometimes a lack of aroma or a closed nose is a sign of reduction.
Running down the list, the first mention of any buttery notes comes finally at number 10 with the word “creamy” indicating malolactic fermentation or new oak notes. Down the list there are some interesting descriptors such as charcuterie, bacon bones and chippy, which all indicate a heavy-handed oak treatment.
What wasn’t on the radar in 1992 was pinot gris/pinot grigio. So I was interested to look at aromas in the wine show comments. A clear favourite was pear, followed by fennel seed, although I think this was skewed by a couple of judges applying this term to many samples. Unfortunately, sulphur came up frequently and this is not an aroma that is wanted in this variety. Pinot gris/grigio brought up some of the strangest tasting notes from judges such as “rubber gloves”, “tinned pineapple” and one wine which had an “odd vomitty (sic) palate”. This might indicate the presence of butyric acid that has a rancid or baby vomit aroma. It is thought that this acid is associated with a bacterial growth or over enthusiastic use of malo-lactic fermentation.
Turning my attention to shiraz, I had a casual 1600 tasting notes to analyse. In 1992 the most common aroma descriptor was spicy, followed by licorice, chocolate, black pepper, earthy, pepper, blackberry, cloves, stalky, mint, plum and raspberry rounding off the top 12. In the recent shows spicy was indeed the favourite expression by far, scoring double the next most popular descriptor. Following spicy was a number of fruit aromas – red fruits, berry, plum, cherry. Chocolate was sixth and pepper came in at number eight. Interestingly, reductive and brett (brettanomyces) were in the top 12. Mint and licorice were 13th and 14th respectively. So what does this say about the style? Well, spice is open to interpretation and is a cluster heading rather than a definite smell. It could mean black or white pepper which are very different, or a sweeter nutmeg or cinnamon aroma, or it could indicate the aroma of cloves. Spice and clove can be derived from eugenol and isoeugenol, which are found in oak barrels, especially ones that have well-seasoned staves. The wines of 1992 definitely seemed to be more savoury driven. Looking at the recent tastings and combining the red fruit aromas they easily outscore spice. So it is safe to say that the shiraz of today are more red fruit driven. Perhaps simpler?
One term that has entered our tasting language is “jubey” taken from the fruit jelly/lolly jube, therefore indicating very ripe, fruity aromas and taste, often confectionary. Also our love of abbreviating names in Australia is not limited to our politicians names as we have adopted “oxy” as a term to indicate oxidation.
Finally, cabernet sauvignon was analysed. In 1992 the top descriptors were cassis/blackcurrant combined, followed by capsicum, mint, eucalyptus, chocolate, blackberry, tobacco, leafy, grassy, cigar, herbaceous and stalky. In the tasting notes red fruits was the commonest descriptor followed by mint, green, leafy, berry, herbaceous, cassis, brett, menthol, cedar, vanilla and black fruits. Picking the eyes out of these results shows we still have that fruit vs herbaceous split with cabernet sauvignon. Green is probably a reference to the palate hardness of the tannins and acidity rather than the aromas, although it could still indicate an herbal edge as there were only three tasting notes that mentioned capsicum, which was the second most common aroma in 1992. Again it points to our wines being more fruit forward with red fruits rather than black fruit aromas. Brett making it into the top 12 should not sound warning bells as statistically it was only occurring in 2 per cent of wine, that was lovingly described as “sweaty saddle” in 1992.