What Do Wine Words Mean?: a wine language survey

Not too long ago A Good Drop conducted a wine language survey at a wine tasting. I presented eleven different wines to a group of ‘uneducated’ attendees and a gave them a scale to rank each wine’s flavour from Light to Full bodied, Sweet to Dry taste, and Sharp to Smooth finish. The aim was to see how the ‘uneducated’ palate interpreted taste, and then to compare this view to that of wine professionals.

You see, I’ve begun to be confused as to what the ‘average-punter’ means when they talk about wine. I’ve been told that a chardonnay is ‘too sweet’, or that merlot has ‘a very strong taste’, or that someone wants a cabernet sauvignon that is ‘really smooth’. In each case I would never have used those words to describe the wines. Having practiced interpreting taste into words, something most people don’t have the chance to do, I now see a divide in use of language.

People at wine tasting with their booklets
People at wine tasting with their booklets

The wine language survey was devised to uncover what the wine consumer thinks of wine verses the opinion of the wine snob.

At the tasting each person was given a booklet to mark their opinions on the wines. The booklet provided a three line scale for each wine to be ranked on the three flavour profiles outlined above. After the tasting the booklets were collected and the three marked lines for each wine were split into a five part scale. A mark recorded near the start of the line was awarded a score of 1, a mark at the opposite flavour end the line awarded a 5, and scores of 2, 3 and 4 divided evenly between.

The wines used were a variety of sparkling, unoaked whites, oaked whites, thick to think skinned red wines and a dessert wine. Despite the variance of wines the result from the consumer group saw an average flavour, taste and finish value of 3 for eight of the eleven wines tasted, with only a Pelorus sparkling wine, Campbells Tokay dessert wine and Pondalowie Shiraz/Viognier awarded strong scores away from the middle of the scale.

This might imply that eight of the eleven wines had no discernable difference in taste; however the wine professionals did give varied values, with all but two of the wines given significantly different scores. From this result it seems that either the ‘average consumer’ was unable to determine the differences in wine flavour, or perhaps they were hesitant in committing an opinion.

The confidence and experience in assessing wine held by the professional panel allowed them to record wine tasting results assuredly. They were quick, definite in their answer—awarding maxim points to some wines compared to tentative shifts by consumers—and without collusion they agreed in much of their scoring.

The lay consumer not only took time in deciding their individual responses but also, in two cases, contradicted one another’s opinions. In fact some consumers scored opposite values for the same wine.

A Good Drop tasting image (I don't like showing faces unless consented)
Tasting image (I don't like showing guests face's unless consented)

So what does this mean? Firstly there were 24 participating customers in this survey and I acknowledge that this is a small sample size, too small to draw a conclusive result. What it does suggest is that using words like ‘tannins’, ‘acids’, and ‘structure’ do not mean much to most consumers. They interpret wine words differently to wine professionals and so we need to reassess how wine is described, particularly on labels and in sales material.

Personally, I’ve taken to simplifying my descriptions, such as ranking wine for customers in terms of intensity or herbal verses fruit character. Relating wine to food also helps—many people do like the sound of wine described as like eating roast beef.

Hopefully this use of language is a step toward basic wine education. Everyone can being to learn and develop their understanding of food and drink. At the very least it is not a dumb-down 100 point scale. I’ve not given up on customer literacy and comprehension completely.

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