Without a shared language, love can be challenging to describe. Similarly, talking about wine can be complicated without a common language, especially when referring to aromas and flavors. As America’s wine culture developed in the 1970s, writers and winemakers created their own vocabulary. By the 1980s, enologists started discussing wine in sensory terms. And in 1984, with a desire to create a shared system, Ann Noble, PhD, an enology professor at University of California, Davis, organized wine descriptors into the first Wine Aroma Wheel.
With this array of descriptive wine terms, Noble has helped countless wine lovers “find their voice. “From an academic perspective, it’s been hugely influential,” says Dawnine Dyer, a pioneering winemaker based in Calistoga, California. “She was certainly among the first to start to put some real discipline to the whole idea of sensory science in wine.”
Since then, the Wheel has been colorized and translated into eight different languages. For Noble, who grew up sniffing out lilacs and bogs near her Massachusetts hometown, it’s part of a quest to get people to trust their noses.
Maria: What were wine descriptions like before the Wine Aroma Wheel?
Ann: Well, in the wine industry, you had a lot of people who would just sit around and yabber. If you get a hold of old Wine Spectators, you’ll see they talk about elegance, softness, masculine and feminine, but they didn’t use specific terms. It was all hedonic.
Maria: It sounds like those descriptions didn’t really tell you much about the wine?
Ann: If you know the person writing it, it tells you whether they liked it or not. After that, it’s a matter of inference, and inference isn’t a very good form of communication.
Maria: How did you get wineries and wine professionals to adopt the Wine Aroma Wheel?
Ann: I sent it out to the wine industry as a poll asking, “Which of these words would you use?” We tallied the results from that and from the words that I wanted to use. Then I came up with the Aroma Wheel.
Maria: What inspired you to create a comprehensive sensory tool for the wine industry?
Ann: My goal was to communicate. Unless you have specific terms, you can’t communicate, and people weren’t born with words for smell. They learn them. And most people don’t “listen” to their nose. They’re not building up a vocabulary for a moment. Through my teaching, I was developing the vocabulary. Ever since I was a young kid, I would “sniffety, sniffety,” responding to odors that came by me.
Maria: How can people develop their noses?
Ann: What I call “smelling offensively” is listening to your nose. Anybody can listen to their nose, as long as they’re not anosmic or have a severe cold or allergy. It’s about looking for stuff to smell. For example, in my garden I have Daphne honeysuckle, which is spicy and floral, and roses, and I have daffodils and rosemary.
Maria: What has been the impact of the Wine Aroma Wheel?
Ann: For individuals, by making the physical standards: People were given the keys to the kingdom. It was like, “Aha, now I can smell it. I smell vanilla, I smell cloves, I smell pineapple and apricot in this Chardonnay.” Their enthusiastic response is what I have retained as an ideal response to the Wine Aroma Wheel. It shows someone how they can enjoy wine more. You’re participating in it. It’s not passive.
Maria: What about aromas that aren’t found on the Wheel?
Ann: The Aroma Wheel was a tool that gave people a starting place to have meaningful shared discussions about wine, but there are plenty of other descriptors that aren’t on the Wheel. Wherever I taught in the world, every single time, somebody always … would come up with some word that I didn’t have a standard for, that isn’t on the Aroma Wheel, but it was perfect for the wine.
This article originally appeared in the June/July 2022 issue of Wine Enthusiast magazine. Click here to subscribe today!
Last Updated: September 28, 2022