Q&A with Ann Noble, Inventor of the Aroma Wheel

Ann C. Noble is a sensory chemist and retired professor from the University of California, Davis. During her time at the UC Davis Department of Viticulture and Enology, she invented the Wine Aroma Wheel which is credited with enhancing the public’s understanding of wine tasting and wine terminology. She earned her Ph.D. in Food Science from the University of Massachusetts, and was hired by UC Davis in 1974 to work in their sensory research program. In 1984, her research lead her to develop the Wine Aroma Wheel when she realized there were no quantitative studies conducted about aromas in wine. Other research included how a wines aroma and flavor can influence consumer choices as well as how wine tasters perceive astringency.

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How did the Wine Aroma Wheel develop? Was it a fairly organic process?

The Wine Aroma Wheel was developed through considerable preliminary work. A long list of terms useful for precisely describing notes in red and white wine aromas had been accumulated in several wine descriptive analyses studies, in weekly student sensory evaluation laboratories, and in lab sections of my wine sensory course at University of California, Davis. A collection of lists of previously published wine terms included hedonic, non-specific terms such as “harmonious” or “elegant.” I collated these published lists of wine aroma terms and collected additional descriptive terms. These terms were grouped by similarity of aroma as much as possible. This list was sent to the wine industry asking for their comments on the suitability or usefulness of each term. A group of winemakers and sensory people then met to cull the subjective terms (harmonious, etc) and include those “thought to be useful.” Flavor chemists had compiled terminology for the brewing industry and the Scotch industry. Both had created a circular wheel format to list these terms; however their wheels referred to flavors whereas the wine wheel only includes aroma terms.

What is the best way, in your experience, for people to use the Wine Aroma Wheel so they can maximize their experience?

For more than 25 years, The California Wine Club founders Bruce and Pam Boring have explored all corners of California’s wine country to find award-winning, handcrafted wine to share with the world. Each month, the club features a different small family winery and hand selects two of their best wines for members.

Most simply, smell the wine and describe what you perceive: start in the inner tier - is the wine fruity?  Spicy? Then go to the middle and if possible outer tiers for more specific suggestions: citrus then grapefruit, for example.  But the BEST way to use the wheel is to make some examples of different aromas by adding the food product to a neutral base wine. For example; citrus, apricot, vanilla, clove, and bell pepper. Then smell these standards blind and identify them.

How many languages has the Wine Aroma Wheel been translated into, and are there other translations in the works?

It has been translated into French, Italian, Portuguese, Spanish, Danish, Norwegian, Swedish, Japanese, and Georgian. I have started Hebrew, Korean and Chinese, but have not gotten them made for various reasons just yet.

Truly, how important is it to the enjoyment of wine to be able to fully articulate aromas of a particular wine?

It depends. A really complex wine is difficult to describe but needs to be savored and enjoyed. Tasting wine at an intimate meal may be part of a pleasurable moment and enjoyed solely as it is perceived. Perhaps you feel the magic of a wonderful wine and or the occasion, or maybe you smell caramel and vanilla.

Can’t people just drink wine without thinking too much about it?

But of course!

You mention ‘listening to your nose.’ Why is it that we are more trusting of our taste buds (gustation) over our olfactory senses?

I disagree with your statement. E.g., I don’t think we “trust taste over smell.” People automatically perceive/describe flavors of wines or anything as “taste” when they have the wine IN THEIR MOUTHS.  Intellectually one knows that the wine can’t taste “fruity” but it smells fruity. Upon sipping wine, fruitiness is perceived by retronasal olfaction. The olfactory (SMELL), gustatory (TASTE), as well as trigeminal (FEEL) signals are integrated and interpreted at higher processing levels in the brain cortex.  As a result, we perceive the flavor upon sipping a wine as taste it.  The brain locates that perception on the tongue, so we think of the sensation as taste.  So we say: this strawberry tastes ripe, fresh, fruity and sweet.

How specifically has the Wine Aroma Wheel opened up more people to understanding wine?

By the demystification of it.  Helping people to describe wine enables them to trust their own perception rather than worrying that they might be stupid, and like a “bad wine.”

You were the first woman to be hired by UC Davis Department of Viticulture and Enology in 1974. Why was this a male dominated field for so long?

Back then, fewer women were in science courses or fields for a variety of reasons (traditional roles, lack of awareness of opportunities, etc.)  In 1974, there were only a few women in the Enology classes; now the enrollment is roughly 50%.

Woman and men have different palates. But how, fundamentally are they different?

ARE THEY? Any differences in taste and smell sensitivities among individuals are due to experience, interest, age, health, etc.  The most sensitive “tasters” are those who focus on what they “taste” and are not easily distracted.  Very small gender differences have been reported under controlled conditions. But these differences are not large enough results in a gender difference in perception under normal conditions.  Someone who cooks (whether at home or in a restaurant) or who enjoys/sells herbs or fruit or cheese or flowers will more easily recognize the aromas and describe them in more detail.

Can anyone train their senses to become a good taster (not necessarily a super taster), be that wine or food? 

Taste, Taste, Taste and LISTEN TO YOUR NOSE.  

Are you surprised by the success of the Wheel or did it seem that it would do well because there was a void in this area?

I was taken by surprise. All I wanted was to get folks to use descriptive language that could be understood by others; e.g. so that one didn’t need a linguist to interpret what the description means: masculine versus feminine implies stronger; more intense versus more subtle or delicate flavors, etc. As people quickly learn to describe aromas (and flavors), they no longer need the aroma wheel since they can easily identify the notes without prompting.  So one goal I see for the wine aroma wheel is to have users “no longer need it.”