Fermenting on Wines

I discovered the wine reviews of Charles Curtis, a connoisseur who has posted online more than 4200 reviews of various wines he has tasted, including the producer, the year, the country it’s from and his rating of quality.

I don’t know much about wines, but I’m willing to learn and I thought a quick way might be to simply do some text analysis of his reviews, since each one contains a few sentences of notes describing the wine.

For example, I know that chardonnays have an “oaky” flavor and that white wines are generally oakier than reds, since whites are generally less full-bodied and therefore softer flavors like oak are more pronounced. That right there sums up about 60% of my knowledge of wines. (Pinot Grigio goes well with fish. And I once made a terrible pasta sauce with a really cheap red wine and it turned the pasta purple. So, purple = bad. There, that was the other 40%.)

Using Tableau and some python scripts I wrote, I was quickly able to show that much of what I thought I knew about wines was wrong. First, he only describes about 2% of reds and about 1% of whites as ‘full-bodied’ (or similar). The graph below shows how often the words ‘oak’, ‘oaky’, ‘oakiness’ and similar were applied to different styles of wine (where the wines were categorized into each style by Mr. Curtis, not by me).

(click image to enlarge)

Chardonnay is near the top in terms of how often it is described as oaky (as I had expected), but merlot beats it. I had not expected that. And, for no style are a majority of the wines decribed as oaky. That really surprised me since I thought that oakiness was one of the defining charcaterstics chardonnays.

Of course, there are a couple of problems with my analysis. First, for both of these styles (and some others) there was only small sample of wines reviewed: just 9 merlots and 16 chardonnays. Second, I found that not all of the uses of the word ‘oak’ necessarily describe the flavor of the wine. Some occurrences were in phrases like “aged in oak”. So, some of these figures might actually be overestimating oakiness.

I was surprised as well to see that reds were generally described as ‘oaky’ more than whites. Nearly 9% of all the reds he reviewed, but only about 5% of the whites were called ‘oaky’.

This is interesting to some extent, but could get very laborious to scale up to a wider assortment of adjectives. So, instead I found the words associated with the highest average wine ratings, coming up with a list of adjectives that appear in reviews with high ratings and those that appear in reviews with low average ratings. To narrow down the list of words to a manageable size, I only considered words that were used to describe at least 10 different wines. Also, I only considered adjectives that describe the flavor or style or characteristics of the wine itself (so, not ‘unbelievable’ or ‘spectacular’, and not place names).

Here are the top flavor terms Mr. Curtis assigned to wines he rated highly on average.

adjective no. of wines avg. rating
barnyard 10 4.80
soy sauce 17 4.53
anise 18 4.50
pineapple 28 4.46
wax 24 4.42
papaya 10 4.40
game/gamey 124 4.38
coconut 54 4.37
spices 51 4.35
ginger 31 4.39

Some other words that ranked highly above or near 4-star on average included ‘truffle‘, ‘soy‘, ‘passionfruit‘, ‘leather‘, ‘forest‘, ‘tangy‘,’earth‘/’earthy‘,’botrytis‘ (a kind of mold, it turns out), and ‘petrol‘. Personally, I dislike the flavor of anise (black licorice) and, in fact, very few of these flavors are ones that I, as an unsophisticate, would seek or expect from good-quality wines. If I was served 1928 Château Lafite-Rothschild Pauillac that Mr. Curtis said was good, I’d be hestitant to say, “Tastes like a tangy botrytis forest of barnyard leather wax!”, even if that’s exactly what it should taste like.

Of the adjectives Mr. Curtis associates with the lowest-rated wines, one of the worst is “purple” (average rating: 2.63). So, we agree on some things. The worst flavor-related adjective? “oaky” (average rating: 2.68)

So, maybe we have very different palates and different flavor preferences. Or maybe he just knows a lot better than me which characteristics to look for in a wine. He said good things about the 2003 Château Bonnet Entre Deux Mers white Bordeaux, which costs about $5.99 a bottle, so I don’t think price is an issue for some of these wines. (Maybe if I could find a bottle of that 1928 Pauillac for $6 I could test that theory).

Or, maybe there should be a rating system for wine connoisseurs. Simply type in a few adjectives that describe a wine you like, and the system will find connoisseurs whose tasting notes rate wines like that highly. I’m afraid that if I used a system like that, though, it would simply say: “Stick to Earl Grey, kid.”


UPDATE, 18 OCT 2013: I saw this article about ‘sour beer‘, low hopped beers dominated by tart flavors, which are described as ‘barnyard’ or ‘leathery’ and also, according to the article, good beers ‘for wine lovers’. That sounds about right…


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