Question about tasting notes descriptors – Where are you biased?

January 24, 2013 — Leave a comment

roasting coffee

I was thinking about this as I was tasting my freshly home roasted Costa Rican coffee this morning. Lemony acidity framed spicy caramel and chocolate notes. Lovely stuff. But what got me thinking is that back when I did some cupping in Minnesota to decide on new blends for my restaurant, there would be times that we would use the descriptor “winey” to imply a wine like quality in the particular brew before us. Often I thought of this as the smell you find in a glass the next day after a night of wine drinking. Not unpleasant but the smell that tells you the beverage previously in the glass was not beer or liquor but wine.

Conversely while working in the wine trade I often use “coffee” as a descriptor for wines that have a lot of toasted wood or that are on the earthy side. It’s a pretty common descriptor and according to the ever useful Mind Jogging list by Tom Stevenson at, coffee aromas in wine are caused by:


Café (F) Kaffee (G) Caffe (I) Café (S)

A common oak-derived character (particularly but not exclusively when medium-toast oak chips have been used). Also part of the complexity of a fine quality, mature Champagne.


I guess my question for myself is: What kind of coffee? When I use descriptors that are in and of themselves complex, what am I really referring to? Green tea notes? What kind? How fresh?

Take Oolong as a descriptor. It’s such a diverse beverage, Oolong by itself is not enough to really say what I’m trying to convey. Are we talking a heavily oxidized version that is full of rich earthy aromas, or something a bit less oxidized with orchid blossoms pouring out of the glass? As for coffee, I recently had an Ethiopian roast that smelled strongly of blueberries, something that might be spot on for certain wines. Or are you talking about espresso? Drip? Dare I think maybe you mean instant? What is the “coffee profile” that relates the best to what is in my glass?

Equally so, “winey” doesn’t mean a lot to me. What are we talking? Red “winey”? White “winey”? Or maybe in the end I’m just being “whiney”.

As I explore more and more the complex world of liquid flavors, I realize that many people place certain beverages in a very limited flavor space. Claiming that their liquid of choice is more complex or diverse than another. I’m very quickly realizing it’s not that simple.

What words do you think are used to narrowly? Or do you even care?

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