By | March 1 2010
James Hoffmann of Square Mile Coffee Roasters in London was faced with a problem familiar to anyone who has ever attempted to communicate the experience of tasting wine. Square Mile’s retail interface with the public is exclusively through its website, so an evocative tasting note is the only way to help customers choose between different offerings. Like the world of wine, the specialty-coffee industry has evolved a tasting language that prizes elaborate strings of specific aromatic descriptors. Consider this from Robert Parker (Wine Advocate, April 1999): "The 1996 Lafite Rothschild […] exhibits a thick-looking, ruby/purple color and a knockout nose of lead pencil, minerals, flowers, and black currant scents. Extremely powerful and fullbodied, with remarkable complexity for such a young wine, this huge Lafite is oozing with extract and richness yet has managed to preserve its quintessentially elegant personality."
Now compare it with this from intelligentsiacoffee.com: "Flor Azul from Nicaragua lays bare a flawless cup; clean and composed. Notes of melon and apples express themselves affably in the forefront, hinting slightly toward citrus. The acidity plays a supporting role-adding lift to the mouthfeel as Swiss chocolate comes through in the finish."
Hoffmann and his partner Anette Moldvaer are both distinguished coffee tasters, but they had come to feel a vague unease with the utility of the notes with which they described their coffees, so they took up a challenge proposed by David Schildknecht (WFW 14). Four coffees were served, brewed to identical parameters and accompanied by four different tasting notes; tasters were simply required to match coffee to note. It was a humbling experience.
That we should struggle is perhaps unsurprising. While the notes themselves were thorough enumerations of each coffee’s qualities, our performance confirmed Schildknecht’s assertion that "the words get in the way of [coffee] recognition." More revealing was an extra twist Hoffmann added to the experiment: Tasters were asked to circle those words in the note upon which they relied in making their attempt at identification. Almost uniformly (albeit with a tiny sample size, which precludes useful statistical analysis), where tasters correctly guessed the coffee, they highlighted textural descriptors, whereas words associated with the aromas and flavors led them astray.
I would encourage anyone with appropriate facilities to explore the question further and with greater statistical rigor, but we have an uneasy relationship with the tactile element of tasting. Compared with the apparent precision of an esoteric list of scents, we have an impoverished vocabulary for textures. And yet there are those critics who dwell upon how a wine feels in the mouth with some descriptive success. I cannot imagine what a "sexy" wine might smell like, but the sensation of voluptuous, mouth-filling ripeness is easy to comprehend.
A consideration of texture also highlights, however, the greatest divide between the culture of food and the culture of wine. In wine (as in coffee), flavor and texture are directly related. In order to chase that sexy mouthfeel, the winemaker had to accept that the wine would taste of rich, ripe fruit. No such concessions are necessary in the kitchen, where additives and procedures to transform textures are at worst morally neutral. The foams and gels that so captivate ambitious young chefs are merely the latest incarnation of an abiding culinary fascination with the dissociation of flavor and texture.
Chocolate might be reinvented as a luxuriously thick liquid, a delicate sponge, or the airy bubbles of a wellrisen soufflé. And it is not simply part of the grammar of a self-conscious haute cuisine. Escoffier and the Larousse Gastronomique might have codified a formidable list of mousses, mousselines, and Bavarian creams, but as an infant we first encounter solid food in the form of purée. Indeed, introducing foods with mixed textures is one of the challenges in overcoming a picky-eating toddler.
Of course, a wine might be primped, modified through reverse osmosis, fined and filtered to within an inch of its life, or thoroughly bolstered with new oak. But each of these interventions will have as much impact on the aromas and flavors as on the texture. The intention is different, too. However cynical, each action on the part of the winemaker is aimed at enhancing palatability; a wine is never en surprise, willfully playing with the expectations of the taster. Imagine how alien we would find a headily alcoholic, tannic, viscous wine if it had delicate aromatics of apples, citrus, and brioche.
Above all, the question of texture reveals the essential naturalness of even the most industrial winemaking. Some processing agents might be used along the way, but grapes are simply fermented by yeasts. Wine is the product of human artifice, but the interventions will have been far less traumatic than those involved in elementary cuisine.