Thursday, April 7, 2011

What's Wrong with Tasting Notes - Part 3

I've ranted here and here about wine tasting notes.

OK, then, what should be in a tasting note?

Let’s start by getting rid of the pretence of objectivity in wine tasting. Too much of wine tasting, and the descriptions that flow from it, attempts to portray the subjective experience (or intensely private sensation) as an objective analysis. Wine tasting is mostly subjective; it varies not only from one person to the next, but varies from bottle to bottle, glass to glass, sip to sip. (Mind you, I had more than one Prof who insisted that there was only one right answer to “what do you taste in this wine?” Of course, that one right answer was the Prof’s answer.)

Are there objective aspects that we can bring to the description of a wine? I think there are. Describing terroir is objective. Describing climate is objective. Describing vinification is objective. These are factors that can explain why a wine tastes the way it does.

Tasting notes need a balance of the subjective and the objective. Terroir…climate…vinification. That’s objective. But yes, explain how a wines tastes. That’s subjective. Don’t over-specify. Don’t impress us with your tasting vocabulary. Perhaps it reminds you of an experience. (I’ve written before about how often tasters will refer back to aromas and tastes from childhood.) But explain why it tastes that way. Use the objective factors to help explain the subjective experience.

Be mercifully brief. Not as brief as Eric Asimov’s deliberately provocative suggestion of “sweet or savoury”.

Be uncomplicated.

I come back to what wine drinkers want to know: Will I enjoy the wine? Is it worth the price? What food, if any, would go well with it?

Will I enjoy the wine?
A wine drinker should be able to get a good sense of how the wine tasted. Condense the wine tasting analysis down to the essence.
  • Describe the dominant aromas and flavours. Remember, it’s not a shopping list. Don’t get me wrong; unlike a well-known wine reviewer here in Ottawa, I still want aromas and flavours in the description. Use evocative but familiar references. The more specific a descriptor is, the more useless it becomes. For example, “floral” is good; “rose” should be OK; “Wild Rose of Alberta” is too obscure … unless your audience grew up on the Canadian Prairies. (Coco Krumme at has a great example from Parker’s latest edition, which describes a Bordeaux wine as having “notes of graphite, black currant liqueur, incense, and camphor”. Evocative? Yes. Familiar? Not to me! Parker not only pioneered the 100-point system; he also pioneered over-the-top wine descriptions.)
  • Tell us about structure and texture, but only the foremost features.
  • Above all, please, please, please, we need to know about complexity and balance.
Is it worth the price?
I’m not a fan of numerical scoring; it’s subjective, inconsistent, and are we really supposed to believe that there’s a discernible difference between 89 and 90? But wine drinkers want an assessment of “value for money”. (“Why should I pay $60 for a 90-point wine if I can buy one for $20?”) But if value for money is subjective, then what’s wrong with a simple “Yes, worth the money” or “No, pass it by” as part of the conclusion?

What food, if any, would go well with it?
Tricky, this is. Creating great food and wine pairings requires imagination, experience, and knowledge of cuisine. It’s one reason that many sommeliers spend time in the kitchen. It’s a great way – maybe the only way – to learn. And yes, very subjective. But although great matches may be elusive, good matches are not.  The key in a tasting note is simplicity and familiarity.  If we don’t want you to impress us with your tasting vocabulary, we don’t want you to impress us with your culinary knowledge either.
Is this a “food wine” or not? Many wines from the New World show better without food. Other wines, mostly from the Old World, are better with food, particularly food from the same region. It’s no accident; regional cuisines and regional wines developed in tandem; they make their wines to go with their regional food.

Brevity, simplicity, familiarity, relevance…that’s what we need in tasting notes.

For more on what's wrong with tasting notes, check out one of my favourites bloggers...Alder Yarrow...who has 2 recent related posts, one on tasting notes and the other about Gerald Asher on Wine Writing.

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1 comment:

  1. Great posts this week David! Describing the dominant aromas and flavours in a wine review is a must unless, of course, you want all your 500 reviews to sound the same.