Tasting notes are really bad, aren't they?

tasting notes

I think I really hate tasting notes. But I write them all the time. Have to. It’s a large part of my job.

I don’t think my tasting notes are absolutely the worst of all. But I still dislike them, for several reasons.

First of all, most tasting notes are silly. This is largely because it is incredibly difficult to describe the sensations we experience as we taste wine in a verbal way. There’s a famous quote from the music world, which is attributed to a chap called Martin Mull: ‘Writing about music is like dancing about architecture.’ (You can follow the development of this quote here.) The same could be said for writing about wine, or at least the experience of tasting wine. It’s an abstract activity.

Second, tasting notes are opaque to normal people. I reckon that most normal people find a regular tasting note completely weird. The result? Tasting notes scare people away from wine.

Linked to this: third, tasting notes are mostly over elaborate. As such, they intimidate normal people, who feel that they are clearly having a diminished experience of wine, because they just don’t get all those exotic flavour descriptors when they taste the same wine as a journalist has described. Wine journalists and critics seem to feel the need to make their tasting notes sound very grand with lots of exotic and beautiful-sounding descriptors. But people are really bad at identifying more than a couple of odours in a mixture when they try it in a laboratory. I think many wine writers are bluffing when they write their notes, or they are failing to be honest with themselves about what they are really experiencing.

Fourth, the language we have for wine is more of a learned code than it is an accurate description of what we experience as we taste wine. When I first started trying to write down my experiences of wine in words, I struggled. I got better after I learned the code, by reading lots of other tasting notes of similar wines.

Fifth, tasting notes tend to be reductionist. We break down the wine into separate components as we describe it. This is a mistake, in that we forget that the wine is a whole. Unless we look at the global properties of a wine – considering it in its entirety – we usually fail to capture its essence, and our notes don’t really have much use.

I’m not advocating abandoning the tasting note altogether. It has its uses. I don’t want us to return to the few- word descriptions of the English wine elite: good body, tight finish, nice breeding. But I think we need to examine ourselves: how can our notes be more useful and more honest? How can we do better?

21 comments to Tasting notes are really bad, aren’t they?

  • Felicity Carter

    I once admitted to a colleague that my private notes at wine competitions consisted of ‘yes’ and ‘no’. He said he did the same thing, except he had a third category: ‘f**k off’.

  • Steve Connolly

    Speaking as a simple consumer, I think tasting notes can be helpful. Reading several notes on the same wine tells you that differentiating between loganberries, boysenberries or dried mulberries is pretty irrelevant. However, if a tasting note can guide me to knowing if a Syrah is in a cool climate mould or a warm climate mould (or it’s approx position on a spectrum) or how oaky or not a Chardonnay is (allowing for personal preferences) then that can help.

    I’m not above experimentation, but I am on a limited budget, so I can’t afford too many “mistakes”.

  • If the notes are honest, I wouldn’t worry about intimidating ‘normal’ people. Learning things from professionals is how we expand horizons.

    It’s like restricting a guitar teacher to chords that are easy for normal people to play.

  • Surely the primary purpose of a tasting note is (or should be) as an aide memoire?

    The problem starts when writers/journalists/bloggers decide that the tasting note is worthy of publication, un-adorned. Then indeed it often does little more than maintain an atmosphere of pretension or elitism.

    If I taste 50 wines in one day, I need to remind myself which ones stood out, which I really liked, which I might write about etc. If I come back to the tasting notes months later, I care little for the very specific flavour descriptors (and as you say I think many peole bluff through these out of a need to write down something), but I care very much about whether the wine spoke to me in some way, how it made me feel, whether I might want to encounter it again, whether it was of a high quality or not.

  • James

    Jamie, your four point diagnosis of the key problems with tasting notes suggests you’re looking for a perfect form of note. There are going to be severe incompatibilities between the style of note and the particular audience for whom the note is intended. A technical note, for instance, using the WSET systematic approach to tasting, involving -/+ indicators for acid, sweetness, etc., will be completely alien to an consumer purchasing in a supermarket. Likewise, an effusive, poetic note will not be well received by a WSET student looking to extract technical information from it. Attempting to attain a perfect, objective rendition of a wine seems as utterly pointless as it is impossible. There isn’t one experience of a wine, as you will know, so why should there be only one style of note, judged as a more or less truthful perception? No matter how hard one may try, a wine can never be explained away as each experience will be provide something different: that does for drinking at home on a Tuesday evening, tasting in a professional environment as well as, and especially, a scientific analysis in a lab. Each communicate a different aspect of experience which, when brought together, will never be able to fully account for the object of those experiences.

  • Paul Dove

    I can’t afford to make costly mistakes either. I’ve had to learn how to look out for descriptors that tell me if I’m likely to enjoy the wine or not. I drink mainly red and the real red-flag warning word here is “smooth”.

    If a tasting note says the wine is smooth, soft or mellow, or that it is “velvety” or has “silky tannins”, I know I’m likely to be in for a bad time as it invariably means flabby, jammy and bland. But if it says it has “grippy tannins”, is well-structured or has good acidity, I know I’m in with a good chance I’ll like it – the mouth-feel will be more interesting and the balance and range of flavours much more likely to be satisfying.

    As for notes from serious wine critics, I don’t agree their language is too elaborate. If anything it’s too narrow and terse. I would actually welcome more elaborate and figurative language, as long as it’s honest. Especially with more expensive wines (£15 and up), I want to know why it is worth buying that wine. Just saying “there is real elegance here” or that it has “great purity” or that it is “fine and expressive” doesn’t really help. Expressive of what?

  • Tasting notes are only as bad or good as the person who is writing them. We therefore need better tasting note writers rather than abandoning writing tasting notes altogether. The wine writers who manage to describe their sensations adequately and in an entertaining fashion tend to be the ones who are more widely read – some of them manage to make a very decent living out of it. I do not know many architecture dancers who can say the same…

  • Good post and interesting comments. I do agree that over-wordy tasting notes can sound a bit pretentious and put some people off. On the other hand you can just treat the thing as a bit of a laugh and throw in obscure fruits and flavours and try and keep a straight face.

    I’m not really sure what the alternative is and whilst we’re on the subject, what does your current fave “precise” actually mean?

  • Thanks all, those are really interesting comments – they really add to the discussion, appreciated

  • Precise? That’s an interesting one. It’s when the flavours are quite linear and stand out, and avoid blurring together in a mushy sort of way. It’s probably not the most exact descriptor, but I like it because it is a holistic one.

  • I think you make some very valid points, Jamie.

    Your second and fourth points seem to largely overlap; essentially you’re saying that there is a coded language, which only those – an elite few – who are well-versed in this wine-lingo will understand.

    When I started getting interested in wine, I was definitely lost for words.
    Personally, I prefer to write about the people who make the wine and hope that that will encourage my readers to explore.

    I should also admit that my own tasting notes are encrypted in such a way that even I’m lucky if I’m able to decipher them afterwards! 🙂

  • Wade

    I find myself entirely numb to tasting notes. As descriptors become trendy they saturate the world of reviews. It’s hard to differentiate from one note to another sometimes. There appears to be a ‘me-too’ culture where everybody is trying to appear intelligent. If I read three of a writers notes and they all include wonderful minerality, focused-acidity or sense of place… you’ve lost me. Be honest about your experience with the glass and don’t try to sound like everyone else.

  • This blog-post has an assured, brisk attack leading to a firm presence oozing confidence and refined opinion not lacking in power of conviction. The mid-narrative is deft with hints of self-deprecation and mild, fleeting tuffs of irony. On the finish one finds grip and enthusiasm, leading to brooding holistic inclusivity and dollops of sumptuous relevance.

  • keith prothero

    As I have stated elsewhere,my problem with tasting notes is that the writer of them rarely explains the context in which it was written. This particularly applies to professional writers who, more often and not, are tasting the wine with about 100 or more ,on the same day.
    We all know that wine should be drunk with food and that most good wine changes over time in the glass—-more often and not for the better.
    So please mention the context you are tasting the wine,and, if with friends over lunch/ dinner,I would give it far more credibility

  • Gordon Richens

    Jamie, as a consumer the only tasting notes that really matter are my own. Nonetheless I appreciate the efforts of wine writers to express their tasting experience because it helps me to develop my own language. However as a recovering audiophile, I readily see wine writers going overboard in their attempts at precision. For my own notes, it’s good enough to simply place a wine into one of 4 phases: leather, fruit, forest & dirt – dirt actually being my favorite ;
    Best.

  • Tasting notes, if written correctly, are solely a transfer mechanism to explain wine to other professionals. As a consumer, I found them ridiculous until I studied proper sommelier techniques and now I fully understand their purpose.

    They are by and large not for the general public no matter what may be done to make them “approachable”. This, is where the scores come in and largely, these two aspects do as good a job as any in explaining a wine at two levels.

  • Michael Fox

    Hi Jamie – good post. I think a good discipline for wine writers would be to match their notes to the wines when tasted back blind. If they can do this the note has merit. If they can’t pick out the wine against their original note then it will be pretty useless for consumers.

  • I dislike writing tasting notes myself as the more you write them, the more they will start to look the same, especially when tasting in a them (there are only so many ways you can describe chardonnay or sauvignon blanc). Nonetheless, I stick to it as it is a way of forcing myself to structure my thoughts as well as to have something to fall back on. For the most parts the wines that I liked at a tasting stick with me with or without a tasting note.

    I do however look back from time to time on my notes, to look for a wine I retasted, or to check on a vintage. Surprisingly, I often find that a wine that I may like now had gotten such a bland review in the past that I already forgot about it. I think that this is a nice reflection of how your taste and preferences change, and shows how little objectivity sometimes comes into play when assessing wines.

    I’ve written a series of articles on tasting notes myself, for those interested:

    An opinion on tasting notes (1)
    An opinion on tasting notes (2)
    An opinion on tasting notes (3)
    The palate disclosure

  • Jamie
    I’ve been saying this for years.talk in more layman’s words and the majority of people will understand. There needs to be a revision on how to describe a particular wines characteristics. We continually make it difficult for people by saying ” flavours of gooseberry, hints of grass etc this just makes wine snobbish. We need to engage with consumers not over complicate it

  • I think wine professionals, myself included, need to make a distinction between tasting notes and wine descriptions. I think tasting notes for personal evaluation are perfectly fine. If I need some notes to help me remember a particular wine or to refer to at a later point in time, that’s fine. But that same note shouldn’t be distributed to the general public as a definitive view on that wine. Instead, I think wine writers and critics should provide truly objective knowledge about a wine–i.e. is it oaked or unoaked, is it cool or warm climate, is it grown in clay or limestone–and then educate consumers to learn how those facts impact taste so they can decide for themselves whether or not they might like a wine.

  • “When I started getting interested in wine, I was definitely lost for words.
    Personally, I prefer to write about the people who make the wine and hope that that will encourage my readers to explore.”

    I wholeheartedly disagree with this. I’m interested in information about the producers after I discover a wine I like, but the fact that they are living in a tree hut, wear leather shorts and eat fermented grass for dinner is quite irrelevant to the wine. Some boring, square and possibly politically correct people might make excellent wine and there’s lots of odd people who do as well, and there are some very intereseting people who make boring wine.

    As for tasting notes; they vary. Some are useful, most I don’t bother reading. The ones in Noble Rot are generally entertaining as well as useful. They’re my favorite these days.

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