Tasting notes on great wines are a bit stupid

I’m going to be brutally honest. Tasting notes on great wines are mostly stupid. There’s this notion that tasting notes by ‘professional’ tasters are a valuable commodity. Something that punters will pay for.

This goes hand in hand with the idea that once tasters reach some baseline level of competence, their note will be an accurate account of a particular wine, and thus team notes where at least one person from a team covers a particular wine and then writes it up anonymously are of some value.

These ideas are all mistaken.

Of course, I am interested in hearing your take on a particular wine, whether you are professional or not. But I don’t want a traditional ‘tasting note’. [Yes, I publish tasting notes, but that's only as a last resort, because this is the only way I can communicate my impressions of a wine. And then I think that the most important thing is not to list descriptors, but to give an overall impression, to compare, and to say how much I liked it.]

This is because for a great wine, its greatness is a property of the whole of the wine. Tasting notes are by their very nature reductionist, breaking the wine down to its component aromas and flavours. You know a great wine when you see one, but attempts to put it into words invariably fail to capture the wine.

Greatness is an emergent property of all the different elements of a wine, and we often focus in our notes solely on those aspects of flavour where we have good descriptive terms. We have an impoverished vocabulary for the sorts of things that really matter in a wine, making it great as opposed to merely very good.

I think the addiction to formalized tasting notes in wine education programs prevents some students of wine from making the transition to being tasters who can actually spot great wines from merely very good commercial wines.

13 comments to Tasting notes on great wines are a bit stupid

  • Hi Jamie,

    I was hoping you were going to tell us what exactly were the “sort of things that really matter in a wine”….

    Further, it’d be interesting to know what you think is a good example of a traditional or not-so traditional tasting note.

    Left a bit hanging… although absolutely agree with your point about wine education.

    JM

  • Daniel

    Of course tasting notes are a nonsense, to a point. They are invaluable when buying en primeur for instance, but I tend to rely on multiple sources and weight my judgement towards taster who’s palates I know that I sympathise with. It is not at all amassing how often notes on the same wine directly contradict each other.

    As you infer, Jamie, one of the problems with tasting notes is that even if they are well considered, they are just a snap shot. No person tasting the same wine (even the same bottle) will have the same experience twice. More so, nor should they claim to if they are being honest with themselves and with others through their tasting notes. That volatility, variety and complexity is exactly what we want in fine wine. There is no shame in experiencing it!

    And this is exactly why I don’t trust Parkers notes. A Parker time-series of notes on the same wine (but written years apart) are just too spookily similar to eachother for each to have written without reference to the last, IMHO. (And don’t give me all that ‘world’s finest palate’ nonsense!)

    p.s. I would interested in you thoughts on the usefulness of scores Jamie? Potentially even more misleading than a tasting note, although of some comparative value?

  • Cam Haskell

    Excellent post. And one that should be pinned up on every wall of every large company that is constantly striving to make the competent but unexciting wines that dominate the marketplace.

    As far as reviewing goes, the best review of just about anything I’ve read over the last couple of years are perfume reviews from Luca Turin and his wife Tania Sanchez. These are on occasion more impressionistic, but usually informative (except for when they’re very humourously dismissive [cK IN2U His: IM IN UR BOTTLE BORIN UR GF"]).

    At times they really get to the essence of the frags, which, because they’re all smell and no palate, I think is a really difficult feat to achieve. Almost mandatory reading for anyone who regularly reads or writes wine revies.

  • Jamie,

    This is of course true for almost any human endevour. Sport / theatre, film, food, wine etc etc – there is almost always a mismatch between the words used and the reality of the experience.

  • Hi Jamie,

    Odd little post as the only way we have to communicate in a remote way e.g. over the net is by using words, so tasting notes, such as they are, seem to be the best way. But there is nothing to stop someone from saying “This is a fabulous wine, really rich, layers of flavours and just yummy to drink” even if it applies to Jacob’s Creek or to Latour.
    If I look back at the tasting notes I wrote at the Historic Perspective at Landmark (http://tiny.cc/riyxs) they don’t exactly conform to the normal style of a tasting note but so what? I hope they convey my excitement at tasting these wines. I believe it was Harry Waugh who wrote what I consider to be the greatest tasing note ever, of 1961 Latour tasted from barrel – deep colour, bags of fruit. Five words, more or less perfect.
    In re “The addiction to formalised…” I’m not sure what is being criticised here – is it teaching tasting notes, which is what professional WSET courses are designed to do, or is it people who cannot write an exciting tasting note? The fact that students fail to recognise or express greatness is more likely to be due to the simple fact that they rarely get to taste such wines, especially on courses where budgets preclude using top-end wines.
    I think you’re arguing about a number of things which aren’t necessarily connected – paying to read tasting notes from a pro, recognising greatness and expressing it, the opportunity to taste such wines and the relevance of any tasting note, even if it’s a bit boring.
    The first is up to the person who pays – if he or she wshes to pay to get Jancis’ or Robert’s TNS then that’s their choice. If you don’t want to pay then sign up to cellar tracker, thousands and thousands of free TNs.
    Recognising and expressing greatness are difficult things and, to be honest, there’s no easy way to learn about this other than spalshing out large sums of money. In re the lacking a vocabulary I don’t agree with this at all, especially as you fail to identify “the sorts of things that really matter in a wine”.
    The opporunites to taste the great wines are also difficult to come by and post Hardy and his Jefforson wines there are real questions to be asked can anyone be an expert on very rare wines? How did you first decide that a wine was great – was it your own tasting of it or was it that you tasted a wine that someone else had said was great?
    Finally, in re boring TNs we are constantly told that the great benefit of the web is the democratisation of information – anyone is entitled to blog, publish TNs etc. As a consequence, there is going to be a lot of dross and the gems are certainly hard to find but does that mean we should criticise TNs? Why not just ignore them if they don’t add to your enjoyment of a wine?
    Hope I haven’t been too pompous and good luck to England in the tests against Pakistan – not been a great summer so far!
    All the best, mate,
    Dermot

  • TommyB

    Another interesting debate point. I’m currently just about to start my diploma in wines & spirits – they have a “systematic approach” to tasting the wines and spirits which breaks down each component to a stipulated list of terms and phrases (medium intensity, dull, clear, bright etc). Its a nightmare, and reduces one into a robot with no thought or emotion going into the descriptions. BUT, words are all we have, and exams have to follow a certain format.
    What can be done? Scoring a wine is silly, trying to judge a wine in 1 minute and then racing onto the next is silly. How do you describe a painting? Its the same problem – words limit us but that is all we have to communicate to others. I say, describe how a wine makes you feel, what emotions does it bring when you taste it? Let critics say anything they want about a wine, as long as it comes from their feelings and emotions.

  • Interesting post Jamie. Like the WSET and MW programs, the Court of Master Sommeliers teaches a systematic approach to tasting for the purpose of passing blind tasting exams. Many positives come from this. To pass, a taster must demonstrate absolute precision in their descriptive and structural calls, something that requires intense study and an incredible degree of focus. We taste literally thousands of “classic” wines in this systematic and focused way during our preparations. Whether we “like it” or not is really not the point. We’re more interested in answering: Is it a wine of quality? Is it well made? Is it a good example of its type? This is simply professionalism and I really don’t this it’s too much to ask that someone in our industry have this foundational ability to taste. That said, I agree that it can be boring to listen to and even more boring to read and that a tasters development should not stop there. I am currently working towards being a better right brain taster and my tasting style (and tasting notes) are beginning to reflect that. We develop a foundation and then personalize the experience from there, how is that different than anything else?

  • Paul Tudor

    Agreed Jamie

  • kevin courtney

    I suppose its a matter of whether you are trying to accurately and dispassionately describe a wine so someone can determine for themselves if it sounds like the style of wine they like, or whether you are trying to indicate your enthusiasm for the wine.

  • Martin V

    My wine life started because of great writers writing evocative tasting notes, not scoring, but giving me the ability to see and smell and taste a wine I most likely would never encounter. I was able, because of these writers, to understanding depth and subtilty and true beauty in wine when I was able to buy greater wines. It is why I have to disagree with Dermots’ idea of the greatest ever. “Bags of fruit” gives me nothing, and has no emotion – it is the Mouton Cadet of tasting notes. However the following note taken at random from drankster.blogspot makes me want to go and buy the wine (one from Gaja) – “But this wine reeked of juniper and the leaves of the nightshades, which had me suspicious about the presence of Cabernet sauvignon. The wine is cone-shaped: it starts with the most elegantly slender point of the gastronomy stiletto, and just gets wider and wider until you feel like Bacchus and Pan are trying to show you something that’s bigger than your infant sensories can handle. The initial aroma was estery, with a musk and banana fringe on the classic Nebbiolo medlar berries and raspberry. Then came those leafy vegetals, and by then we were in too far: black tea tin led to pure carbon blacks, the coal scuttle, and the boiler oven. The final mighty tannins are junipery, and are matched by astonishing natural acidity. A very very fine wine indeed. Royalty. Remember to wave as you go down!
    Who needs points?

  • John Ramsden-Knowles

    A provocative note and somewhat disingenuous of you,Jamie. Your statement “…because this is the only way I can communicate my impressions of a wine” is the only explanation as Dermot rightly affirms. The fact that certain people have a high degree of commercial credibility, like Robert Parker, is not due to any remarkable science but having an ability to put into words what they taste.
    He called the 1982 bordeaux vintage and his reputation began from that point, but frankly, if anyone in the trade has the insight or nerve to make such statements, then they receive either accolades or approbation – luck of the draw. The fact of the matter is that most of us who love wine do not have the ability to translate that love into words and we rely on certain people to express what we love about wine. One day Robert Parker will not be amongst us, but someone else will assume that mantle…and we will dwell on each and every word.
    By the way, on a slightly different tack, what do you think will happen to the world of wine and scoring when Parker is no longer with us ? Who stands in line to take that mantle ?

  • No one will take Parker’s mantle. He was a one-off; the right person in the right place at the right time. He caught the wave.

    He’s a talented man, but his way of working is founded on a flawed theoretical basis. He’s not unique in this regard.

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