Why are tasting notes so bad? Can anything be done?

Just been browsing the tasting notes on a well known wine website (I will spare the name; I don’t want to be mean to this fine publication, because the problem is not unique to them), and was jolted by the realization that tasting notes generally do a spectactularly bad job of communicating about the nature of wine.

Now I hold my hand up here. I try to make my notes meaningful to readers, but I’m sure you could trawl wineanorak and come up with some classics. But here are some notes that I think are in another league in terms of their impenetrability.

Height, leesy nose – finely crafted. Mineral edges, with a succulent core with a drmip of honey. Fullsome and inviting, with good roundness and fine length.

Crunchy dried flower petal nose and cranberry. High-toned, crisp and crunchy if a bit pricey.

Fresh with plenty of croquant fruit; vibrant and fresh. Good complexity and elegant, fresh and attractive, clean and vibrant, good intensity. Nice direct acidity on the finish.

The first was a Chablis, the second a Californian Pinot Noir, the third a Barbera. No special selection to come up with these gems; they were the first three I stumbled across. You want some more? Somehow the typos, which I have left in, seem to work.

Restrained style with pity, grapefruit core and white musk hints. Well framed and finely produced

Sleek, poised and streamlined nose; honeycomb, nuts/almond. Crunchy palate, refined and well harnessed fruit and acidity combination.

It is a little, shy wine like a gazelle. Like a leprechaun. Dappled, in a tapestry meadow.

The first an Australian Pinot Gris, the second a Chilean Chardonnay. The third isn’t from the same publication; it’s one of the fanciful descriptions by Charles Ryder and Sebastian Flyte as they drink their way through the Brideshead cellar in Waugh’s great novel. I sort of get what the tasters are trying to say. But examine some of the descriptors more closely, and they don’t really make sense. The terms sound plausible if you rush through them quickly, but if you pause to reflect, they are just a stream of jargon, of little use in actually telling people what the wines taste like.

Is there a way round this? It’s always going to be difficult to express flavours and aromas in words. But in order to talk sensibly about wines, we have to try to do this in as meaningful a way possible. Strings of jargon just won’t do. There’s a point where a tasting note becomes empty – and even counter productive, when it alienates the reader.

23 comments to Why are tasting notes so bad? Can anything be done?

  • Totally agree Jamie
    It is what makes people who really love wine sound like psueds, which in turn puts off those who are just beginning their wine journey. Who wants to end up writing stuff like that?

  • Interesting piece Jamie – the issue here is a lack of standardisation in the writing of tasting notes.

    Way I see it, ultimately you have a choice between a standard methodology in writing tasting notes that will tend to make them more structurally conformative and predictable and more factually reliable but duller overall vs a free-form approach that will allow more of the impressionistic gobbledegook you cite above.

    Given my background in finance, I instinctively take a more methodical approach in my own tasting notes but to counter this I also add in something more impressionistic.

    In an ideal world, the readers of tasting notes would naturally gravitate towards the best-written ones that would become the de facto style that everyone tries to copy – but I suspect that people in general (unlike wine writers in particular) just don’t feel strongly enough about the quality of tasting notes.

  • One way around this, it would seem, is not to just publish scribbled tasting notes! Notes should serve as a reminder, to be written up in a descriptive, engaging style latter on. But they are a minefield, with so much subjective information being written as fact, and an unhelpful finality about many of them.

    Tasting notes should communicate the character of a wine, give it shape and colour in the reader’s mind, and hopefully communicate in some way the ephemeral nature of aromas and flavours. It’s tricky, and we all need to work at it.

    I like this quote from the Cave de Pyrene list:
    To experience a wine fully you need to savour with your spirit as well as your palate, put aside preconceptions and “taste in the round”. Not every wine can be a pluperfect Anthologia – not even an Anthologia on every occasion! And context is everything after all. A rasping, rustic red from South West France should not be dismissed for having rough edges, but considered as rather the perfect foil to a traditional cassoulet. Food should always be factored into one’s overall perception. Magic is what you make of it. Victoria Moore describes how a glass of Lambrusco (bloody good Lambrusco it has to be said) whisks her on an imaginative journey: “And if I only had a villa in Umbria with a terrace surveying a tangle of olive groves and cypress-ridged hills, it (the Lambrusco) would exactly fill that gap when the afternoon had faded but the evening has not properly begun… Perhaps that’s why I like this Lambrusco so much – it makes me think of all these things.” The magic is lost when you are (over)conditioned to judge. The other day I held a tasting for group of sommeliers at a well-known London restaurant exhibiting a dozen white wines comprising various grape varieties and styles. The first thing I noticed is that they all suffered from compulsive taster’s twitch. This is the vinous equivalent of the yips, a nervously fanatical rotation of the stem of the glass to imbue the taster with an air of gravitas. No wine should be so relentlessly agitated for two to three minutes, and over-studious sniffing obfuscates the impressions. Anyhoo, considering that the first three wines of our tasting were cheerful gluggers retailing for around three pounds a bottle it all seemed a bit melodramatic. By all means nose the wine for primary aromas and swirl a bit to discover if there are lurking secondary aromas, but don’t, to blend some metaphors, create a tsunami in the glass and always expect to discover the holy grail amongst the sediment.

  • My notes from bulk tastings tend to be all about VA,TA,RS,TCA and GPL. Not exactly Sebastian Flyte. Occasionally I do push the boat out and write something like…..nice.

  • I think that there’s a limited vocab that we all use when making notes – the best way I find is to find an ‘angle’ or to make the notes topical, so I’ll be wanderign around Wines of Spain today desperately seeking out wines that remind me of Fernando Torres – probably a bit hit and miss.

  • Ewan Murray

    On the spur of the moment I write tasting notes as a stream of consciousness, with pointers that mean something to me (which is what the above would appear to be – either that or the tasters are right up their own backside!). When it comes to writing a note for someone else to read, I put a very different hat on.

  • Chris Hewson

    Of course, by googling the notes one can find out which publication you are referring to!

    There are one or two particular culptits within [said publication] whose notes, I agree, look like they have emerged from a random word generator – one in particular seems to delight in referring to every other bordeaux blend as ‘briary’ (really?), and tends to fall foul of the solecism of world re-use you highlight above. I suspect most damning of all these examples resemble some of my reviews on cellartracker, and last time I checked no one was paying me for my opinion (or inviting me to trade tastings).

    Most are however better than this… thankfully.

    Actually, I prefer reviews that refer to other wines and styles, rather than being entirely self-contained, because what are we doing if not aiming to place wines within a wider framework of tastes, styles, qualities, etc?

  • Steve Connolly

    You just need to read different peoples’ notes on the same wine to realise the innate subjectiveness of the matter. I know what I think I mean by smooth tannis or crunchy acidity, perhaps with references to velvet or apples, but is it the same for you? And can I really tell the difference between boysenberry and loganberry or morello and maraschino cherries? Maybe simpler terms like nice, nasty, light, heavy, oaky, fruity, savoury, sweet, dry, sharp, smooth etc may communicate more, but would they be as interesting to read?

  • I’m not a taster or specialist in wines..I’m an ordinary wine lover and I often read different reviews…As for me, it’s difficult to understand what does it mean “shy wine like a gazelle”…that’s why I absolutely agree with you, people should express their tastes and feelings about wine in as meaningful a way possible.

  • I love that Barbera tasting note! Do they perhaps, by any chance, think it’s “fresh”?

    I’ll freely admit to writing some typo-strewn repetitive rubbish in some of my more hurried notes at large tastings. but I wouldn’t dream of publishing them, maybe that’s the difference?

  • No problem with any of these. So they are a stretch of the imagination.
    Sounds like they are having a great time. Good for them! Cheers!

    What’s so hard about the Gazelle metaphor, really? Ok, it is reticent (with fruit) and nervy (acidity).

    Perhaps cut to the chase and send out a tech sheet from the vineyard.

  • Cabfrancophile

    I have a problem with them. The idea of writing a note is to convey information. Like wine itself, the key is balance. Structural and stylistic information should be melded with descriptive and fanciful terminology. The only reason the latter approach dominates is because it adds pretense and pomp to the ceremony that is fine wine. For a the upper crust, that supersedes just drinking the stuff and enjoying it for intrinsic qualities. It needs to represent more, like some aesthetic or lifestyle choice.

  • This is very old, but still online: The random tasting note generator. It’s frightening how plausible most of them are.

    Silly Tasting Notes Generator 1.1

    Seriously though, I think this is a discussion worth having. Can we distill the famous aroma wheel down into a fewer number of simple categories that would mean something to most consumers, and come up with a similar vocabulary about texture? And do so without losing nuance?

  • bob parsons alberta

    I tend to write notes on most of the wines that I drink but sometimes feel drained of any real emotion with all this bl….analysis!

  • Mark T

    Evelyn Waugh’s is (perhaps not surprisingly) by far the best. What a load of crap!

  • Having given the topic some considerable thought, I think on balance a note along the lines of, “This wine tastes jolly nice.” should suffice for most occasions and not alienate anyone.

  • MarkT

    I don’t agree, though, that one should necessarily attempt to be rigorously descriptive.

    I like “shy like a gazelle” a lot more than a tedious and soulless list of descriptors, and I am far more likely to be interested in a wine that inspires poetry than in boring old “blackcurrant, Bing cherry, tobacco and espresso oak”.

  • gregt

    Just don’t read Decanter.

    Then stop reading all the notes from anywhere. One reviewer talks about another Asian spice, another one about “cut” whatever that means, another about “come-hither” and the poor reader is only left to wonder WTF.

  • My favourite tasting note came from a colleague at Oddbins back in the late 90s. It was for a Greek wine, the Gaia Estate Nemea, and it simply said ‘sturdier than Robert Mitchum’s trouser press.’

  • Tasting notes have different purposes.

    Some are written to describe the wine. For these, the WSET Systematic Approach to Tasting (SAT) formula helps tasters provide a complete description, covering structural and textural as well as aromatic elements. Done well, these tasting notes can convey an accurate and complete impression. Done badly, such notes can be formulaic and generic, but the SAT is continually evolving to enable and encourage more insightful and accurate descriptions.

    But other tasting notes have other purposes, such as to entertain, or to convey raw enthusiasm or disappointment, or to justify a quality evaluation, or even to express more about the personality and values of the writer than anything about the wine. Where notes have these other purposes, it is missing their point to say ‘they don’t tell me what the wine tastes like’.

    But of course some tasting notes are just bad, and achieve nothing other than to create material for pseuds corner.

  • Charles Mutter

    I don’t have a problem with any of your first three. When I read tasting notes, the information I’m trying to glean is not “what’s it like?” – I don’t think wine lends itself to that precision of description – but “am I likely to like it?”.
    Therefore an apparently disconnected series of adjectives and impressions can be far more valuable than something that tries to be “objective”.
    I think there’s a useful analogy to be made with trying to write about music. Also, your comment about “the terms sound plausible if you rush through them quickly” I would take as positive rather than negative – some (eg Roland Barthes) would argue that that’s the best way to read anyway!

  • I recently met with a winemaker who told me their tasting notes are often doodles or pictures. Has anyone done that besides Pat Simon? I capture the expressions wine makes via microscopy, they look like abstract art. I’ve always thought pictures may convey more to the taster than words. After all, our senses and language are processed by different parts of the brain.

    BTW I loved your descriptions – always good for a laugh especially after a glass of a norkish wien.

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