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?