An opinion on tasting notes (3)

Now we get to the difficult part, how do you actually come up with a tasting note? Sommelier courses nearly always start explaining students how to taste using a structured approach that can serve as a template for virtually every wine they would encounter in the future. Yet, when browsing professional tasting notes, there is little structure or uniformity to be found.

Let’s take a look at a couple of notes on the same wine reviewed by three different critics. Domaine de la Taille aux Loups is one of the better-regarded estates in the Loire and a leader in Montlouis specifically. I myself am only familiar with a couple of the wines but they display a lot of typicity, a lot of character that shows that each wine is really created with the terroir in mind, not just the taste that the winemaker wants to achieve. All three tasting notes are on the Clos Mosny (Montlouis) 2011.

  • Fresh and herby with citrus and apple notes on the nose. The palate shows supple pear and apple fruit with a citrus twist. Lively, showing nice focus and purity, with real character. 92/100. (Jamie Goode)
  • Light but satisfyingly toasty nose. Honey and raw cooking apples. Correct and it takes you straight to the Loire. But it is so demanding that you desperately need food. 16+/20 (Jancis Robinson)
  • This is honeyed and has some savage, wild-flower notes on the nose, giving it a very primary and perfumed edge. The palate is quite solid in terms of its style, with lots of substance over which the honeyed, perfumed, lightly chalky fruit is laid. Overall this is convincing, despite trials and tribulations of the vintage, and is certainly worth further investigation. 15.5-16.5/20 (The Winedoctor)

Of course, a tasting note reveals nothing on the circumstances of the tasting, but let’s just focus on the structure. The first two are short and concise, quick evaluations that are likely based on brief encounters. Structurally they are clear, start with the nose, move on to the palate and give an overall impression. They are typical of the professional writers who taste so much that the majority of their notes goes straight to the point, efficient but often quite the bore to read unfortunately. The note from the Winedoctor is instead more detailed, more descriptive of the sensation as well but still following the same structure.

Writing tasting notes is often incredibly boring, especially when judging a lot of wines in one sitting. It is a good exercise though, in particular in figuring out how to describe a wine not just for you but also for someone else. Descriptions first and foremost need to clearly convey the taster’s opinion on the wine. A step-by-step structure like the one applied in the notes above is therefore a good start. How much words you spend on each step is up to the writer but I believe that more than a paragraph on a single wine, unless it is truly exceptional or complex, is already too much. There is the risk of being too concise, which is the case in the first two notes. Without the grades, it would be difficult to tell if Jancis liked the wine or not. Jamie’s note is a bit more on the positive side, which allows the reader to get an idea of his assessment even without the score, but the Winedoctor wins for me. Detailed but not to detailed and a clear conclusion that is not too vague and not too much blablabla at the same time.

I tend to remember tasting notes that actually talk about a wine. There are certain writers who can go a bit overboard, either writing notes that are so bland that you can just copy-paste them for a series of wines, or going so deep into detail about the feelings a wine evoked that you would wonder if they aren’t trying to write the novel of the century.

It can be a lot of fun constructing a complex tasting note where you list every possible aroma you can come up with, but upon reading them I often wonder what on earth a critic was thinking when coming up with half anovel for one wine. Yes, it is clear that you liked it, but why did you like it? People sometimes resort to images or metaphors, a young lady on a bike, a fierce day in winter, autumn rain, rock chicks, etc etc. Ok, you are being original but you miss the point of a tasting note as it judges a wine on a purely personal level. Say your definition of a rock chick looks like Courtney Love and mine looks like Beth Ditto, I would be very surprised if we could both apply it to the same wine. Same goes with regards to those who refer to wine as sex in a glass, if this were truly the case, I would say you’re not doing it right!

Finally, I am not a fan of scoring wines. The only time I would ever use a rating system would be when I was judging wines from the same appellation or the same style in the same vintage. When I taste 10 different wines, different styles, different regions and different vintages, how can I possibly give a score? Some will say that they are comparing the wine to every other similar wine they have tasted in their life but let’s just be honest and call this bullshit. Others will argue that they have a subset of scorings that they give (assuming you are still capable of mental math when you are on your thirtieth wine). Reaching back to the previous post, you cannot rule out subjectivity or personal preference even if it would seem that you are using a system. When we look at the most popular rating scale used in the States, we see that the minimum score out of a 100 is in theory 50 (what happened to good old 0?) but that in practice most scores start at 80 with a surprisingly high concentration around the nineties. You can argue that this allows you to put nuance in your score, but again, this makes what should be an objective rating system too personal.

Scoring wine reduces an experience to a number. 91/100 tells you nothing about a wine except that the taster liked it more than the one he scored 89, and that is only valid if you are talking about similar wines. I like the detailed tasting reports in Decanter but only if they compare apples to apples, if you take a tasting note from the review of 2013 Rhone you cannot assume that the score has the same value as one on 2011 Rosso di Montalcino. People often completely disregard the context of a score and does this then really do justice to a wine, to someone’s hard work that goes in it? Don’t pick a bottle just because it got a high score from an international critic like Robert Parker or a local critic in the Sunday newspaper, try to discover what you like yourself and look for critics or tasters that you can trust when it comes to identifying winners in a vintage, style or region. Read tasting notes, not just the meaningless scores that so often accompany them!

2 thoughts on “An opinion on tasting notes (3)

  1. Lol, you’re on a roll. ‘A young lady on a bike’, good stuff. I agree, reviews suck. Tell me about the winemaker, what happened in the vineyard during the year, what happened during harvest, when exactly did he bottle it and why not a week earlier. Relevant stuff, not if you smell apple. What do I care.

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