Jamie Goode: On Wine Tasting Notes

I went public saying I hate tasting notes. This is perhaps a bit hyperbolic. After all, like most wine writers who feature individual wines, I write them all the time. But in the wine business, I think we’ve gotten a little lazy in how we use them, and we could do a lot better.

The problem is that it’s hard to write a tasting note. This is because we lack a solid vocabulary for tastes and smells. We have great difficulty connecting flavor with words, which makes it difficult to verbally capture the flavor of wine. After all, what we’re doing is a bit strange. If I give you a plate of steak and fries, I may ask you how you like them, but I wouldn’t expect you to try to capture their flavor in terms of descriptors.

There are common sins in tasting note writers. One is to write brief generic notes that could apply to virtually any wine. Often critics rate a wine and then simply write a sentence or two about the wine – not a full rating, just one or two characteristics.

Another is the other extreme of being overly elaborate and fanciful, writing grandiose notes full of verbal invention, seeing things that were never in the wine in the first place, and generally messing with your head From the reader: You can see all of these things in wine, so I must be an inadequate taster because I don’t.

A big problem is modeling. This is where we learned what is effectively a coded language for describing wines. We come to a wine and either know what it is or if we taste blind we decide what it is. Say it’s Sauvignon Blanc. We learned the flavors and aromas found in Sauvignon, and modeled them on perception. Rather than focusing on what’s in the glass, we query our model – our own Sauvignon lexicon – then extract the descriptors we want from that list and build our tasting note not from what’s ‘really found there, but from our knowledge of what this kind of wine usually tastes like.

Then there is the matter of the mental imagery of olfaction. Some people are able to conjure up a flavor in their mind, just as we all can in vision when we think of a picture or a friend’s face. I can’t, but I know people who can do this kind of mental imagery. Is it easier for them to write tasting notes? And are the tasting notes more meaningful to these people?

So what does a good tasting note look like? I guess it depends on the purpose of the note. But I think a useful test would be whether you could recognize the wine from the description among three similar wines placed in front of you. A good start is therefore to describe what is there. Dwell a bit on the experience and don’t rush into the words. And actually taste the wine – maybe before you sniff it. I think focusing too much on the aroma without having the wine on the palate doesn’t help.

Then structure the note. We want some specific descriptors, but not too many. Try not to get too exotic and remember that many of your descriptors may be culturally limited and not helpful to others who don’t have your frame of reference.

Holistic tasting terms are helpful, and within the limits of meaning, figurative language is helpful – metaphor, simile, and metonymy. How does the wine feel in the mouth? Is it silky, or coarse, or velvety (all fabric metaphors)? What about its structure? Is it harmonious, elegant, complex or short (all global descriptors)?

How is? Compare it with other well-known wine styles. Try to find new ways to describe wine without going crazy and avoid heading into clichéd, lazy territory. Try to avoid the usual tics of tasting notes: those terms that you naturally add. If you taste a lot of similar wines, keep describing the wines and don’t just try to be new to avoid repetition.

It’s hard to write good tasting notes, but I think we can do a lot better than we are.

  • Jamie Goode is a London-based writer, speaker, wine judge and author of books. With a doctorate in plant biology, he worked as a science writer before launching wineanorak.com, one of the world’s most popular wine websites.

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