On Tasting Notes

Distinctly smoky, very varietal in character. Intense in flavour, but very soft in its finish, a little like landing on pillows.

Tasting notes are stupid to begin with, but when they include asinine comments such as “very soft in the finish … like landing on pillows” they become mind-blowingly inane. These days, tasting notes are everywhere: in magazines, on the shelf at the local wine store, on the internet, on my blog…

But do they really tell us anything?

Why do people like me write tasting notes? I can only speak for me, but I think it is because I am incredibly self-centered and I think that I have a better understanding of wine than most people and that others will benefit from my incredible insight.

How’s that for obnoxious? The truth is, I can’t really think of another less obnoxious reason, but one thing is abundantly clear: they are really starting to get out of hand. Why do some people insist on writing things that make them sound like complete pompous morons? Those of us who really like wine are already perceived as elitist jackasses, why do we insist on making it worse?

…there a smoky [sic] (~ steaming bacon grease) bouquet on this wine; also obvious sweet cherry with background micro-strawberries popping on and off the scene; there’s also the toasted marshmallow carmalization [sic] effect I get on most pinots, except those I tend not to like much; a touch of pepper and oak. Medium bodied and slight on the attack, this coats the palate nicely if you let it.

Where to start? Micro-strawberries? Are those different than ‘Macro-strawberries’? I drink more Pinot than most people, and I am pretty sure that I have never picked up on any ‘toasted marshmallow caramelization’. Isn’t it possible that we do not all smell the same things?  After eating asparagus, I can smell it in my pee.  My wife can’t.  Might at least some of that carry over to wine?  Maybe she can smell bramble berry (whatever the hell that is) and I can’t.  Does that make the wine any more or less appealing (I guess it depends what bramble berry smells like)?  And while we’re still on this note, what does it mean to ‘coat the palate nicely if you let it’?

I know I get caught up in this absurdity at times and write ridiculous ‘observations’ because it is become the ‘industry standard’ of how to write a tasting note.  But should it be?  Many people have criticized the scoring of wine on the 100 point scale, but no one criticizes this kind of thing:

Deeply scented black cherries fuse with toasted marshmallow, sweet custard pie and cinnamon sticks. Well seasoned oak support the floral scent of musky black roses and a savoury thorny understorey like briar growing through straw mulch after recent rain

What the hell does this mean: “A savoury thorny understorey like briar growing through straw mulch after recent rain”? What is a “musky black rose”? Black roses don’t even exist (unless you consider dyeing the roses black to count–kind of like fuchsia hair, I guess).

C’mon man, you can’t be serious.

From the Wine Aromas website. By the way, this is in no way an endorsement of the product (it is very cool, though)–in fact since I rarely use mine, anybody want to buy it (it is in French).

What if I smell dog crap and cat pee but I still really like the wine?  What if it smells like ambrosia but tastes like horse manure?  I know there are a ton of smell descriptors for wine. I even have the Nez du Vin (a kit containing a lot of the different aromas [not to be confused with ‘odors’] that one can find in wine).  I get that.  Wine is complex and it can take on all kinds of aromas.  But if it smells like, I don’t know, ‘lemon zest’ or ‘wild raspberry jam’ is that going to make you run out and buy it (or avoid it like the plague)?  I would not think so.  You basically want to know whether the reviewer liked it (or thought it was ‘good’) or didn’t.  After all, isn’t that all we really care about?  No one wants to run out and buy a wine that is really crappy (unless you’re a geek like me or you are having it as an example in some sort of twisted ‘Wines that taste like ass’ blind tasting).  Sure, you might be having a specific meal (e.g., I like to make a roast pork with a cherry sauce from time to time) and you might want to find a wine that melds seamlessly into the dish.  But does any body really do that?  Who are we kidding?

Recently 1winedude came out against a piece that he heard on NPR giving it to wine geeks.  At first, I was a little offended by the piece as well, but then I started thinking about it.  The reason people like to make fun of wine geeks is because we say crap like this:

Kirsch and some barnyard on the nose. Dark fruits and plenty of lead pencil minerality on the palate, with a broad swath of licorice in the background. Over time the flavor transmogrified into dark chocolate covered slightly sour cherries but always with a strong mineral component on the midpalate. An interesting and enjoyable wine.

Really?

Transmogrified?” 

Come on. You probably annoy the hell out of your friends.

No wonder people get all charged up when they think wine geeks are full of crap–because we are!  This was driven home when my sister visited a few months ago.  She is by no means a wine aficionado.  Not even close.  But she likes to drink wine.  When we started tasting a few of the wines I got as samples, I would swirl, sniff, aerate and then try to say something profound.  She did not give a honey badger about any of that and looked at me like I was a huge dork (which is the way she usually looks at me, but that is besides the point).  To her it was simple: did she like the wine or not?  After all isn’t THAT what matters?

The nose is expressive and intense, full of ginger and exotic fruit. Broad and rich but finely focused, and with incredible detail on the palate, this is a complete wine. And after about 90 minutes it was truly amazing – the things that stuck out previously, the intensity, the ginger, the richness – those things had blended so seamlessly with each other by this time that none of them on its own was evident. The wine had become a real thing of beauty, the kind of wine that can ruin you. Evocative of old libraries filled with leather-bound books and half-drunk glasses of sherry, and of attractive young couples riding motorcycles, rushing past you in a fleeting glimpse of what you wish you could be.

The ‘type of wine that can ruin you’?

Come on….

About the drunken cyclist

I have been an occasional cycling tour guide in Europe for the past 20 years, visiting most of the wine regions of France. Through this "job" I developed a love for wine and the stories that often accompany the pulling of a cork. I live in Houston with my lovely wife and two wonderful sons.
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22 Responses to On Tasting Notes

  1. ahahaha omg your sarcastic “tone” is delicious! in fact, some tasting notes leave me a bit quizzed and whithout knowing what to think.

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  2. Guilty as charged, but nowhere near as guilty as most others. I think they serve a purpose when you stick to the basics – dry/offdry/sweet, fresh acids, firm tannins, oak/no oak. But at parties people know my wine background and give me that “look”. The one where they’re saying “and…???” Same with writing posts, I imagine my readers asking “and….?” Then I feel pressured to add words like cloying, haunting, wet leaves, cigar box. But I rarely get past those.

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  3. PSsquared says:

    As someone who can’t usually identify any of the characteristics listed in notes, I appreciate this. I’m still learning, so the more straight forward, the better. And a honeybadger reference to start my Friday? Thank you.

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  4. My wife also cannot smell asparagus in her pee…I can. 🙂 Great piece!

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  5. vinoinlove says:

    Tasting notes are important. If a friend tells me his tasting notes or if I red them on a blog or somewhere else then I learn something about the wine. If I write tasting notes then I want to help people to make a decision on whether to buy a certain wine or not. You just have to be careful with your tasting note sources.
    Of course tasting notes are subjective nevertheless tasting notes of people with experience tend to be often the same – at least that’s my experience. Therefore in my opinion tasting notes are not useless.

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    • I completely agree that tasting notes serve a purpose and the primary purpose is what you state: “to help people to make a decision on whether to buy a certain wine or not.” I take umbrage when it becomes about the tasters ‘superior tasting ability or their “incredible prose.”

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  6. talkavino says:

    Tasting notes is a tough subject (by the way, did you came up with those you are citing or did you actually read them somewhere?).
    With the tasting notes, we are trying to convey the emotions – the emotions which wine triggered. In the end of the day, you either like the wine or you don’t. Once you clear on your binary perception, you try to measure how much you like the wine – this is when we produce those tasting notes, trying to express ourselves.
    I’m as guilty as any other wine blogger, trying to find the right words to describe the emotion triggered by the wine – sometimes, I just want to say “I rate this wine as X”, and be done with it. Sometimes, the qualities are so prominent and easy to detect, it really makes writing the review a simple process.
    Anyway, I have to stop myself from writing a full post in the comment section – I guess I might have to write a post in my blog, just to let it out of the system.

    In any case – great post!

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    • These are actual tasting notes (none mine) that I found here and there. I understand that tasting notes try to capture emotion–I get that. But as I mentioned in wineraconteur’s comment reply, when it becomes more about the taster and less about the wine, it no longer serves a purpose to the consumer…

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      • talkavino says:

        well, interesting – so you want an objective description of something which triggers a unique and personal emotional response? One thing is to say “this wine got raspberries, blueberries and hint of chocolate”, and another thing is “this wine was mind blowing, with tremendous power and finesse, reminiscent of a black stallion, wild and untamed…” – based on this two reviews, which wine do you want to try?
        A big part of wine review is actually about taster – you need to figure out taster’s personality in order to measure the reviews for yourself. For instance, I know that my palate is very different from Robert Parker’s, and a lot of his 92 rated wines don’t do anything for me…

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      • Given the two options you present, I am not sure which one I would like to try since I get no real indication on how each reviewer feels about each wine relative to other wines he has tried (and I have absolutely no experience with an untamed black stallion other than second hand through print or video). I agree with you that for me, a lot depends on how I match up with the tastes of the reviewer. Having said that, even if my tastes did not match up perfectly with someone I respected and he/she really liked a wine, I am pretty sure that I would not be disappointed.

        My point boils down to this, I guess, some people are just getting too carried away with their tasting notes and when they do, they cease being of any use other than entertainment (which is not all bad, I guess).

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  7. Excellent piece, I try not to over analyze wines, but try to write about the pleasant memories that are evoked from the wine. After all, taste is a personal thing and each person will have a different perception of taste and smell. There have been a few wines and a few restaurants that I have encountered that have been terrible experiences, so I just tend to omit them from my writings. I feel that I should not condemn something, because it is not to my liking, as others may enjoy it. Also a lot of my musings are from years, decades past and something as ethereal as taste perceptions are long gone. I also tend to avoid writing technical jargon about wines, as I feel that anyone that is interested in that type of information may access the winery at their website. I don’t usually write on other blogger’s sites, but I really enjoyed the article and understand where you are coming from. All I can say, is just keep trying new wines and enjoy the moment.

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    • Thanks so much for the comment! I was really torn about writing this, but it seems like most of the blogs that get traffic tend to be controversial–so I guess I am being a bit of an attention monger! I just think that some of the tasting notes have gone way over the top and they stop being about the wine and become more about the author….

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  8. renoroameo says:

    This is fantastic! You have won me over, and I couldn’t agree more with you! Can’t wait to read more of your wine adventures!

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