Tasting notes on wine have been written for centuries with very simple descriptions going back to ancient Greek and Roman times. In the 17th century more advanced notes contained added detail and explanation. But it’s only since the late-1970s that tasting notes and reviews including various overly expressive terminology with references to obscure aromatics and flavors began to appear that have now become the norm.
Are these newer renditions more about the author supporting his numerical rating or honest, well-intentioned observations of the wine itself? I have to believe the scale tips toward the author and not the wine as so many of the terms meant to convey its character and quality are unidentifiable to even the most skilled taster.
How many of us have ever tasted a gooseberry or smelled cat pee? Both common descriptors of New Zealand sauvignon blanc. Is the signature of licorice root or licorice snap common to most consumers? Does one really appreciate the difference between coffee, cappuccino or espresso notes when smelling a wine, let alone connect with the scent of fleur de sel or peach skin? And what about the often read overall personal pronouncements of profound, hedonistic, broad-shouldered, etc.? Let alone one of my favorites, “Liquefied Viagra,” in a Wine Advocate description of a highly regarded Napa red wine.
These are actual terms extracted from various published tasting notes and are descriptors that really don’t describe anything to the vast majority of readers.
So what should we be looking for when reading reviews or tasting notes that will begin to make sense within one’s own frame of reference?
First, I search for the wine’s characteristics in the context of balance, structure and texture before examining the nuances of flavor and bouquet. Balance suggests that all the components of fruit, acid, tannin and alcohol complement rather than oppose one another.
Structure is more the expression of the acidity (skeleton) supporting the tannin (musculature) and fruit (flesh) in a way that makes the wine stand erect and not collapse on the palate. Textural appeal is one of the most overlooked elements in a wine’s anatomy and refers to how it feels in your mouth. Is it silky, rich, watery or rough like sandpaper?
Next, we can check for the aromatic and flavor appeal in terms of our own lexicon of memories. My blackberry may be your blueberry in terms of aroma or flavor. “White pitted fruit” on the nose or palate will be interpreted by some as white nectarine or by others as white peach, and that’s OK, too. It is what we perceive in the framework of our own experience that matters and not necessarily the author’s tasting note.
For centuries, tasting notes have been intended to convey the quality and character of a wine in terms that are both accessible to the reader and for guidance regarding what to expect when sampling the wine. In 1984 professor Anne Noble at UC Davis developed the “Wine Aroma Wheel” that continues as a superb seminal guide and outstanding tool throughout the world to identify the aromatics in wine. And best of all, the aromatics are grouped and presented in terms of easily understood and familiar terminology.
As Ernest Hemingway once said, “A person with increasing knowledge and sensory education may derive infinite enjoyment from wine.” But shouldn’t we be able to digest tasting notes and reviews without an interpreter?
My Sept. 4 column — “What to look for when tasting wine” — inspired several readers to weigh in on the typicity versus enjoyability or quality debate. Many different views, and an interesting observation on reviewing and scoring wines.
Frank — Your erudite discussion of “typicity” as a component of quality is provocative and sure to inspire discussion of this issue. I always consider wine not typical of the varietal to be over-manipulated in the winery, rather than allowing the varietal to naturally express itself.
Neil — Perhaps it is time for someone to develop a dual point scoring system. One that has a score for enjoyability and a separate but parallel score for typicity.
In the words of Mme. Lalou Bize-Leroy of Domaine Leroy in a recent interview with Bruce Sanderson of Wine Spectator: “(I) look for identity in a wine, first and foremost. A Musigny that fits (my) idea of Musigny; Chambertin that does not remind be of Pommard … I’m not looking for perfection. Perfection is not something of this world.”