Floral, Austere, A Touch Plummy…

  • Friday 16 February 2007

You’ve just got through 3,700 of them. So just what does consitute a good tasting note? ANDREW JEFFORD canvasses opinion and finds there’s no accounting for taste

How do you like your tasting notes? Terse, crisp and very dry, like a chilled glass of manzanilla? Or more like old-vine Barossa Shiraz: purple and oozing, laden with verbal extract, and emotive enough to re-arrange all the furniture in your head? Do you relish tasting notes, enjoying them for their own sake, and mentally filing your favourites like tracks on an iPod? Or do you find them an irritating necessity, a piece of ludicrous trivia to be hurried through in order to unearth the nuggets of information which will lead you to the gratification of that consummating sip?

Let’s begin our journey around this curious literary object by asking why they exist. Until the 1980s, after all, tasting notes were uncommon. The primary purpose of wine writers like André Simon, Raymond Postgate, Harry Yoxall, George Rainbird and others was to provide facts, figures, occasional portraiture and perhaps a little local colour. They explained the arcana of foreign wine law, and gave the reader a handful of names to look out for. Flavours may have been described in general or generic terms, but the idea of describing what particular vintages from this or that vineyard actually tasted like was, a few rare wines aside, rather odd: tasting was the reader’s duty, the reader’s pleasure, above all the reader’s business. The old writers would have found it presumptuous to tell their audience what to make of so-and-so’s Sancerre, and the idea of shading 30 of them into a scored hierarchy would have seemed posturing, absurd and childish.

Autres temps, autres moeurs. Writers now consider themselves to be failing in their duty unless they provide specific descriptions for every wine they write about. Some writers, indeed, write little other than tasting notes. The notion of the writer as educator has been replaced by that of writer as surrogate drinker. Writer X or Y boasts of tasting 6,000 wines a year so that you need never take a leap in the dark again.

Perhaps the elders were right: there may be something childish in this. It can often seem as if readers are simply being ordered off to the merchants to buy this or that wine and told what to make of it once they get it open. Yet few, I suspect, would want to return to a world without tasting notes. You don’t have to use them exclusively, literally or reverentially. And when it comes to fine wines, tasting notes are useful, even vital, if you are to minimise the risk of a prized bottle becoming an expensive mistake. A tasting note, as US writer Natalie Maclean puts it, ‘is a service to drinkers who want to buy the best wine they can afford in the style that they like’.

In canvassing other writers (both professional and amateur – those posting tasting notes on the internet) as well as readers of tasting notes, certain themes began to emerge. The first of these is that the dimensions and intent of a tasting note should be tailored to fit the wine. ‘A tasting note,’ says Australian critic James Halliday, who has written as many as anyone in his lifetime, ‘should firstly cover the weight, texture, structure, balance and length of the wine, with flavour descriptors of secondary (but undoubted) importance. It should be little longer than this summary unless the wine is of great quality or rarity, in which case flights of fancy and poetry are appropriate.’ It may well be, indeed, that writing

tasting notes for simple wines is more difficult than it is for grand wines. This is because plainly written notes for such wines are perceived as boring, while elaborately written notes come across as absurd and posturing. Internet reviewer and Decanter reader Nicos Neocleous complains that ‘a boring, technical Wine and Spirit Education Trust-style tasting note is dryer than the Sahara at midday.’ Yet bad tasting notes, for Decanter reader Donald Pollock of Stratford-upon-Avon, are ‘those that contain flowery language à la Jilly Goolden. You are left with the impression that the reviewer is determined to make an impact using outlandish descriptions at all costs. This doesn’t actually do the wine any justice.’ ‘Reams of adjectives about a basic quaffer,’ as Michael Schuster says in his Essential Winetasting, ‘may well just be a waste of time.’

Another recurrent theme concerns the contents of tasting notes – with the ‘analogy list’ running into heavy flak. ‘When I read the notes for Australian Chardonnay,’ complains Decanter reader Mark Hawkins of Bexhill, ‘they all say exactly the same. Pineapples, lychees, tropical fruits, oak etc. Aussie Rieslings are all zesty, limes, maybe a whiff of petroleum. I could write tasting notes for every £4.99 Chardonnay without opening the bottles for all the usefulness one normally finds.’

‘Why do I need to know how many tasting adjectives you can use?’ agrees merchant Henry Butler. ‘It’s far more interesting to whet our appetites so we want to find out for ourselves.’ Hugh Johnson summarises: ‘Verbs are better than adjectives. Conveying what a wine tastes like is impossible; what you’re really trying to get across is a reaction.’

Writer Jamie Goode points out that for most drinkers the ‘fruit salad’ list is, in any case, ‘quite esoteric and quite codified. It’s a learned language of wine. For me, this reductionist approach of breaking down a wine into its component parts does little to capture the flavour of a wine, which is actually a unitary sensory perception. I prefer using approaches using metaphor and even synaesthesia to attempt to sum up the whole personality of a wine. The best notes are those which use just a few descriptors, but which then try to capture the “sense” of the wine, and put it in its context alongside other wines.’

Most would agree – yet few writers actually have the skill to compose descriptions of this sort; descriptions which are not only accurate and meaningful but have true literary qualities. ‘Get hold of a really good simile or metaphor,’ says Hugh Johnson, a master of the art, ‘and then away you go. There’s nothing can hold you then.’

write for yourself

One of the great platitudes of the wine world is that tastes differ. So should those writing tasting notes make some attempt to accommodate tasting perceptions other than their own? The view of most of those I surveyed, which I share, is that doing so is both useless and morally wrong. ‘A single person should always say what they think about a wine,’ says Neocleous. ‘It’s like putting a marker on a territory.’ ‘Find a wine writer whose palate is similar to yours,’ is Hawkins’ philosophy, ‘and follow their judgement.’

Nothing irritates more than an emollient wine writer who seems to like everything, and who is prepared to write approbatory notes for dull, big-brand wines simply to hitch a ride on the publicity machine. Indeed one of the limitations of most wine writing is that it is little other than a succession of puffs. When did you last read a dust-raising, glass-shattering, ball-and-chain demolition of a wine? The famous Parker-Robinson spat over Pavie 2003 was cheered from the sidelines in part because it marked the end of one critic’s hegemony over the wine world – but in part, too, because it was so refreshing to see a distinguished palate lob a hand-grenade tasting note at a leading wine rather than cravenly omit it, reserve judgement or fall sheepishly into line.

So what, exactly, constitutes a good tasting note? The ever-percipient Schuster points out that it should, at least, be bi-partite: ‘what’ and ‘so what?’, as he puts it in Essential Winetasting. ‘What’, for Schuster, means ‘seeing what is there to see’; ‘so what?’ means providing some context and perspective. All of those I surveyed agreed about this, though some (like Pollock) liked food-matching information while others (like Neocleous) preferred discussion of a wine’s evolutionary trajectory and comparisons with other wines. Humour, perhaps surprisingly, was relished by most – though it is notoriously difficult to accomplish successfully, and leaden attempts at tasting-note humour are worse than playing it straight.

In the end, though, everyone agreed about the hallmark quality of great tasting notes, best summarised by Hawkins. ‘A good tasting note is simply a tasting note that makes you want to go out and drink the wine.’

The kings (and queen) of the tasting note:

Robert Parker

Robert Parker’s notes are often criticised and even parodied for their lack of literary polish and near-slavering enthusiasm – but most agree that they are very, very good at making you want to go out and drink the wine. ‘Its dense black color,’ he writes about Troplong-Mondot 2005, ‘is followed by a stupendous bouquet of blueberries, blackberries, truffles, graphite, and smoke. It cascades over the palate with exquisite density, purity, full-bodied power and remarkable freshness as well as delineation. This magical wine somehow manages to harness extraordinary power and structure with a sense of delicacy and finesse.’

Michael Broadbent

Elegance, restraint, honesty, unusual but deft analogies and often a surprising vein of humour are the hallmarks of Michael Broadbent’s tasting notes; and the fact that he has meticulously tracked more great bottles than anyone else on the planet gives his perspectives unique authority. He’s as good at blame as praise, as here (about Latour 1979). ‘I look back on some pretty appalling notes… smelling of “old socks”, “sweaty fat”… “animal fat, pork and boot polish”, “very cheesy, bandages” – whether mint, lint or over sores not elaborated upon – “dung”. “Happily a better flavour than nose”, which is at least something. …On the whole I am not keen and doubt if it will ever rise above the character of a dour Scotsman.’

Hugh Johnson

Hugh Johnson rarely writes tasting notes per se – though there are some magnificent ones in his recent Wine – A Life Uncorked. Here’s a succinct example, describing his beloved Chablis (Louis Michel’s 1976 Grenouilles, tasted in 2001). ‘Uncannily pale, rich on top but with bare rock below, like a river running over stones. Long-simmered greengages and honey, almost like a phantom Sauternes. How can it be so supremely in balance? And so long?’

Oz Clarke

The conversational tone has become almost de rigueur in contemporary tasting notes, yet it often sounds laborious and clunky as the author struggles for that elusive cool. Not in Oz Clarke’s case. His great gift is to contrive to sound as if he’s standing right next to you, with his arm on your shoulder, pointing out exactly what he loves about a wine with ever-infectious enthusiasm. ‘Rich, deep, serious wine – hey, hang on. Not too serious. Seriously irresistible perhaps, because the fruit here is so autumn-ripe it reminds me of plums left too late for picking as they leak syrup through their skins and wasps mob the bough. The fruit is treacly – black treacle, syrup of figs and plums treacle – the chocolate is dark but not black, and someone’s skimmed off the burnt top from a rice pudding – and yet it’s all in balance.’ Yes, you guessed: that’s Oz on his own beloved Barossa: Tim Smith’s 2003 Shiraz.

Jancis Jobinson mw

Quick, accurate, well informed and supremely intelligent would be a fair summary of Jancis Robinson’s skills: her tasting notes reflect those qualities.

Here she is on the 2005 Langoa-Barton. ‘Exceptionally ripe and opulent on the

nose – most unusual for St-Julien and at first I thought this wine might be over the top. But in fact there is sufficient rigour on the palate – mild constitution, definitely St-Julien. Well done! Not at all hot on the finish – moderate, beautifully judged. If

you were in the dock, you’d want this one to be on the bench.’

Andrew Jefford is the Louis Roederer international wine writer of the year

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