In this week's column, Andrew Jefford considers the nature of descriptive tasting notes, and whether the wine world has lost sight of what a good note needs to convey.

An American friend sent me a copy of Bianca Bosker’s July 29th New Yorker article entitled ‘Is There a Better Way to Talk About Wine?’.  The author, who is ‘currently at work on a new book, a wine-fueled journey to the extremes of taste that will illuminate the art and science behind enhancing our senses and chronicle a curious amateur’s exploration of the wine industry’, tackles the familiar topic of tasting notes and their often extravagant language.

It’s a soundly researched canter through this subject.  She suggests (by quoting a couple of James Suckling’s notes for 1989 Haut-Brion, one made in 1992 and one in 2009) that a kind of adjectival inflation is at work, and that tasting notes are getting ever more baroque.

My own reading of leading critics’ notes suggests this is true.  It’s as if, in the race to become ‘the next Parker’, each contender is trying to outdo the other, and bludgeon their rivals to death by adjectival force of arms.  She also suggests that the often senseless metaphorical overload of wine discourse is now bizarrely fashionable, and straying into other fields.

The caustic rigour of studies carried out by the Journal of Wine Economics and others is cited, showing that the language of tasting notes is practically unhelpful, and best seen as ‘bulls**t’.  I’ve often thought this myself; indeed I feel uneasy for having based my career in part on it.  Should tasting notes not, in fact, be seen as the shame of the wine world?  Shouldn’t we ‘just say no to notes’, and settle for a score?

As it happens, I read this article as I was preparing a Hong Kong workshop on wine description for students and keen amateurs, some of whom are hoping sooner or later to pass the WSET Diploma or IMW Master of Wine exams.  This requires them to write disciplined, academic tasting notes.  Notes are, thus, a vital way of assessing wine tasting skills.

But they’re more than that.  Wine is the most complex substance we put into our mouths in terms of its nuances of aroma and flavour.  We have to try to track that verbally in some way or another: simple numerical quantification won’t do.  Numbers alone cannot adequately address the mystery of wine’s complexity; words must be involved.

If Parker had merely given scores, his critical work would not have achieved the economic significance it did.  Nor is it quite good enough to call it all ‘bullsh**t’.  If the work of Parker and others is followed, it is because it is found useful.  Something is true; something is being communicated; something is of value.

Academic attempts to give rigour to wine writing (via, for example, Ann Noble’s ‘aroma wheel’), to come up with an objective language for wine, or to ‘unfuzz’ winespeak always end in boredom for the reader.  Conservative, restrained wine descriptions are tedious, repetitive and soporific, and utterly fail to evoke the excitement of smelling and tasting wine.  They are phenomenologically inadequate, if you like.

The issue, it seems to me, is as follows.  The writing of descriptive (as opposed to academic) wine notes is a specialized form of wine entertainment, and is quickly seen as such by users.  No one takes them literally; they are liberally sprinkled with salt by the experienced reader, and soon leach more water than an aubergine.  The tongue is always somewhere in the writer’s cheek (or should be).  They are drafted with a smile, in a spirit of levity (or should be).  That’s how the genre works.

That said, there are three sorts of skill which can be buried in wine descriptions, and this is what readers are hunting for.  The first is tasting skill: you can pick the right wines to go purple about.  Parker has this, for the majority of his readers; that is one of the secrets of his success.  They bought the bottles and, damn it, the guy was right.

The second is the ability to communicate enthusiasm.  You read the note; you want to try the wine.  This, too, is a skill Parker singularly possesses.  (Pomposity and self-importance, by the way, detract from the levity of the genre; Parker avoids both with a nimbleness which eludes lesser critics.)

The third sort of skill is genuine literary skill, of the sort possessed by Hugh Johnson.  It’s the glaring lack of this, in truth, which really hobbles the wine world’s reputation: most wine descriptions possess zero literary merit, Parker’s included.  This is why they make the uninitiated laugh or weep, and come to seem embarrassing, in the fullness of time, by their perpetrators.  (Me included.)  I have long thought it a shame that the recruitment process for wine writers and critics, such as it is, tends to privilege wine interest and skill above writing ability.  The danger is that you end up with wine nerds writing for wine nerds, in an excitable, echo-filled ghetto.

Bosker doesn’t provide an answer to her own question, but seems to acknowledge that objective wine descriptions are a dead end, and that in the end it is the ‘poetic’ end of wine discourse which exerts most traction.  Given the fact that even published poetry can be bad poetry, this is setting the bar high; but she’s right.

Click here to read Andrew Jefford’s tips for descriptive wine notes.

Read more Jefford on Monday columns:

 

  • Kent Benson

    For me, reading most tasting notes is a complete waste of time. The reasons are many.

    After conducting consumer tastings of close to a thousand different wines, I am acutely aware that no wine tastes or smells the same to different people. Some think it’s closed while others call it opulent. One calls it fruity while another thinks it’s austere. One says the tannins are subtle while another thinks they’re fierce.

    Much of these differences in perception can be chalked up to genetics, some to inexperience, and some to variations in palate condition. At least two of these three come into play for the wine reviewer, as well.

    Some people have a lot of taste buds, others have very few. The resulting differences in perception of a wine are dramatic. If the reviewer’s taste bud count is significantly different than yours, the reviews will be of little help to you.

    Palate condition plays an under-appreciated role in wine perception. What did the reviewer eat just prior to tasting? What other wines did he taste before the one being reviewed? Is this the first red wine of the group or the last? (As tannins build up on your palate each successive wine tastes more tannic than it would have, had it been the first.) All of these considerations make the tasting note less useful, as I seriously doubt reviewers take the necessary precautions.

    All that aside, tasting note information simply doesn’t provide answers to my questions. I don’t need to know that a Pinot Noir smells and tastes of raspberry, I assume that to be likely. I would much rather hear the wine’s story. Besides its impact on the reviewer, what makes its existence interesting? Who’s the owner/winemaker? Where were the grapes sourced? What’s the back story? Is there anything interesting about the way the grapes were grown and the wine was made that make it intriguing and how did those choices seem to influence the final wine?

    In addition, for me, scores are an indication of a reviewer’s enthusiasm for the wine – that’s helpful. The tasting notes should tell me why. What was it about this wine that got you so excited? Surely, not raspberries, strawberries, and spice. For so many tasting notes, if you remove the scores, you can’t tell a high-scoring wine from a low-scoring one. Conversely, and just as important, what prevented you from liking it more?

    Finally, give me an idea of what I might expect from the wine. What other wine does it closely resemble? It may not make the same impression on me, but a reference point is a fairly objective indicator of what I can expect.

  • JustinHS

    All attempts to describe the flavour of wine in words suffer from the difficulty that words are inadequate to convey taste. As someone once said – writing about wine is like dancing about architecture

  • tkoby11

    I actually think Parker’s descriptions are of value, but you have to know what you are reading (from whom) and what to take from it. For sure his notes are not for everyone, just like if you were to only say medium this, medium+ that in regards to color, nose, acidity, tannin etc. would get a lot of yawns from most people. Neither are perfect because you need a fundamental knowledge of what these things mean for them to be of use. Most regular wine consumers don’t know what these things mean and look directly at the score unfortunately. Tasting notes do matter, but it depends on the combination of what wine wine is being evaluated and who is reading it.

  • tkoby11

    Saying a wine is sweet instead of fruity is probably the most obvious mistake made by non geeks when describing a wine that I notice.

  • Tasting notes can often be a bore to read and to write. I do sometimes see a correlation between the number of tasting notes written by a critic and the effort she or he puts in it, which is not always an excuse. Nonetheless they do have merit, both for consumers as well as wine lovers. Enthusiasm is the most important quality a writer should posses. If he or she is lacking in this, it does not go unnoticed, either through bland or over the top descriptions. As to what vocabulary to use, it is also up to a consumer to educate himself just a little bit, and I do not think that professional critics should cater too much to the common denominator, lest should you end up with only fruity, fresh and spicy to use.

  • Chad Watkins

    From a retailer/consumer perspective I can attest that tasting notes are in fact quite confusing, if not misleading. As Brian mentions, most consumers don’t understand “winespeak” and so they read “dry” as “tannic” or “fruity” as “sweet” and are led to buy wine that way. I believe the onus is on wine writers and tasters to better educate consumers so that the gap between the wine nerd and the rest of the wine consumers is bridged.

  • Remington Norman

    The Parker-style tasting notes are of limited value, either as descriptions or as indicators of wine quality. There is a marked disconnect between UK-trained wine writers, who emphasise primary qualities, in particularly those relating to structure and US writers who prefer exotica and hyperbole. Try interchanging the tasting notes on a page of Parker – they are merely variations of a limited, highly exaggerated, vocabulary. Published notes need to emphasise a wine’s building blocks, particularly when assessing young wine. The horticultural smorgasbord variety of note has no place in serious wine assessment.

  • Brian St. Pierre

    Before the fruit-salad adjectival explosions, back in the 1970s, a rigorous semantic study was done at Arizona State University on wine language (the study was about semantics, not necessarily wine, but wine was chosen because of the wide range of descriptors even then). The findings included the fact that the same words often meant different things to different people, and that many, if not most, words (even simple terms such as “dry” or “tart” or “fruity” or “full-bodied”) had different values as well, with some people seeing them as negative, while for some they were positive. (There was no assessment of literary skill, but the findings certainly underscore its importance, don’t they?) Perhaps this study should be reprinted every year; reminders like it never go out of style.