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My Wine Lexicon

Talking about the words I use when I'm talking about wine
Photo by: David Yellen

Posted: May 15, 2012 12:05pm ET

I'm heading out on vacation tomorrow, for a few days of golf in South Carolina to recharge the batteries. When I get back, I'll be focusing on the bulk of my Rhône tastings, before heading over there for two weeks in June. But as I clear my desk today, I found myself thinking about tasting notes.

Not to put too fine a point on it, but I write a lot of them. Several thousand a year for the magazine, plus my own short-hand notes when I'm in cellars or tasting informally. I don't pen a note for every single wine I taste. I think you need to be able to enjoy wines unencumbered from time to time. But I do write a lot of notes.

In some ways it can be a little repetitive. Think of grinding through 20 nondescript Chardonnays for example. Other days, when the wines are unique and delicious, the notes just write themselves.

Tasting notes have been fodder for discussion before, whether it's been a call to drain my swamp of winespeak or to figure out how important they are to readers. But it's a topic I never grow tired of talking about since it is such an integral part of the review process. More than the score, a tasting note should excite a reader, while guiding them to (or warning them away from) wines in a style they prefer.

I think it's clear my notes have their own style, as most writers' notes have. I use certain words often and my general format is to hit on aromas, flavors and textures. The better the wine is, the more exciting it is for me to talk about. A great wine forces me to come up with more than just simple color, flavor or texture descriptors while trying to convey the images and feelings it evokes. There's been a call in some quarters for notes to stop using flavor descriptors because of their repetitive nature, and simply call a wine sweet or savory. That seems like a lazy cop out to me.

Not all notes make sense to all people though. Some of my favorite questions from readers or other wine lovers is "what do you mean when you say …?"

On the one hand, it means I haven't been clear enough, or haven't used a term that easily conveys what I'm experiencing. But on the other hand, it gives me a chance to explain further and to help someone get deeper into the wine lexicon that I and many other tasters use. Whether it's talking about minerality and its various shades of iron, pebbles or chalk. Or the sense of wood I might get in a wine—a simply toasted vanilla note versus more intriguing mesquite, apple wood or juniper hints (I grill a lot with different woods and those aromas are always in my mind). One of my favorite stops is an Indian spice market in the neighborhood, with jars of dried fruits, fresh green plums and almonds and rows upon rows of dried peppers and powdered spices. Walking in there is a great way for me to recharge my tasting note vocabulary and keep that lexicon as fresh as possible.

Overall I don't think the paradigm for tasting notes has changed much over the years, nor will it in the future. The best notes, for me, are ones that capture the essence of the wine, excite the reader so that they want to try it, all while keeping a definitive writing style of the author themselves. It's not as easy as it sounds and I'm always trying to refine and improve my notes. It's as great a challenge as tasting the wines themselves - and it's a big part of why I love what I do.

What do you look for when reading the tasting notes of other tasters and how important are they to you? How often do you write your own notes, and compare them to others?

You can follow James Molesworth on Twitter, at http://twitter.com/jmolesworth1.

Peter J Gatti
Austin, —  May 15, 2012 1:46pm ET
Interesting you'd mention your Indian spice market. I grew up all over the middle east, europe and the caribbean, and spent many years smelling and tasting anything and everything available in the markets and suqs there. Amazing education in smell/taste/texture.

My favorite story concerns a wholesale rep years ago who brought out a Walker Bay SA Pinotage, poured me a taste and said "there's a really familiar smell here, but I can't place it", to which I replied, "it's Kiwi boot polish--the brown, not black" to his utter amazement and agreement. I also polished my dad's dress shoes for years!
Ramos
USA —  May 15, 2012 2:09pm ET
I always stay away from adjetives like "sanguine, bitter, tannic, iron" I tend to like wines with adjetives like "silky, velvety, long finish, coats every inch of your palate etc."

It also depends on the writer. There are writers out there that I agree with them completely. Others, not so. That's completely normal.

Have you ever written a tasting note for a wine that you thought deserved 100 points?
James Molesworth
Senior Editor, Wine Spectator —  May 15, 2012 2:29pm ET
The best young wine I've ever had, that captured terroir, vintage and winemaker style seamlessly, was the '03 Chave red Hermitage.

I've been truly stunned by a few wines in my time.

Even brought to tears once just smelling one.

But I still have not found perfection in a wine or ever given 100 points. That's a level that seems to have become all to easy to achieve in some quarters. But as long as humans are involved in the process, and as long as there is another vintage still to come (and thus another chance to do better) I think I'll have a hard time finding a 100-point wine.
Keir Mccartney
League City,TX —  May 15, 2012 3:40pm ET
Your tasting notes always prove to be very useful to me James. I particularly enjoy wines from the Rhone Valley so you, in particular, are often referenced. In fact 10 minutes ago I puchased 6 bottles of DOMAINE FOND CROZE Côtes du Rhône-Villages Cuvée Shyrus 2010 based on your review. Thanks for all the work you do!
Russell Quong
Sunnyvale, CA —  May 15, 2012 7:16pm ET
Hi James,

Some tastings notes that seem to be unique to you are "linzer torte", "raspberry ganache", and "some-variant-of-fig". Can you explain what your reference for the first two are? In looking up linzer torte, it says different fillings can be used. Also, does ganache imply chocolate at all?

I've tried to understand each WS reviewer's style of tasting notes over the years. And one term that I'm still not sure of is "loam". Many $12-20 Chilean red wines from the mid 2000's (but not so much in recent vintages) had a mysterious non-funky earth note. I have occasionally run into it in French Rhone wines, too. I've tentatively decided this is "loam". And sometimes it was very pronounced to me but your notes didn't mention it, just to keep things interesting.

Kevin E Morrissey
Tampa, FL —  May 16, 2012 9:53am ET
I have to agree with Russell about your use of fig in tasting notes. While I realize everyone's palate is different, you are the only critic I know that uses fig in a description of Bordeaux. I can see it in some Rhone wines but have never detected fig in a cab or merlot blend. To each his own I guess.
Staffan Bjorlin
Los Angeles, CA —  May 16, 2012 2:23pm ET
General descriptions of the character of the wine are more helpful than details about what berry the wine smells like. For example, is the wine fruity or savory/earthy? Is it young and tight or mature? High-acid or low? Amount of oak? Short, concise notes are more useful than long elaborate notes, but the problem is that they can be boring to read. But the pointlessness of too detailed descriptions (such as the specific berry or flower or type of coffee) should be evident to anyone who has read reviews of the same wine from different critics. One way to make notes more interesting is to add a dash of humor. I like Neal Martin's review of Yquem 1990 from July 2010 (I apologize if it is considered poor form to reference non-WS critics here).

To answer your questions: I think reading and writing tasting notes are a great way to learn to analyze wine, which is one important part of appreciating wine. I write my own notes if the wine is worth the effort (if it is in the 85-point range or below it doesn't seem worth it). But I agree with you James that sometimes it is nice to take a break and just enjoy the wine.
Richard Lee
Napa —  May 16, 2012 4:25pm ET
Russell and Kevin,

My friends and I agree w/you as well concerning James constant references to Fig's. We have lovingly named James the Bubba Gump of Fig's. James knows no boundaries on Fig descriptions. James, I used to like your descriptions when you covered mainly Chilean wines, but, now your reviews are so wordy that I no longer read them. Sometimes less is more. Cheers!
Robert Taylor
New York, NY —  May 16, 2012 5:00pm ET
James has asked me to let everyone know that he is on vacation, but looks forward to responding to the comments when he returns to the office on Monday.

Cheers,
Robert Taylor
Associate Editor
Ivan Campos
Ottawa, Canada —  May 16, 2012 10:52pm ET
I appreciate tasting notes with clearly understood indicators for level of wood, alcohol, fruit ripeness and acidity.

Few things are as frustrating as dishing out money for a wine -- often a pinot -- that a reviewer has gushed about in poetic terms, only to find that it is over-oaked, has a fruit profile resembling that of a hot vintage Brunello (thinking cough syrup), detectable alcohol, and acidity that is nowhere near the level necessary to allow it to be versatile (de rigueur for varietals like pinot noir, or a number of Mediterranean blends).

James: appreciate that you aim to keep it real.
Thomas Matthews
New York City —  May 17, 2012 12:10pm ET
As James notes, every taster develops a personal vocabulary; a flavor component one critic perceives as "fig" may remind another critic of dates, or some other fruit. The goal is to remain consistent in one's descriptors, so that readers can rely on them.

I agree with Ivan that a good note includes basic structural descriptors (tannin, acidity, alcohol, etc), and find these are more "objective" than specific flavor descriptors. I want to know if a wine is tart or flabby, astringent or creamy.

What about drink windows? How important are they? After all, most people drink for immediate consumption, and peoples' preferences for how mature they enjoy their wines varies greatly. And how accurate can they be, absent information about storage conditions? Like most Wine Spectator critics, I tend to recommend early drinking, rather than focusing on the far end of the spectrum.

It's all too easy to make fun of tasting note language. It's much harder to take seriously the effort to put sensory inputs into words. But for me, much of the interest in wine comes in communicating with friends. For that, some tasting lexicon is essential. Let's keep working to improve it.
Staffan Bjorlin
Los Angeles, CA —  May 17, 2012 12:40pm ET
Thomas: Precise drinking windows are not very important, but it is hugely important to know if a wine is built for aging or not. In a review for a top bordeaux for example, if the note makes it clear that it is a classic style and it gets a high score than it is evidently a wine built for the long haul. "Best after 2020" or something along those lines might be redundant, and as you point out, peoples' preferences for how mature they want their wine do vary a lot.
Andrew S Bernardo
Ottawa, Ontario, Canada —  May 17, 2012 2:52pm ET
James, all of your notes are appreciated. There have been times that I have gone in search of a spice or dried berry you have referenced in a note out of sheer curiosity. The more description the better in my opinion. Whether it is following along with a tasting note, or writing your own and comparing notes, or using your initial tasting notes as a baseline for comparison when drinking older wines to see how they have evolved, one can't deny their usefulness. Keep up the great work.
Anthony Miles
Seattle, WA —  May 18, 2012 6:20pm ET
A wine critic, like a poet, should strive to achieve what Maestro James De Priest calls "a perfect economy of meaning", but audience and purpose also must be kept in mind. Like many of you, I favor professional notes that emphasize structural characteristics when selecting wines for my cellar; however, we should realize that such notes rarely convey the experience of the wine to the casual drinker. Lane Steinberg's reviews at redwinehaiku.blogspot.com are well-suited for this latter purpose, and the better ones can serve broader purposes, as well. See especially entries 487, 486, 480, 478, 466, 462, 461, 456.

By way of illustration, I once hosted a blind tasting for the summer associates at my law firm during which all participants were required to rank order the wines according to preference and describe their experience of drinking the wine. No references to oenological terms or the pantry were allowed. Instead, participants were encouraged to refer to pop culture: actors/actresses, sports figures, popular music songs/performers, cars, in describing their experience of each wine. Those who had prior tasting experience or who were knowledgeable were asked to serve as judges to select the notes by their colleagues that best matched their experience of drinking the wines. Being contemporaries, the participants all understood each others' various references, and it was fun to see how deeply engaged everyone became and how readily and easily they got into discussions about the accuracy of each others' characterizations of a wine. Just like pointy-headed pros. Of course, I mostly had no idea what they were talking about . . .

James Molesworth
Senior Editor, Wine Spectator —  May 21, 2012 11:41am ET
Russell: For me, linzer is the classic raspberry filling that is sweet and jammy, but not cloying. Raspberry ganache is the typical thick, slightly bittersweet chocolate ganache with raspberry filling.

And loam is the deep, rich, earthy tone typical of Cabernets from Chile's Maipo Valley. I don't really find loam in Rhone reds...

Richard / Russell / Kevin: Sorry I've figged you out. Alas the common black fig is a fruit flavor I often find is rich reds – more so in Grenache-based versions, but also in Cabernet and Merlots. Green fig is a note I can find in whites from Chenin Blanc, Viognier and other varieties.

Ivan: I agree with you – pegging the style of the wine in the note is critical, and that is why it is as important, if not more so, than just the score. There are many outstanding wines from the same grape and same appellation, but often a myriad of styles. Helping readers find the style hey prefer is a major component of the wine reviewing process.

Anthony: I used to do that same game when I conducted introductory wine tastings before coming to WS. When people used a lexicon they were comfortable with (actors or cars), craftng a tasting note was easy. Then we would try and map things over to the more common wine lexicon afterwards...
Jonathan Rezabek
Chandler, AZ —  May 24, 2012 10:00am ET
James, you definitely have a broader vocabulary as far as flavor descriptors than most in your field. Even though I've never had linzer torte I know exactly how it would taste through the wines.
Two things that I wish more tasting notes had were an indication of the oak signature or lack there of as well as the mid-palate. These descriptors show only occasionally, and I feel they are very important.
Acidity is also huge for me, but I can decipher that through the spectrum of fruit already listed.
Karl Mark
Geneva, IL. —  May 24, 2012 7:20pm ET
Great topic. Being a fan of more classical styled Bordeaux (herbal, tobacco, less fruit and more acidity) i really look for tasting notes with some mention of the style. Many notes i read regarding very different vintages often use the same flavor descriptors, so it's important to me/reader that i know the difference in style between a 2002 and a 2009 bottle of Bordeaux.
John Reeves
texas —  May 25, 2012 1:07pm ET
Great topic, James, thanks.
yes, some footnotes would be helpful to get what you mean, like these mention ....

For me, linzer is the classic raspberry filling that is sweet and jammy, but not cloying. Raspberry ganache is the typical thick, slightly bittersweet chocolate ganache with raspberry filling.

And loam is the deep, rich, earthy tone typical of Cabernets from Chile's Maipo Valley. I don't really find loam in Rhone reds...

Alas the common black fig is a fruit flavor I often find is rich reds – more so in Grenache-based versions, but also in Cabernet and Merlots. Green fig is a note I can find in whites from Chenin Blanc, Viognier and other varieties.

Two things that I wish more tasting notes had were an indication of the oak signature or lack there of as well as the mid-palate. These descriptors show only occasionally, and I feel they are very important.

Being a fan of more classical styled Bordeaux (herbal, tobacco, less fruit and more acidity) i really look for tasting notes with some mention of the style. Many notes i read regarding very different vintages often use the same flavor descriptors, so it's important to me/reader that i know the difference in style between a 2002 and a 2009 bottle of Bordeaux
Doug House
Virginia —  June 1, 2012 4:15pm ET
I write tasting notes mainly for use on shelf talkers and the web site of our wine store. Lately, I’ve been trying to talk more about how the consumer might experience the wine in their mouth – how the wine seems to be shaped, how flavors ebb and flow, how your mouth feels when the wine is gone. I use plenty of fruit & spice descriptors, too, but if I write something like “burst of sour cherry snaps across your mouth” I notice it’s the “burst” and “snaps” that seem to resonate with consumers more than the cherry.

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