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stirring the lees with james molesworth

How Important Is a Tasting Note?

Photo by: David Yellen

Posted: Aug 7, 2007 11:30am ET

A recent newspaper column addressed an issue that's been debated before: the worth of wine tasting notes. Some people don't think wine tastes like mocha or prune—it just tastes like wine—and they think that critics are blowing smoke by using such descriptors.

I don't want to constantly argue with people who hold this opinion—different strokes for different folks. If you don't like what you're reading, or listening to, simply read something else, or change the channel.

But I am curious about what importance you place on tasting notes. I always emphasize that they are as important, if not more so, than the score given to the wine. The note should detail the flavor profile of the wine: is it a fruit-driven version or a terroir-driven version? Is it a modern or traditional-styled wine? Is it balanced, or is there some type of flaw? This information can't be conveyed in just the score, and so I feel it's critical to relay it through the note.

Tasting notes also convey the effect a wine has on me. I try to detail how the wine moves me (in good or bad ways), and I often draw upon my still relatively brief life experience in doing so (my "Kitchen Full of Flavors" column speaks to some of this). The more interesting a note, the more interesting the wine was to me. And the opposite holds true. If after tasting 20 Chardonnays in a row I can't come up with anything other than a repetition of terms such as "fig", "apple", "pear" and "toast", for example, then it means that particular flight of wines lacked a standout.

Quite a few years ago, I used to teach an introduction to wine class. When describing certain aspects of wine, I would always start to see a few eyes glaze over—the wine lexicon can be a bit daunting for novices. So to change things up, I'd ask people what they were familiar with—be it movies, cars, artists, actors—and then ask them to describe the wine using those terms. It wouldn't take long before a beginner struggling to describe a wine would start waxing poetic about it being a George Clooney wine, or a Ferrari wine, or what have you. Transferring those observations to the generally accepted wine lexicon was then but a simple step away.

I figure if I can turn a few people on to wine each year with some tasting notes, then I've done my job. But maybe I've gotten out of touch. Perhaps trying to detail the difference between a few dozen Châteauneufs from each new vintage has scrambled my lexicon beyond recognition for you. Do tasting notes seem like an exercise in futility? Does a note that says "raspberry fruit caressed by lush mocha, spice and toast" seem like a line of bs, or does it tell you something about the wine? And do you think such tasting notes would scare off novices who aren't familiar with the lexicon of wine? Or do these notes intrigue beginners instead, making them want to learn more?

James Scoptur
WI —  August 7, 2007 1:32pm ET
I personally love tasting notes. i use the notes to guide me in a way. if someone wrote down descriptors that appeal to my tastes, i tend to buy that wine. it is like being able to taste the wine before you buy it and letting you know that if these descriptors intrigue you that it may well be worth paying whatever it costs to try it out. Scores, for me, don't factor in as much as a description does.
Kirk R Grant
Ellsworth, ME —  August 7, 2007 1:43pm ET
James, I guess the first thing to say is that I do read the tasting notes far more carefully now than I did initially. In the beginning I was, like many people a score chaser¿if it wasn¿t 90+ I didn¿t want to spend my money on it. It wasn¿t until I started tasting hundreds to thousands of wines in a few months time that I realized what mattered most¿my palate. Now with my palate I decide on what to drink. However, when I am opening up a highly rated wine (1998 Grange) that I have not tasted yet, I turn to the tasting notes from Wine Spectator and other sources when planning my meal. I do think that the scores are helpful to all in some way or another¿however I think that possibly an A, B, C, D, or F with no (+/-) would be a way to even out the field when it comes to people ¿flipping¿ wine. What are your thoughts on doing away with numbers and finding an alternative method of rating wine¿maybe even just using the notes alone?
James Molesworth
August 7, 2007 1:45pm ET
James: And do you consider yourself a novice or experience wine lover?

(And for anyone else who chimes in here with a thought, please describe your wine knowledge level - consider it an unofficial poll).
Trevor/38 On Central
August 7, 2007 1:47pm ET
Great blog. It seems to me that while tasting notes have their usefulness, it takes a novice some time to decipher them. Not unlike the variable reality of scores really. Information means little without the practical experience to back it up. To call a Hermitage fruity and spicy (with more specific descriptors of course) is comprehensible to anyone, but unless a person has had one of the monster Syrahs coming out these days, that comprehension has no reference point and the greater understanding is lost.
Glenn Keeler
OC, CA —  August 7, 2007 1:53pm ET
I personally think the tasting note is much more important than the score. I look for things in the note that play towards what I like, for instance, I'm more of an old world guy so I avoid things like "explosion of jammy fruit". To be honest, I wish the Spectator notes were a little more descriptive...
Steve Barber
Clayton, CA. —  August 7, 2007 2:03pm ET
Once I learned the soft and hard components of wine, the categories of descriptors ( you've seen the aroma wheels and so forth), I could then understand (balance) and communicate what I am tasting and prefer. At that point, the tasting notes took on more meaning for me. The order of the flavor profile in the note is important.Is the smoke,tar,loam up front at the nose? Or, is the fruit upfront more? I would cite the 2000 Don Melchor vs. the 2003 Don Melchor as a great example. It might work to weight each note, Raspberry fruit 70%, lush mocha, spice, toast 5% as secondary underlying flavor themes....etc.For the novice, getting red or black fruit correct is a good start. Out of touch? The WS editors almost can't help it. You've reached the highest level of competency, and unintentionally speak above most wine consumers.
James Molesworth
August 7, 2007 2:07pm ET
Kirk: I don't want to turn this into a debate on scores - but to answer your question, I think the 100-point scale is here to stay...

Trevor: You're right - frame of reference is critical - the solution is to always keep tasting.

Glenn: We need to be even more descriptive? Not sure the copy editors want to hear that one ;-)!
William Keene
North Carolina —  August 7, 2007 2:29pm ET
Hey James. Interesting topic. I put a lot of value on your notes and tasting notes in general. They are very important to me - much more than score. Good notes say everything about the wine (style, aroma, texture, finish, flavors, etc.) and they have a huge impact on my purchases.

For me, notes were very intriguing as a beginner. I couldn't understand how people were tasting all this stuff in a glass of wine. I wanted to learn more, so I would often taste wine with several different notes in front of me to see if I could get a sense of what each author was saying about the wine. This tactic was a huge help. It assisted me in determining how various critics rate wine and use certain terms to describe different flavors. It also helped me get a feel for which critics I prefered. I love to cook, so it wasn't long before I was paying more attention to the aromas of all types of foods, spices, herbs, etc. and trying to relate them to what was lurking in my glass. I have learned a lot and I am a big believer in them -so please keep the good notes coming! I am sure that many will agree that they are vital to communicating any wine's attributes to another.
Jeffrey Ghi
New York —  August 7, 2007 2:30pm ET
Some of it is a bit of a "farce". I forget where but I remember reading a tasting note once that threw every vegetable and fruit under the rainbow. Something along the lines of pineapple, sour apple, lime, citrus, asparagus, broccoli rabe, and so on. Looked like I was reading a grocery list instead of a tasting note.

"raspberry fruit caressed by lush mocha, spice and toast" tho I have to say is extremely helpful. It does convey the taste of wine, a rich slightly tart red wine balanced by an oak component with soft tannins.
Phil Roberts
Palatine, IL —  August 7, 2007 2:31pm ET
Notes are important to me and as my mental vocabulary develops they have increasing value. One thing I would like to see in a tasting note, but I'm not sure what to look for, is when a red wine has a "sweet" taste to it. I find this a lot in Australian Shiraz but haven't found a descriptor in the notes for those wines that would warn me about this. I would avoid those wines if I could reliably see a descriptor that tipped that off.
Lisa Dornbach
Walnut Creek, CA —  August 7, 2007 2:35pm ET
James...I think you make a good point about scaring away novices with the wine lexicon; however, those novices who desire to increase their understanding of wine should be using these "confusing" tasting notes as a basis from which to learn. For some, wine just tastes like wine because the ways in which different flavor profiles are achieved are not evident just by looking at the wine in a glass. I like to think of the tasting notes as being analogous to an ingredients list; it allows me to decide if i might like the wine. Also, it is educational trying to see if i can taste the "ingredients" in the glass. I think fewer people would be intimidated by tasting notes if they relate them to the same way they taste foods.
Michael Webb
Pittsburgh, PA —  August 7, 2007 3:16pm ET
I really enjoy using the tasting notes that are published each month. Each weekend I try and prepare a meal and serve a wine that will work well with the ingredients. Reading the tasting notes allow me to pour wines that I have not previously tasted. Without the tasting notes I would probably end up falling back on previous wine/food pairings that I enjoyed. I do like to use the ratings provided by Wine Spectator, however, I know from experience that my palate is not always the same as the editors. Additionally, I also enjoy taking notes when trying a new wine, and comparing my notes to the editor's of Wine Spectator. I consider myself a novice; however I can typically determine the varietal and region of a wine tasted blind. Most of my friends/relative think of me as an expert, but I know better.
Clifford Brantley Smith
Portland —  August 7, 2007 3:22pm ET
I use scores and tasting notes in conjunction with one another. I might be drawn to two 90 pt wines, but will narrow it down based on the specific tasting notes provided by the reviewer. I know the flavor profiles I'm attracted to so the specific notes are a real help. Yes, I know a lot of people bemoan the 100 pt system, and that you should develop your own palate, but for those of us who don't have the time or resources to taste hundreds of wines each year the scores and tasting notes are a real aid. And frankly I've come to find that the reviewers at WS do a pretty good job of nailing down quality wines.
Tom Breneman
eau claire, WI —  August 7, 2007 3:45pm ET
Tasting notes are far more important than score, but I've found it very helpful to read the TN of the WS editors to help understand my likes. BUT when it comes down to "creative tasting notes" NO ONE beats Gary Vaynerchuk. Love him or hate him.
Randy Audas
Toronto, Canada —  August 7, 2007 3:53pm ET
James, great blog. I'm not a beginner but certainly not an expert. I use scores simply to guide me to a relative quality level in the wine and consider that is all they can do. I figure wines of 88 pts. and above should be good quality but a 95 pt. wine doesn't mean I will enjoy it. I use tasting notes to guide me to the type of wines, or rather tastes in a wine, that I like. I don't always get all the nuances described but I am often amazed at the number I do pick up. Tasting notes, when consistent, can tell me if the wine described is something I like. Equally important to the notes themselves is identifying what a reviewer means by a specific description.
Troy Peterson
Burbank, CA —  August 7, 2007 4:13pm ET
I consider myself an appreciator of wine with about 5 years of what I would call fine wine experience. I enjoy collecting wine for my personal consumption, so I use scores to weed out wines that aren't worthy of precious cellar space (unless I'm just bringing a bottle home to consume right away, then I'll take a wine store recommendation). The tasting notes become very important at this point because they're the only way I can gauge my palate to the critics' palates. For example, if Laube says a high-scoring Chardonnay is "opulent" it's a no-brainer that I'm going to love the wine. It has worked over and over, so much so that I've begged Dana to offer a new advanced search engine that includes the tasting notes. Imagine how happy I'll be when I can search for opulent Chards and then order them by vintage then by score. I can see it now!
Karl Mark
Geneva, IL. —  August 7, 2007 4:39pm ET
While I find the tasting notes very important I often find myself asking "what the hell does that taste like??". Sometimes I think I should take a culinary class to understand all these herbs and spices! I'm fairly inexperienced when it comes to tasting and identifying different descriptors with regard to wine. It's one thing to memorize the entire French 1855 classification, it's another thing to understand the subtle difference between a left bank or right bank, Chilean cab vs. California cab. Tasting descriptors help (when done right) me understand the subtle difference between these wines.
Andrew J Walter
Sacramento,CA —  August 7, 2007 4:44pm ET
Great column! I am a homewinemaker, own a small stake in start-up botique winery and have 16 years of wine drinking experience above Sutter Home White Zin--so I have some knowledge. I much prefer the new world style of wines so tasting notes are critical for me--esp when buying wines from Europe. I just had a 97 point $200 Rhone blend (OV Grenache mostly) which tasted like s*** mixed with rasberries (terroir or so i am told)---upon reading the tasting note, i would have known that it was a wine i would not like. So keep scoring and describing the wines---it is a big help!
Jason Thompson
Foster City, CA —  August 7, 2007 4:44pm ET
Great topic James.

I would say I am an intermediate wine lover. I have been drinking since I was a kid and collecting for 6-7 years. I think the most important comment so far was Trevor's point. If you have no frame of reference, then the tasting note and score are both of little value. I value the tasting notes to an extremely high level if I have never had anything from that specific region or winery. I will almost buy based on the tasting note and corresponding score in those cases.

When it comes to a winery and wines I know very well (Kistler Chards from all their plantings or Spottswoode Cabs), I have almost no need for the tasting notes unless I want to test my palate. I know what those wines will taste like, year in and year out. In those instances, a vintage chart is likely all I need to make my wine purchasing decisions....

It all comes down to the situation. I also find great use in the tasting notes when I try wines of regions I am not very familiar with. Say, Austrian or South African wines.

Jason
Tim Sylvester
Santa Monica, CA —  August 7, 2007 4:45pm ET
James--I'm a serious wine enthusiast with a large and broad collection of new and old world reds and whites. I drink wine nearly every day and try to focus on the distinctions, flavors, smells and other sensory aspects of each wine I drink and often take notes in one of my tasting books. Thus, tasting notes from professionals are far more important to me than scores. I find some tasting notes, yours, Laube's, Tanzer, to be very informative and approachable, leading to new discoveries and favorites. The notes of others, Parker, Suckling, Broadbent, at times leave me mystified and stymied and seemed focused on arcane adjectives and tortured phrases rather than descriptions of fine wine. Thanks for another thoughtful column.
Craig Wilson
Ben Lomond, CA —  August 7, 2007 6:52pm ET
I'd say that score and notes are both important to me - but score gets first place. Since there are huge numbers of wineries, most with multiple varietals, it's not practical for anyone to choose what to buy by trying bottles at random. So unless we've bought a wine before, we have to use either the opinions of professional wine reviewers or recommendations by individuals who've tried the wines. When I scan through the list of available wines offered by a merchant on the internet, I often compare the score and price shown, and if I see something that appears to offer great value, I'll read the note and make sure that it sounds like something I'd like, knowing that in general the score indicates how much the reviewer liked or loved it.With regard to the obscure flavor profiles that often appear in tasting notes, I'm not much of a believer. I have no doubt that the reviewer is being honest, but the power of suggestion is so strong (though less so among you professionals) that if a particular descriptor comes to mind, you may convince yourself that it's there, even if nobody else would independently come up with the same thing. I'm sure you've seen notes on the same wine from two different reviewers, as I have, in which beyond the standard smells and flavors associated with that varietal, the other terms are completely different - although the scores will usually be in the same ball park.Of course I'm aware that my inability to tease out large numbers of odor components is my own failing and maybe I'm just jealous of your talents. I do enjoy the poetry of your descriptions and sympathize with how difficult it is to come up with fresh ways of talking about the huge numbers of wines you lucky people get to taste.
Alan Snitow
NJ/NYC —  August 7, 2007 8:59pm ET
I find tasting notes quite helpful in helping determine whether a wine thats new to me is worth seeking out. Answering the question of whether stylistically it fits what i seek in a particular varietal, region, etc. Does it seem like the kind of wine I like - regardless of whether i will find the exact same notes or not that taster did. Within a particular score or range of scores one can find wildly different wines. Without descriptive notes, how would one choose?
Fred Brown
August 7, 2007 9:31pm ET
We had friends over the other night for a "pinot black bag" tasting. We had a bottle each of the 2005 Chasseur RRV and Sonoma pinots, a bottle of Alma Rosa Pinot Noir Sta. Rita Hills 2005, and (because of a surprise promotion) a Caymus 2002 Cabernet Sauvignon Special Selection. The wines were bagged. I provided a sheet with the scores and WS tasting notes (no variety or label info), and the game was to match the wine to the score/tasting note. I was shocked when it was pointed out that the Caymus note and the Chasseur notes were so close as to make it impossible to tell them apart (though obviously easy to tell the wines apart).I share this story because it illustrates how I use the tasting note - only in combination with the varietal, the regional origin, the score, and my experience with the wine in the past.I know many people who are totally intimidated by the score/tasting note mystique. These folks do enjoy our company though, and I suspect that it has a lot to do with the wines we serve and bring to social gatherings. We would not do as well in selecting wines without the assistance of the WS scores and notes.In summary, you are helping us and others, even though the lingua franca is dense, difficult, and needs a Rosetta stone of experience to translate. Keep up the good work!
James Peterson
San Antonio, Texas —  August 7, 2007 9:42pm ET
I happen to be drinking a 2001 Banfi Summus tonight -- a wine I really really like. Suckling's note is okay: ''Beautiful aromas of blackberry and cherry, with a hint of chocolate. Full-bodied, with an ultrarefined tannin structure and a long, caressing finish.'' It scored a 91. If it was me, I would just say that the wine is really delicious -- no matter what the actual flavors are -- and I would buy it again. I find that once I commit to liking a wine, and it's style, I am rarely disappointed. The notes and scores are more often than not a confirmation for me that someone else values the wine as I do. Frankly, the negative tasting notes about wines that I would usually buy are more important to me than the glowing notes. But that's just me.
George Fischer
Cleveland, Ohio —  August 7, 2007 9:44pm ET
I love reading tasting notes but if I know I am going to try a reviewed bottle, I try and wait to read the tasting notes until AFTER I have actually tasted the wine. I think it is fun to make my own notes and then compare them to the notes of a wine pro. I have found that if I read the tasting note first, it clouds my own personal judgment of the wine and what I am tasting. Of course, for some of the more expensive wines that are out of my price range (1st growth bordeaux and cali cult wines - I'm looking at you), it's fun to read the tasting note, close my eyes, and simply try and imagine what the wine tastes like.
Valentin Gasser
Zurich, Switzerland —  August 7, 2007 9:55pm ET
I totally agree with Craig. Many times my personal descriptors differ from that of winespectator or any other source but I give the wine more or less the same points. I guess the descriptors are very much dependent on the taster's past olfactory or "tasty" experiences. Then of course every individual stores, associates and evokes these sensations in a different way. However there is a common understanding what makes the quality of wine hence the more or less same points: Balance, persistance, "true to its own" etc. So I think it would be more useful to describe the wine in a more abstract way like manly, feminin, short, long, generous, sharp, complex, simple, one-dimensional etc.
Horacio Campana / Butler Me
Monterrey, Mexico —  August 7, 2007 10:12pm ET
James, I like TNs and scores both. I value TNs that describe weight, new worldish vs. old worldish, tannin structure, acidity level and density. Individual aroma/taste descriptors are a lot less useful as they tend to be more personal in nature. Sadly, most critics writing short TNs focus on specific flavor descriptors instead of the style. The result is all TNs are nearly identical.
Tom K.
CA —  August 8, 2007 1:16am ET
I'm an advanced novice - someone who diligently reads about wine, enjoys budget wine and collectibles alike, but couldn't write a tasting note to save my life (what is a gooseberry?). I do think tasting notes are great, and the more I personally taste, the more meaningful the notes. I've tasted 99 and 100 point wines and quite frankly, liked some of the 90 point wines better because they suit my palate (at least right now). So I'm advanced enough to know it's not all about the rating, but where does that really leave me?

A few weeks ago Rajat Parr commented in a blog that when he does blind tastings, they have to be classic examples. This gets me thinking - if WS rated wines relative to their classic composition - below average "heat" for zins, above average jamminess for pinot noir, etc., then WS could provide a list of other wines that fit that profile. It'd be an e-sommelier of sorts. Taking it further, it'd be great to also have the ability to add wines to my preferred list and check a few boxes on what I liked most about it. The e-sommelier can then watch as I continue experiencing and tasting new wines, recommending similar wines along the way.

The tasting note and score are still very important - I believe there is high value in creative tasting notes and a point system that is based only on the overall quality of the wine. But the taster should also mark some checkboxes comparing it relative to the classic standard. If you do, I would have a true tool to help when I am confronted by a wine list with a bunch of wines I've never heard of and from regions I can't pronounce. I'd search for the wines and the WS e-sommelier would say "You're going to hate that $300 Bordeaux, go for that Sonoma Pinot Noir, it's right up your alley, or if you're feeling adventurous, try that oddball Cab Franc."

-Tom
Maes
Belgium/Brussels —  August 8, 2007 3:22am ET
Hi James,From experience I would say that tasting notes at first seem highly exaggerated. What I did however, was buy a few bottles you and your colleagues wrote tasting notes about (to see if I could discover the same). I then tried to decipher what you wrote. As such I was able to understand (part of) the tasting note and develop a taste of my own. So yes, you may be out of touch but you still help (a lot).Regards,Rob
Jeffrey Nowak
scottsdale, arizona —  August 8, 2007 4:56am ET
if i have already tasted the wine, or have a good knowledge of it's pedigree from past vintages, i glance at the score to assess where a given critic has placed it within their context. the text of the note won't mean much to me under this circumstance because i've already formed my own opinion. if the score is differentially higher or lower than where i think it should be, i might read the note just to find out what's up. i pay closer attention to the description if it's a wine i'm interested in, but inexperienced with. then i try to calibrate the note with my own known prejudices, and i will pay more attention to scores assigned these wines, arbitrarily demarcated at 90. i consider myself an advanced intermediate taster.
Stuart Bander
Chicago, Il —  August 8, 2007 8:09am ET
Again, you are absolutely correct, the people that aren't intersted in the discripters are likely not that interested in wine. The words mean far more to me then the scores, I want to know about the wine far more then attaching a magic number to it, the people that hunt for numbers are fairly easily led, they see a 90 point score and they must have it without knowing anything about the wine. As always thanks for your insight.
James Molesworth
August 8, 2007 9:41am ET
Wow, lots of great comments - thanks folks.

Maes: How would you say I'm a little out of touch? Too many descriptors for each wine? Too esoteric?

Tom K.: Goosberries are a large berry (usually yellow or green, but there are other colors) that grow in northern Europe. They are tart on their own, and great for making jelly.
John Lahart
New York —  August 8, 2007 10:12am ET
I agree that the single most important aspect of wine that must be conveyed by a tasting note is the wine's flavor profile.Elements such as balance, acidity, finish, complexity, tannins and typicity are important.These rely upon a taster's ability to apply some objective observation. Wine tasting is, contrary to popular belief, NOT a purely subjective endeavor. If it were, there would be no real purpose in tasting notes.I do note that you use the terms "fruit driven" and "terroir driven." I know what you mean but these are unfortunate terms that actually confuse things.All wine is terroir driven (it comes from somewhere). All wine is made from fruit. There are fruit flavors and non fruit flavors in most every wine-- the evidence of chemical compounds. The question is which predominate.How a wine tastes is mostly a result of how the grapes (fruit) ripen and how and what chemical compounds develop.I also believe that a good tasting note can provide context for the wine in question. A taster should bring his or her experience to the effort.All in all, this is a good topic. You thoughts are interesting and informative.Thanks!
Ken Koonce
Dallas, Texas —  August 8, 2007 12:54pm ET
Experience level: 10 years enjoying wine, 5 years reading about it, collecting it and really pursuing it.I must confess I look at scores first and foremost. I generally assume I know what a Napa Cab should more-or-less taste like (and assume any critic I'm bothering to read does,too). So if a Napa Cab gets 90+ pts, I expect to have a pretty good idea what I'd be getting. Only if I have questions or want to whet my appetite do I look more closely at the tasting note. And I would say general is better - I like my Syrah on the spicey side, and would like to know the wine in question has that attribute, but naming a very specific or obscure spice doesn't help me much.
Anacleto Ludovic
paris france  —  August 8, 2007 3:35pm ET
in france , when i asked to my mentor at the beggining of my carrers as sommelier, what is sommelier he simply respond: its the one who puts words into emotions. I agree 100% with the comments who says that tasting notes are way more important than scores. It is not esoteric nor pedant or strange, but the world of wine and the wine lovers are the poets of the epicurian world. Keep up the excelent tasting notes and your accurates statement. regards, Ludovic
Maes
Belgium/Brussels —  August 9, 2007 9:40am ET
Hi James,Indeed too many discriptors. I would also like to see more on the ageing potential. Best after ... seems a bit too thin.Regards,Rob
James Molesworth
August 9, 2007 9:55am ET
Maes: I agree that "Best after..." is not the most precise drink recommendation we have. But some people like wines very old, some don't. While I prefer to be more finite in the drink recommendation windows I provide, some of the editors leave it more up to you..it's a personal preference thing.
Apj Powers
Dallas, TX —  August 9, 2007 11:03am ET
molecular resemblances: citrus from terpenes, esters of pears, aldehydes of apples, almondy benzaldehydes of cherries; these are all molecular components of certain wines. Maillard reaction gives the aromas of bread or toast. Oak contains long sugar molecules that when toasted resemble the vanilla, carmel, cinnamon aromas, etc. Methoxyprazine=green pepper, peas. Butter=diacetyl. My point is that 'some' tasting note descriptions are helpful and more real than a novice might think. However, I much prefer the generalizations that Michael Broadbent uses: "...on the palate, Sweet, rich..."; "...dense, full of fruit on the nose & palate..." The descriptions that give a few flavors and then describe texture, balance and if the wine is aromatic, firm & how it finishes are more helpful than, as the above blogger noted, a grocery list of fruits & veggies.
Apj Powers
Dallas, TX —  August 9, 2007 11:40am ET
There is an interesting article by Alex Hunt, The Foundations of Flavor.(or am i just weird for thinking that it is interesting).
Brad Jones Jr
Richmond, Va. —  August 9, 2007 2:17pm ET
James,I find the tasting notes to be of tremendous help within a category of wine in which I have a particularly strong interest (Chateauneuf-du-Pape, for example). The notes allow me to compare both different vintages from the same producer, and different producers within the same vintage. In an appellation with such strong typicity as Chateauneuf, I want to be sure that the wine I buy reflects the local winemaking tradition and style. I don't necessarily treat every note (raspberries, game, garrigue, etc.) as a telltale descriptor in and of itself, but rather in some holistic way. I certainly appreciate your efforts!
Maes
Belgium/Brussels —  August 9, 2007 3:14pm ET
I agree with the personal preference thing, but I still think that a combination of drink after ... and drink before ... would please both tastes.
Noemi M-cinzano
london —  August 9, 2007 8:33pm ET
Dear James,As a producer and more so; A wine lover...I strongly believe that it is all a matter of taste.One si brought up with...one is taught to....one is.....
Joseph Kane
Austin —  August 10, 2007 10:53am ET
I personally enjoy tasting notes and believe that they are extremely educational. Without a Nez Du Vin class where you get to sniff exactly what the essence of something smells like, deduction and common experiences are all us amateurs have to go on. Personally, I do not taste 300 wines a month, but probably read about 100 tasting notes and taste 30 - 50 wines, whether at home or our local wine retailer/bar. The tasting notes allow me to compare what I smell and taste with some reference. By using tasting notes I can pick out the difference between plum, cassis, current, etc. because I read what wine has this, then try to identify that specific note. I don't always agree, but it helps to educate my palate and nose.
Joseph Kane
Austin —  August 10, 2007 11:20am ET
Sorry James, I didn't see your earlier post. I am a semi-advanced wine lover. I write my own tasting notes as I taste something, then like to compare with WS notes. The other thing I love about tasting notes is their ability to help you identify wines that do not meet your palate preferences. If a wine is heady, explosive, with "monster fruit" high glycerin and massive alcohol content, I will probably stay away, even if it scored a 93. I would much prefer a tasting note with well integrated cedar-box spices, blackberry, cassis and loam. Two wines may both be wonderfully complex wines, but their style may be completely different. A parkerized Cab against a traditional Bordeaux may get identical scores, but it is the tasting note that delineates the two. That goodness for that.
Anacleto Ludovic
paris france  —  August 10, 2007 2:23pm ET
a "parkerized" cab! nice....... never seen it before......
Chris Terrell
Brimingham, AL —  August 10, 2007 2:44pm ET
I don't find notes that describe flavors to be particularly useful (i.e., mocha, blueberry, black cherry, etc.) This may be because, as you mentioned, wine tastes like wine, not green bell pepper or tobacco (thank goodness!). Notes that describe style, however, are more useful in my opinion--for example, whether a wine is "light," "medium," or "full-bodied;" whether the wine is new world or old world; or "earthy" or "spicy." In short, I use tasting notes more as a rough guide to determine if the style of the wine, as opposed to its flavor, is the kind I like. Because I drink wine with food, tasting notes that discuss pairings would be great. But don't get me wrong. I think tasting notes are generally a good thing. I agree with the person who said he or she uses notes to determine if the wine's style is consistent with the grape and location. If I see a note that makes a pinot sound like some Australian Shiraz bruiser, then I know to stay away from that one.
Dominic M Dela Rosa
NJ —  August 11, 2007 3:22pm ET
I consider myself in the middle of Novice and Beginner in wine knowledge. When I first got into wine and eventually into collecting, I used the tasting notes as a guide to making purchases and sampling wines that I would like or dislike. I did realize, however, that tasting notes can be highly subjective and be very dependent on the person's preferences. It was important for me to personally taste the wines that have been rated by a number of publications and determine whose tastes or preferences mirrored mine. Since then, I have learned to pick up on key words in the tasting notes such as wine being balanced or hot, herbal or fruit-forward, rasberry or plum, chocolate or spice, vanilla spice or citrus, etc.
Gilberto Ochman Da Silva
S?Paulo/Brazil —  August 12, 2007 9:27am ET
I would like to know what's your opinion about Domaine de Pegau 2003? Is there significant difference between "Reserve" and "Cuvee da Capo"?
James Molesworth
August 13, 2007 10:29am ET
Chris: Aren't a wine's style and flavor profile inextricably linked?

Gilberto: Better to post off-topic queries in our forums...as for the '03 cuvees from Pegau, I do not find a 'significant' difference - both are great wines which I rated 97 and 99 points. The da Capo cuvee (99 points) is denser with a touch more structure. At that quality level though, it is just splitting hairs to find differences...
Chris Terrell
Brimingham, AL —  August 13, 2007 12:18pm ET
I don't disagree that wine style and flavor profile are inextricably linked. I guess that for me at least, I'm more drawn to the language used to describe wine style, as opposed to the flavor profile. Like Robert Frost said about his poetry: if someone gets something different out of one of my poems than I intended, so be it. (I paraphrase, of course.)
Roberto Cassis Phillips
August 13, 2007 4:32pm ET
James your article is great as always! I love the tasting notes. I am waiting for the Marques de Casa Concha 2005 Cabernet Sauvignon score.Tell us soon!!
Trey Rolofson
Overland Park, KS —  August 14, 2007 8:47am ET
Great topic James. Enjoyed reading all the comments...I agree with Maes on the drinking windows (Best after....), but do understand the open endedness for personal preference.
Marissa Ocasio
Connecticut —  August 14, 2007 12:17pm ET
Being in the wine business, I take notes at formal tastings because I want to be better at what I do (I just passed the WSET Advanced and planning to do the Diploma). When consumers ask me about taking notes, I tell them to write down the name of the wine, vintage, varietal, etc. and whether they liked it or not. I think that sometimes trying to use the same language with consumers that I use with my peers doesn't convey the same meaning. I always try to put consumers who are tasting at ease; yet many of them say they tasted a wine they loved but can't remember the name, in that case that note would have helped
James Molesworth
August 14, 2007 12:31pm ET
Marissa: As with writing in general, tasting notes are definitely a skill that needs to be practiced. I always impress upon folks to write something - anything - about a wine they liked...
Andrew J Walter
Sacramento,CA —  August 14, 2007 1:51pm ET
Here is a good example of how t use a tasting note (at least in my opinion) and why you need to compare what wines you like with what the taste has described. Here are notes from a recent tasting I went to. The first is the 2000 Pegau -- 97 pts by you. The 2nd is the 2003 Reva Albans Syrah -- 96s points by Laube."Like staring down into a well. A seemingly bottomless glass, full of dark currant, chocolate-covered espresso bean, roasted game, fig compote, iron and loam flavors, all supported by iron-clad structure and riveting acidity. Terrifically endowed, with a deft sense of balance. Drink now through 2020""A rich, massive, densely flavored Syrah, packed with syrupy currant, wild berry and boysenberry fruit, with dashes of beef, pepper and spice and a hint of cedar and earth. While the tannins are big and muscular, they have a gentleness that lets the flavors gain complexity on the finish. Best from 2006 through 2012"We you describe "iron and loam"--well that tastes like barnyard or manure to me. I HATED the 2000 Pagau. When JL describes cedar and syrup...I generally like the wine and the Reva was no exception -- LOVED it.Without comparative knowledge, however, then both tasting notes (and scores) are almost useless. Thats why it pays to read the Spectator. Thanks!
James Molesworth
August 14, 2007 1:52pm ET
Andrew: Good to hear the notes work for you...and if you have any extra bottles of the 2000 Pegau that you don't want, send it my way ;-)...
Tim Hansen
Milwaukee, WI —  August 15, 2007 10:14am ET
With so many wines, and so little time and money, one must resort to scores as a starting point, if for no other reason than to eliminate the truly vulgar wines. After that, tasting notes really are the only way for me to decide whether to consider the wine. Again, if I had limitless time and resources, I'd try them all - why not? But the tasting notes reveal a couple of important things. One, the style of the wine (old or new world, oaky, fruit-driven, austere, etc.) Two, the impressions of the reviewer, which I consider the most telling. Once I have some experiences trying wines a particular reviewer recommended, I can determine whether the reviewer and I like the same style of wine. Once you know that, you can make an informed choice based on the reviewers preferences measured against your own. It's not a romantic approach, but it's better than wasting $80 on bad wine. Life's too short. So keep up the good work!

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