Back in the tasting room after a hiatus of several weeks, I am wrestling with whether my approach to tasting notes helps readers or makes wine seem too la-di-da for them.
Some fairly well-known wine writers have weighed in on the subject recently, the general thrust of their criticism being that it’s a fool’s errand to try to paint a detailed picture of a wine. Specific descriptors only turn off potential wine drinkers.
So where does that leave me as I face a row of 20 Washington Cabernet Sauvignon blends? The way I see it, readers want me to sort the wines out for them, to describe them well enough to understand what makes one better than another. You need enough information to decide if you want to buy the wine I’m reviewing. I need to differentiate them from each other.
My approach is to sketch out the general outlines of a wine—broad or narrow, fruity or savory, tart or soft—then home in on what distinguishes it. That’s usually a combination of characteristics, sometimes the level of tannins, or the quality of the tannins, from plush to gritty. Some wines feel dense, others more transparent. Does the acidity make it feel racy, or soft? Is the wine mouthfilling or delicate?
But often it’s a distinctive flavor profile. In the Cab blends this week, some showed typical black cherry fruit, others more currant or plum. Some displayed more savory flavors, such as roasted meat or herbs. Others had nuances reminiscent of warm stones (the much-debated minerality). Some tasted of oak, with vanilla, clotted cream or spicy notes.
Are these specific flavor notes pretentious? I know that everyone isn't going to taste exactly the same things. We all have different sensitivites to all the elements in wine, including flavor esters. But good writing, we are taught, aims for specifics, not easy generalities. Believing that should apply to tasting notes too, I try to be specific, but I also try to keep the number of descriptors manageable. For most wines I rough out the structure in two or three words, and keep the flavor descriptors to two, three or four terms.
Some critics run much longer tasting notes than that. Trying to find the golden mean can be tricky. For me, a good wine that scores in the mid-80s may only need 10 to 15 words to give you the idea. But a score in the mid-90s, with more complexity and more detail to describe, needs to have a more complete case made for it.
And then there’s the whole issue of tasting blind. Here at Wine Spectator, we do, because we don’t want to be swayed by preconceptions. I always thought that was a given, because if I know whose wine I am tasting it’s way too easy to make my judgment fit what’s expected, rather than what is. Besides, I don’t want a label’s reputation or my personal relationships with people at the wineries I review to affect how highly I rate their wines. Blind tasting takes that element out of the equation.
What happens when a wine that ought to be fantastic comes up short? Maybe a faulty cork stripped the wine of its flavor without leaving a telltale corky character. Maybe I just whiffed on it. That’s why we always ask for two bottles. A second bottle can resolve such questions. If I suspect the bottle before its identity is revealed, it can be replaced on the spot. Otherwise, the second bottle goes into another tasting.
To be clear, reviewing wines for publication is not a parlor game where someone brings out a mystery wine and challenges everyone to identify it. In tastings we know enough about the wines to put them in context—region, grape variety, vintage. We just don’t know who made them or whether we’re tasting a $6 bottle or a $100 bottle. I can always add a phrase or sentence to put the wine in context if it’s better or worse than expected. But first the judgment of how good it is gets locked in.
A good tasting note should serve the reader with a concise but thorough description, colorful if the wine deserves it, the words expanding on a rating free of bias.