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?
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