Wine Tasting Notes…Intimidating or Comforting?

I read an article the other day and I thought it was very thought-provoking. It speaks about wine reviews and how the terms and descriptors are intimidating to the average wine buyer. Given that this is a wine review site, meant to help people make successful (for their own tastes) wine choices, I’m quite interested in feedback from the readers here.

The article covers a new approach to wine tasting notes and I would encourage you to read it before commenting; only so that both sides of the situation will be presented to you, and not just my very short opinion below.

Re-Thinking Wine Tasting Notes – The Grape Collective.

My thoughts regarding “traditional descriptors” are they help me to make a decision based on the actual flavor profile of the wine. When someone says “black fruit” they have my attention, less so with “red fruit”. If someone says “bright, tart, cherry” I slowly back away…for me “spices, rich & velvety” are all inviting terms, while “grassy, bell pepper, sweet, cloying & tart” are a sign to put down the bottle.

The article comes from the opposite perspective, indicating that many people feel that wine descriptors are intimidating and more of rhetoric than use. I actually find traditional wine tasting notes very helpful (and the alternative options presented really uninformative, for what I’m trying to learn about a bottle of wine).

How do you feel? This GO wine blog covers the vast spectrum of the wine buying consumer; everyone from the oenephile who wants a good bargain, to someone who just wants to know “if a wine is good” before they buy. Are you intimidated by traditional wine terms? Do you find them useful? Do you use alternative methods when you describe a wine?

I’m interested in thoughts across the board here, because the purpose of this blog is to help you find a wine that suits your tastes, needs or wants.

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22 thoughts on “Wine Tasting Notes…Intimidating or Comforting?

    1. permiesworld Post author

      Winefolly.com is a great site. Super user friendly. It’s designed well for anyone who’s just learning about wine but also has interesting articles on a regular basis for people who are just wanting to learn new things. It’s well written and informative. I keep it on my tablet Flipboard along with several other wine blogs (I love the Wine Curmudgeon too) I follow.

      Reply
  1. inthewinecountry

    First off Permies, I want to thank you for your reviews and the time it takes and for this lively discussion you started. The only thing I can agree with the writer of that article is like him I gravitate to being interested and wanting to taste wines similar to people’s (wine reviewer’s taste) that is similar to my own. Therefore I follow your reviews with interest and wish you reviewed GO down here not up in Wa. For similar reasons I like Lim’s reviews. Each person’s taste is different so it is easy to expect some wine lover here doesn’t like the wines you do.
    As for taste it changes with time and certainly with age. When I tasted my first wine working in a liquor store at 16 I liked Boone’s Farm Strawberry Hill, LOL Anyone remember that E&JG brand? Years later I disappointed a mentor who owned a store and sold me a good quality Bordeaux which I returned because it tasted musty and I thought it was corked.
    But I agree descriptions can be abused or overly wordy. Especially in the world of wine, when sellers try to push a inferior wine on a buyer. But! these descriptors serve a purpose, The first Robert Stemmler Pinot I tasted reminded me exactly of the smell of a barnyard, not that it tasted like that but the smell did. When I tasted a Heitz Cab. I knew exactly what a writer meant by a Eucalyptus Menthol smell/taste to their wine. Back in the 80’s this was the first connection I remember hearing that the terroir affects the grapes. In fact there was a row of these trees next to one of their vineyards. I laughed when you mentioned your husband’s comment and it reminded me of the time I worked in a lumber mill and had to handle a stack of fresh cut pine that actually smelled like Pis….!
    Keep up the good work, the only suggestion I might have is keep it simple. I hate it when writers combine (Bing) Cherry, Cassis, Raspberry etc all in the same description. One is enough for me to imagine a tart red fruit flavor and smell.

    Reply
    1. permiesworld Post author

      Hi inthewinecountry, thank you for your feedback here. Sometimes when I list extra fruit, it is because it may have started out tart cherry but moved to a riper plum as it opened up. But I do see your point about not listing several tart fruits in order to make a point.

      I did laugh hard at your Strawberry Hill comment. It reminded me of my own youthful escapades. lol Oh my gosh, the stuff I used to like.

      You do cover a very interesting point. We don’t really understand some of the descriptors until we taste a good example. I have tasted several “smoky” wines that tasted like ash trays to me. But last year I bought Eola Hills Wolf’s Hall Pinot Noir. It was smoky in the sense that I expect is more the true description that smoke should be. Almost bbq. Savory. Lovely. And completely different from the “ash tray” versions of smoky wine I’d had before. I thought I hated the “smoke” descriptor” now I know that I love it, if it’s done well.

      Again, thanks for your feedback. It was very helpful.

      Reply
  2. Darrell

    If I may be succinct. David White is full of it. Not sure why he criticizes Kim Marcus’ descriptors though I don’t agree with the usage of some of the descriptors. White’s encouraging his students to write in such a way that personifies a wine is a step in the wrong direction, IMO. Personification, metaphors, similes and other fluff don’t inform readers about the taste of the wine and seems rather self indulgent when employed by the user. I don’t particularly care about your knowledge or endeavors not pertinent to color, aroma and bouquet and flavor. I have enough difficulty with the well intentioned descriptors used in this blog without suffering flowery prose. I don’t think anybody would enjoy shooting, hunting vernacular when describing wine. That wine’s aroma and bouquet dropped like a —- — —-. Anyway, we are Americans and not Fwench. As one American detective said, ” Just the facts, ma’am, just the facts.”

    Reply
  3. permiesworld Post author

    I’m sorry that I didn’t get back to this yesterday. Really busy day. I saw all of the posts and am going to answer them in one group post.

    Dluber: You covered so many salient points but I’m only going to hit on the two that really struck me the most. Firstly, something I never thought about, but something that I know frustrates people…not being able to actually taste the things mentioned in the tasting notes. And your comment about sinusitis affecting your own palate (and I felt it was important that you know yourself well enough to know this is the issue); some people get frustrated because they don’t know why they can’t taste what’s described and perhaps feel inferior and then designate all notes as “hooey”…when it could very easily be a genetic issue (just not being a super taster has been actually narrowed down to the amount of taste buds in certain places on the tongue) to medications, to physical issues. In all cases the results can work to not being able to appreciate the tasting notes as written.

    Also I think that your point about associating words with concepts is integral in trying to comprehend something…we are taught from childhood…a picture of an apple means that we learn how to spell the word “Apple” (and suddenly those two things are forever connected) and then we learn the descriptors (crisp…or if we’re unlucky, mushy & brown…red, tart etc) all go with that name/word and that photo. So it’s rather hard to look at an apple and be told that Shirley Temple is its new descriptor. Again, thank you for your post.

    BW: Your point about “some of my descriptors frustrate people too…i.e. the Cherimoya…” Truthfully I don’t even (at the time of writing this) know what a Cherimoya is. So that tasting note is unhelpful to me. And I’m sure I use some of those too. That’s the sort of thing that I was wondering how to simplify. For example, what tastes like a Chermoya that most people have tasted?

    And spot on about concert perceptions. I absolutely hate having loud noise blasted at me, but I have a friend who could listen to it for hours. To one it’s therapeutic and to another it’s a near “have me committed” moment. So, with no general frame of reference, we as a whole are unable to make the “apple = (insert mental photo of apple)” reference in our mind.

    Flitcraft: Your response resonated with me the most. Perhaps because I was trained as a classical pianist and yet played guitar in a couple of more modern style bands. Trying to explain a jazz chord to someone who has no idea what that would be…or a blues riff…to someone who has no reference, no comprehension…it’s impossible without on-the-spot instruction.

    I can see what they (the authors of the article) are trying to do, using their “simplification” manner. Teach to a new generation…make it more hip/interesting, maybe? At least that’s what I’m guessing, but your point about the kiwi is similar to strawberry (with a little grit lol) is an excellent point. It gives me a perfect idea of what to expect. And FWIW, I cannot think of a piece of music that reminds me of a Kiwi fruit. Maybe “My Boomerang Won’t Come Back” LOL And really, that is not at all useful.

    On a side note, you write very well. The mental pictures you draw with your words are extremely vivid. Do you write for a living?

    JoelA: I think you hit the nail on the head. Keeping it simple, and as much as possible, using common descriptors that everyone can understand. Addressing the body/texture (as well as the flavors) or like Dean mentioned, actual visible facts (i.e. sediment etc) and color. Most of the time that would work fine. Sometimes a common fruit doesn’t work…there are always exceptions (like that fruit from NZ that tastes like grass to me…can’t offhand remember the name but Lim13 told me about it…it’s supposedly a fruit that they would easily recognize, but to me when I taste that, it’s a grassy taste since I’ve never tasted that fruit) but for the most part, many wines can be broken down to easier to understand tasting notes.

    My husband said to say that while he thinks a lot of the tasting notes written by professionals are meant to impress you into thinking they have an amazing palate, he does appreciate when someone uses the “tastes like cat pee” (or cat box) because he will definitely not purchase a wine with that tasting note. And, as a side note, he doesn’t ever want to meet the person who knows what that tastes like.

    That was only half joking; the point is that there are some useful descriptors that we all know the fragrance of what they say it tastes like, and in that case, it’s useful in cases where we wish to avoid.

    I wanted to thank you all, even if I didn’t mention your specific post, for your contributions to this discussion. It has been immensely informative to me.

    Reply
  4. JoelA

    I found the article unhelpful. When I try a wine I look for certain things – flavors that stand out (either positively or negatively), balance, acidity and a few descriptors. I also try to mentally compare it with other wines I have had of the same general nature.

    I cannot detect more than a couple of major flavors in a wine, so a writeup that describes it tasting of half a dozen fruits plus some other taste components is beyond my abilities to decipher.

    But I can appreciate a wine’s character better than I can write about it. I am a good basic writer but not a poet. And i cannot relate to poetical descriptions of a wine or to allusions to movie stars (except Sophia Loren, anyway) or musical compositions. All that stuff just strikes me as something that someone gets paid to write by the word.

    Reply
  5. flitcraft

    Hmmm…I found the article unconvincing as a way of demystifying wine tasting notes. The essential problem in a wine note is how to transmit the impression a taster has of a wine to a reader who is interested in knowing how that wine will taste. Comparing a wine to a pop star or a celebrity is interesting as a metaphor, but that’s all it is– a metaphor, and one that is equally mystifying if you don’t know the official ‘essence’ of the celebrity in question. (“Ah, yes, that wine is more of a Rutherford B. Hayes than a Benjamin Harrison wine, if you get my drift.”) Whereas a tasting note is at least trying to tell the reader how a wine will taste and smell by comparing it to other things that have a taste and smell. (Since wine flavors are complex, usually the taster will need several descriptor items in order to convey the overall sensory experience of the wine.)

    If what you are trying to convey is some semblance of accurate information, it’s easier to do if you stick with the pertinent senses in question. So, if I’m trying to tell someone what Indonesian gamelan music or Thelonius Monk piano sounds like, I’ll likely use sonic descriptors as opposed to flavors or colors or comparisons to movies or celebrities. And if I were telling someone who had never eaten a kiwi what to expect, I’d compare it to strawberries or peaches rather than to rock and roll music.

    I can see how a metaphoric descriptor might be evocative as a way of communicating something about a wine. So, I might say that drinking a vintage wine right after bottling is like standing next to the amplifiers at a heavy metal concert–an intense, even exhilarating experience, but probably not all that enjoyable, whereas drinking the same wine at maturity is like listening to the complexity in a Bach cantata, where all the notes interweave themselves into a complex but coherent whole. Still, you wouldn’t know much about how that port tasted, would you?

    So count my vote for tasting notes that tell you what the wine tastes like. I recognize that lots of people are better at it than I am, but even when I don’t know exactly what the descriptors in a tasting note are, I feel better off than having to translate synesthetic cues into flavors and aromas.

    Reply
    1. BargainWhine

      Hmmm… at this point, anyone who liked the movie star analogies might feel pretty intimidated speaking up in their favor. 🙂

      Reply
  6. BargainWhine

    Hi PW and thanks for the article. My bias is strongly against the sort of tasting notes argued for in the article because they are highly individually associative. DLuber makes the point that even flavors are individually associative, but I would hope they are less so. For example, I have no idea what Natalie Portman or Scarlett Johansson are like. I’m sure that among Bruce Springstein’s fans, there are many ideas of what his concerts “are like.” Who says that a ripe, oaky, Sonoma Pinot has to be loud and brash? It could be the silent person with an intense, dominating presence. But I’d guess that reading “full-bodied, ripe, dark cherries” produces a narrower range of expectations. One well-known local coffee roaster has (at least used to have) tasting notes for its coffees that are often in the vein promoted by this article, and I always find them intensely frustrating because I never know what they’re trying to convey. Ok, I grant that many readers are probably equally frustrated, or even intimidated, when I write that a wine tastes like Cherimoya or golden kiwi or star anise or whatever, but it’s still a direct pointer to something with definite flavors. And I also agree that, often if not most of the time, the specific flavors are less important than some descriptions about the character of the wine. But I try to describe that character directly — heavy or light, delicate or syrupy, tangy or straightforward, ripe or less ripe, etc. — without resorting to analogies or metaphors. Perhaps of relevance and interest, my “what the hell am I doing?” post is here.

    Reply
  7. dluber

    Very early into my journey into wine consciousness, I had tasted a few interesting wines and found them, well, very interesting; it was a bit of a sensory awakening. When I started reading about wine, I was discouraged and somewhat intimidated by the lingo, but was comforted by reading in Robert Parker’s Wine Buyer’s guide that he too felt this system was problematic: “…’a whiff of barnyard, reminiscent of glue’…a game anyone can play but few can play well” – and so he was motivated to establish his numerical rating system, itself since the source of much joy and misery in wine circles. Nevertheless, I still highly recommend that anyone interested in wine read the first few chapters of The Guide, before the ratings, and you’ll almost certainly have a deeper appreciation.

    Then there is the famous study proving that all wine descriptors are bullshit (PDF).

    However, I think there is some value in acquiring and developing a wine descriptor vocabulary as an aid to appreciation. You may find yourself identifying and appreciating subtleties you formerly missed, much like listening to music carefully or art critique, using Mr. White’s examples. Yes, there is plenty of room for BS in all these fields, but consider this: all sensory perception has two components – the signal transduction (light through the eyes, sound through the ears, aromas through the nose, etc.) followed by processing in the brain. Because we are uniquely verbal creatures, being able to associate words with concepts, including sensory perceptions, is also a neural network process, entangled with learning and memory (think how powerfully a smell can elicit a memory).

    So on the positive side, thinking of verbal descriptors for flavors and aromas, and trying to remember what a certain impact reminds you of, can definitely help you enjoy wine more. In other words, although you can enjoy wine at many levels, deep appreciation does involve an intellectual component, which as snobby as that may sound, is in fact why wine continues to be a lifelong fascination for me. In other words, developing your palate and discovering and expanding your personal tastes are a great part of what makes wine fun for many. Again the music analogy: the more open you are to new and different music, and learn to listen in new ways, the more types of music you can potentially enjoy rather than being limited to what you already know and like. To pick a nit with Mr. White, describing a wine in musical terms presumes that the reviewer and reader share the same musical vocabulary – if I’ve never been to a Bruce Springsteen concert, how will I know if I like this wine or not?

    Do we all experience the same thing corresponding to each descriptor? Obviously not, due to individual differences in sensory apparatus and in processing, some of which is due to training, both formal and informal. For a fascinating exploration of this phenomenon in relation to color vision and the use of language, check out this great and somewhat controversial episode of RadioLab: Why Isn’t the Sky Blue?

    You can take a formal class or do self-study using a kit of aromas components and the UC Davis wine aroma wheel to try to get on the same page as others, or just do your own thing. As for reviewing, which I’ve pretty much given up, in part due to sensory perception problems (chronic sinusitis has made reporting on my wine sniffing a lot iffier), I had always tried to take a middle road – enough specific aromatic descriptors to flesh out a description, but also a more gut-based look & feel assessment. Plus wild guesses as to how it might change with bottle age, another unpredictable thing that makes wine interesting.

    Reply
    1. permiesworld Post author

      Long day tomorrow and it’s way too late to watch that episode but I will. I just finished reading the”famous study” pdf. I laughed a lot. Maybe more than I should have. Remembered ancient funny school professors who made us identify rocks and dirt by taste and touch and smell (i wonder if they still teach that way these days?). I remember the taste of those rocks and dirt. Not likely to ever forget. And, I Remembered funny lines from Mel Brooks movies “Did you bullshit today? Do you plan on bullshitting today? Will you be bullshitting tomorrow!?” (again more laughter)

      Really though, it was a great article about making us human again, but seeing value in the midst of….(nah I don’t need to say it again)…verbal effluvia.

      You hit on so many valid points. I’m too tired to do them justice right now but I’ll check back tomorrow night. I will end for now by saying that I absolutely appreciated you taking the time to elaborate for us and I definitely want to hit on a couple of your points tomorrow.

      Reply
  8. dean

    The one word I look for when reading a wine review is “Big”.

    I can relate to that for some reason, when I taste wine, I rate them on Bigness..

    If a wine is thin, no body, clear, and lacking in flavor, it can not be “Big” to me..

    I look for dark purplish colors, full bodied, thicker viscosity, and even sediment buildup on the cork, and neck.

    If a wine has these qualities, it seems I almost always love it.

    Those qualities are not found in low quality wines.

    Describing particular different flavors are unimportant to me, I just want to know how big a wine is, as that is what I look for in a wine, the biggest, baddest Napa Cab, for example, and I strive to find this kind of wine at GO, but they are rare.

    So much mediocre borderline drinkable wine, the gems are hard to find..

    Reply
    1. permiesworld Post author

      Dean, thank you for chiming in. I rarely even think about mentioning the sediment build up on the cork or neck etc. My recent Quest Pinot Noir had a lot of that…I just said I used the wine finer. But you bring up several areas that I haven’t thought about…so this is good. Exactly the sort of feedback I was looking for. Thanks!

      Reply
  9. Kristen Lewis Dunder

    I’m one who really appreciates traditional tasting notes, such as those that detail fruits and acidity. For example, mention a Chardonnay is bright with pineapple and citrus overtones, and I’ll know to add that one to my list (while scratching those off where the notes may include oak or butter!). I also appreciate notes that include how a wine tasted from just being opened, to how it tastes after an hour of decanting. Nose is important too–and I especially love when a reviewer can nail a description that I was “thinking” but couldn’t find words for (you did this when you described the Hill of Content Cabernet as “stewed prunes!”). I’m not sure wine notes based on experience, as mentioned in the article, would be helpful for a reader and wine lover like myself. “Exhilarating, spiritual, and deeply emotional, with a finish that just keeps going”–personally I wouldn’t be too sure what to do with THAT!

    Reply
    1. permiesworld Post author

      Hey Kristen, thank you for adding to the list. And really, you seem to approach things from a similar perspective to me…esoteric or mystical descriptions do nothing for me!

      Reply
  10. GOWineLover

    I would posit that the vast majority of the wine buying public does, in fact, find notes intimidating if not completely useless. For notes to have value, ones would have to 1) have a palate that can actually differentiate flavors and 2) know which of those flavors one actually likes. Most of the buying public is not in this position. Most probably don’t even know which varietal within red or white wine they like and pigeonhole themselves when they do. I’ve loved GO for learning about CA wine and being able to taste varietals from a bunch of AVAs which not only gives some reference to the variety of flavors that can be produced from a grape but that breeds out prejudice. Don’t like Merlot because you think it’s all diluted cherry cola? Try Ty Caton’s. Most people never, ever get to this point. If the best-selling wine in the U.S. from Argentina is not Malbec and is, actually, New Age, that tells you all you need to know.

    Reply
    1. permiesworld Post author

      Very good points, GOWineLover…GO is a great place to “grow your palate” without breaking the bank. Sometimes there are really excellent opportunities to taste the variations in the regions. The Mosaic cabernets are a perfect example. The Dry Creek version was significantly different from the Alexander Valley version…so (while I don’t think that the AV one was necc. a good representation of that AVA) it was possible to take two cabs from the same year and really taste a difference in character/location/style.

      I’m wondering how to make wine tasting notes more beneficial without being intimidating…and yet still be informative. Cross the divide, so to speak…

      Reply

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