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TUESDAY TRIBUTES
03/01/2011
Tuesday Tributes: Best of the Blogs
A Prescription For Tasting Notes That Make Sense

By Charles Olken

It is time for the members of the wine world to stop the incessant carping about tasting notes. Frankly, the minute that wine writing stops talking about wine and reactions to it will be the minute that wine conversation dies. Full stop.

Gerald Asher, whose otherwise brilliant talk to the Wine Writers Symposium instructed us all that good writing is studied writing, then took out after tasting notes. I can’t for the life of me understand why since Mr. Asher was once a writer of tasting notes. I remember him describing a wine as tighter than a string on a violin. I have loved and savored his very long discussions of wine and the people who made them in the late Gourmet magazine. True, it is hard to describe a three thousand word essay as a tasting note, but what else do you call an explanation of how wines he liked got to be the way they were. He may not have given points, and he may not even have described one specific wine, but, by the time he was finished, we had a taste in our mouths and he put it there. If those words do not constitute a form of extended tasting note, they are nothing but spots on a page.

Lately, Eric Asimov, the respected writer for the New York Times, had a word or three to say about tasting notes in his blog, The Pour, http://www.nytimes.com/2011/02/23/dining/23pour.html?_r=1, and he offered his idea about what they should contain.

When someone else’s blog makes the entire wine world stop and think, I get impressed. No matter whether I agree or disagree with the points being made, what matters is that Asimov has made me and lots of other writers think about what it is that we do. Later in this piece, I offer my own view on what makes up the essence of a good tasting note. Here are the words that have lately challenged folks like me.

“I’m not one to go overboard in describing the myriad aromas and flavors in a glass of wine. In fact, most of the gaudy descriptions found in tasting notes will not help a whit to understand the character of a bottle of wine or to anticipate the experience of drinking it.

“While it may seem heretical to say, the more specific the description of a wine, the less useful information is actually transmitted. See for yourself. All you have to do is compare two reviewers’ notes for a single bottle: one critic’s ripe raspberry, white pepper and huckleberry is another’s sweet-and-sour cherries and spice box. What’s the solution? Well, if you feel the urgent need to know precisely what a wine is going to taste like before you sniff and swallow, forget it. Experience will give you a general idea, but fixating on exactitude is a fool’s errand. Two bottles of the same wine can taste different depending on when, where and with whom you open them.

“But the general character of a wine: now, that’s another matter. A brief depiction of the salient overall features of a wine, like its weight, texture and the broad nature of its aromas and flavors, can be far more helpful in determining whether you will like that bottle than a thousand points of detail. In fact, consumers could be helped immeasurably if the entire lexicon of wine descriptors were boiled down to two words: sweet or savory”.

Mr. Asimov is onto something here. In writing, “if you need to know precisely what a wine is going to taste like before you sniff and swallow”, and he might have well added, before you buy it, “forget it”, makes the point that words are an imperfect way to describe taste sensations. On that, he will get no argument from me. Wine is a complex product, and, at best, we are able only to suggest reasonable analogies of its precise character. But the solution of boiling the experience down to two words, “sweet or savory” is not solution at all either. It is too general to be helpful, and one needs to remember that Asimov does ask that wine descriptions, aka “tasting notes”, contain “a brief description of the salient features of a wine”. And, it is that latter point, and not savory or sweet, that has set me thinking about what ought to be contained in a good wine description.

Entire books have been written about the tasting experience, and this is a blog, not a book or even a short story, so forgive me if I don’t offer an entire screed on the subject. Still, there are, it seems to me, some basic things required of any wine description and lots of optional items that a thoughtful writer will use or not use as the wine demands. To wit—

Intensity of the Aromas—This is the very first thing that hits me when I taste a wine. Not what it smells like but how intense those aromas are.

General Aspect of the Aromas—Are they fruity or not? Asimov’s “sweet or savory” is one way to approach this concern, but the basic fact is that wine starts with fruit, and regardless of what else a wine might offer, it will either capture fruit or not. If not fruity, then what? Dry? Rich? Earthy? Spicy? Oaky? The possibilities are too many to mention, but the basics ought to be the basics. We may not, as Asimov suggests, agree on the gaudy specifics, but it is unusual for a group of good tasters to mistake earth for fruit or stones for oak or richness for minerality. Besides, even if we differ, the idea is that my tasting notes reflect my sense of what I am experiencing. A respected critic will not make basic mistakes.

Varietal Adherence—Most grapes can produce a range of characteristics around some sort of norm, and those norms have been discussed for years, even centuries. Cabernet Sauvignon smells of currants and black cherries, sometimes of graphite and black olives, other times of raspberry, but it rarely smells of dried spices, peaches or anise. A good tasting note will sometimes simply refer to those often accepted descriptors and at other times will speak directly to varietal adherence. Some of those characteristics might be called sweet and others savory, and often a good Cabernet-based wine will have both. Words may be imprecise, but we cannot run away from the value of speaking to varietal adherence.

Conformance to Expected Norms for A Given Location—We know that Cabernets of the West Rutherford Bench have a certain mix of richness, fruit and depth. Whether we call it Rutherford dust or tea leaves or dried currants, we know it when we experience it. Not every tasting note needs to delve deeply into the presence of expected “terroir” influences but a good description will speak to that point when necessary either because a wine like Staglin has captured it in spades or another wine has gone completely off the rails.

Weight and Texture—Here again, Asimov takes us beyond mere sweet and savory. He calls for comments on these points and I agree right down the line. Virtually every tasting note in Connoisseurs’ Guide discusses these essential aspects of the wine. They are central to our experience, and they do not vary with aeration. A full-bodied wine is a full-bodied wine. Alum-like tannins are alum-like tannins. Soft wines, whether they are enjoyable or execrable, are still soft wines.

Flavors—A complex concept, this, and one that goes far beyond the flavor profile of the wine. It may or may not require a string of adjectives, but it certainly requires a discussion of the way the wine’s flavors interact with acidity, tannin and every other influence that is experienced with the wine on the palate. Length, depth, range, even beauty and grandeur are ultimately experienced in the mouth. Alder Yarrow on his excellent blog, Vinography, just recently described a wine as “swirl(ing) in a dazzling electric silk river down your tongue”. OK, I get it. I would not use those words. Asimov might describe them as “gaudy”, and Gerald Asher might have written them in his tasting note writing days but would not now. Still, I know what Yarrow is talking about. It is texture and flavor and richness all rolled into one. And I believe that tasting notes, especially for wines one loves, really do need to show some excitement as a way of making the whole tasting experience come alive.

Finish and Aging Potential—These are admittedly two concepts in one construct, but it is often how a wine finishes that reveals its potential to age. Does the finish linger? Is it tight, hard and impenetrable? Does it ultimately convince me that the wine has a chance to improve with bottle age and proper cellaring? Finish is an observation. Aging potential is a judgment, a guess, a bit of pontification at times. Yet, a good description gives the reader a sense, as imprecise as such comments may be, of the taster’s expectations based on his total experience with the wine, especially including the character and quality of the finish.

Balance—One could put balance first, in the middle or here towards the end of the list, because balance is everywhere. Do the many facets of the nose balance or does one aspect overwhelm all else? Does acidity balance fruit, sweetness, intensity? Do the tannins fit well or do they stand out? What will happen to balance over time in a wine that is a candidate for the cellar?

How Much Pleasure Does/Will The Wine Afford—When you get right down to it, all discussions about individual wines, and even about specific producers, at some point must answer not just descriptive questions but the ultimate qualitative question. How good is this wine, this producer? Whether one answers that question with three stars, one hundred points, the ten-chopstick method, letter grades or any other symbolic or word-driven hierarchy, the reader wants to know, needs to know how good the wine is.

One can attempt to do all this in twenty-five words like the Wine Spectator, in forty to sixty words like the Wine Enthusiast, in fifty to one-hundred fifty words like Connoisseurs’ Guide or in three thousand words like Gerald Asher, whose essays might never answer any of the specific points above but whose words still convey immense amounts of meaning. But, do it we must because wine is no simple, “toss it down the gullet” potion. Not at the level that thee and me experience it.

Comments

Tasting Notes
by Mike Dunne
Posted on:3/1/2011 8:07:51 AM

Nicely put and helpful, Charles. Might be time to revive the parlor game of asking readers to sum up in one word the most crucial characteristic they want in a wine.

Scary.....
by Arthur
Posted on:3/1/2011 10:26:54 AM

Your approach almost mirros my rating system....

Scary

Scary.....
by Arthur
Posted on:3/1/2011 10:27:20 AM

"mirrors"

Whoop a*ss
by Pamela Heiligenthal
Posted on:3/1/2011 7:16:05 PM

The descriptors “sweet or savory” would never work in most instances.  Buyers need more information to make a buying decision. I’m wondering if Asimov should consider making his own wine badges (“Home Sweet Home”, or “Sweet, Sweet Jane”, “Savor whoopa*ss”?). Where would this work? Trader Joes. I'm not being facetious—customers come in looking for advice based on simplicity, e.g. I’m looking for a red wine. I’m looking for a white wine. Is it sweet? It won’t give me that puckery sensation, will it?

I can’t think of another situation where this would fit. Could you imagine if a customer asked a sommelier, a retail store clerk, wine buyer, writer, etc, “could you tell me a little bit about this wine?” and they answered, “yup, that’s savory”, and walked away? Would you buy? Heck no. You might start with that dialog, but the customer wants to know more --“is it dry? Rich? Earthy, Spicy? Oaky? Is it light or full-bodied? Do you have a comparable wine from Italy? California? New York? France? Could I cellar this wine? Do you recommend the producer? Does it taste good??? Have you personally bought this wine?”

Consumers demand answers, and rightfully so. Would we expect consumers to buy anything based on one criterion? How about food? What if a chef received a catalog that listed Salmon and all it said was farmed or wild? A chef would ask, “Farmed, is it Atlantic or Coho? Wild, is it Chinook, Sockeye, Pink, Chum? Is it smoked? Cold or hot smoked?”

Would you buy a car based solely on one attribute? Sporty or not? One man’s savory might be another’s sweet.

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