Of Tasting Notes Strange Impressions & Baby Pictures


As I write this I'm swirling and sniffing, sucking in and savoring a mouthful of 2011 Jamet Côte-Rotie. A myriad of olfactory and taste sensations are speaking to me. But what exactly are they saying? 

This is one of the problems — no, let's instead say challenges — with wine tasting notes. After all, attempting to put into words things experienced by our senses is no easy task. 

Curiously, that seems to be a challenge I've been drawn to over the years, as in my (mostly) former life as an audio and music critic I've tried with some success to describe the sound of, say, an amplifier, or speaker, or turntable, or even, believe it or not, a specially designed power cord (please don’t snicker, they do make a difference).  

And just as it's not easy to describe the sonic/musical effect one might expect to experience with a fine audio component, it is equally — perhaps even more — confounding to attempt to describe something we experience with the two, albeit intertwined, senses of smell and taste. 

Plus, it's all so very personal. 

Our noses and palates are all different from each other's. You may smell peach, I may smell petrol. I may say citrus, you might say cat pee (I hope not about wines that I sell). I once had a friend describe a locally made Sauvignon Blanc as smelling like sweaty armpits. Although the winemaker disagreed, I knew exactly what my friend meant.

And while we may agree (or not) with each other about a wine's merits, at the end of the day there are no "wrong" answers. This isn't science, it's an impression tied to emotion. Because smells and tastes are going to trigger, like Proust's famous madeleine, things stored in our memories that make up the very fabric of our lives. 

And fleeting, too. 

Because what I, or anyone, write about a wine at any given moment reflects just that. One moment in time. As I re-experience a wine over the course of one of DIG's weekend tastings it will have changed, sometimes dramatically, sometimes with greater subtlety, with exposure to air. Almost always for the better. But changed it has. And therefore, I encourage my customers to see these notes as snapshots, baby pictures I like to call them, when it comes to younger wines, because they are, after all, in their early stages of development. 

Of course as wine lovers we experience this on a regular basis, with a wine opened at dinner that evolves over the span of an evening. As with people, the more time spent with a wine the more it has to reveal. Of course, like people, some wines will be so open, so lacking in nuance, that they will tell all on the "first date.” But the best wines, like the most intriguing people, only become more interesting, sometimes elusively so, on greater acquaintance. 

Ultimately, tasting notes are a kind of necessary evil for the wine professional. And though many wine lovers take frequent tasting notes, and fine wines definitely should be paid attention to, at the end of the day we want something delicious in our glass.

Sometimes the best tasting notes provide no details whatsoever. To quote a friend who is in the biz, about an Alsatian Pinot we recently shared, “I love that F—ing wine!"