How Important Are Tasting Notes?

I’ve been seeing a lot of tasting note hate lately: people questioning the validity, worth and relevance of tasting notes. As someone who has a good portion of a garage devoted to storing cherished notebooks filled with hand-scrawled tasting notes going right back to the beginning of my wine career, I find this as tragic as the demise of book stores. Similar to our recent foregoing of a physical place in which to pick up and thumb through books before we buy them, buying wines purely by numbers robs wine lovers of a chance to know a wine better before they buy it. Tasting notes that are well-written and produced by experts can convey highly evocative and very tangible wine attributes, revealing information that goes far beyond the abstract quality judgment proffered by increasingly popular scores.

Highlighting the importance of tasting notes is not a new stance for me or, indeed, The Wine Advocate. If anyone were to read the small print that has long donned the old front cover of The Wine Advocate Print Edition or on our website, Robert Parker himself came right out and said this years and years ago:

Scores are important for the reader to gauge a professional critic’s overall qualitative placement of a wine vis-à-vis its peer group. However, it is also vital to consider the description of the wine’s style, personality, and potential.

And therein lies the rub: tasting notes are an important companion to scores, because they describe the wine’s style, personality and potential. You could certainly do worse than buying a 95-point or even a 100-point wine, but how do you know you’re going to like it if you don’t know what it’s like?

Admittedly, the use of language in tasting notes occasionally seems farcical. Conjuring up notions of seemingly random smells—good or bad—such as sweaty saddles, rubber, a cigar box, pencil lead, sea spray or balsamic probably seems a little far-fetched to the uninitiated. Here’s where tasting notes can be considered to be written in a foreign language, which requires some fluency in order to be accurately produced and fully understood. It’s a case of, you say tomato leaf and I hear pyrazines—that herb or bell pepper-scented compound found in wines produced from less ripe examples of particular grapes such as Sauvignon Blanc, Cabernet Sauvignon or Cabernet Franc. "Sweaty saddles" translates to brettanomyces, for me. I read a note that says cloves or vanilla and I think French oak (eugenol) and American oak (vanillin), respectively. Tell me you smell black pepper and I think rotundone, as in a compound common in cool climate Syrah. Or, maybe it’s blackberry jam and prunes I’m reading, while I’m understanding that the Syrah is coming from the warmer climate/riper end of the spectrum. Or, if I read about rubbery notes in a wine, I’m imagining a case of reduction. Balsamic could suggest volatile acidity. And so on.

However, all this mental translating amongst experts of scent and flavor descriptors into somewhat technical jargon does not mean that even beginners cannot get something from the notes. I may not speak a word of Italian, but I can appreciate the beauty of Italian opera and be moved by a great performance of “La Traviata.” Likewise, for sure, it doesn’t take a wine expert to have a clear preference for a wine that evokes chocolate, cherries and baking spices over one that delivers notes of grapefruit, peaches and butterscotch. Our broad audience of varying levels of expertise is largely why we experts don’t just spew forth a string of all the chemical compounds, winemaking techniques and faults we can detect in the glass. That, and we try very hard to capture the personality of wines in the notes, rather than bore readers to tears with the technical specifications.

When a wine expert can accurately isolate and name aromas and flavors and transcribe them with fluency, conveying a sense of “personality” to boot, this information becomes a huge asset to someone who is considering whether or not to buy that wine. But, scent/flavor descriptors are just part of the tasting note story. Equally if not more important is the style, body, structure and potential for further development—information contained within a good note. Dry, sweet, full-bodied, delicate, youthful, over-the-hill, tart, flabby, refreshing, crisp, tannic, taut or soft and juicy—a score alone can convey none of these attributes, which are all so important to accurately targeting the perfect wine experience for your taste, food pairing or mood on a particular day.

Finally, if you’re wondering why a wine warranted a particular score, the reason usually lies within the tasting note. A well-considered tasting note should include details of aspects of the wine that ultimately support a quality conclusion. Mind you, an exhaustive list of quality factors needn’t be addressed in every tasting note. For brevity’s sake (and to service the attention span that most consumers are willing to commit to a note), most critics will just point out the major successes and failings in the wine. Examples might include:

The wine is diluted and lacks fruit expression. The unresolved, bitter tannins suggest under-ripe fruit along with the overpowering herbal streak. It finishes abruptly and tart.

Or…

This wine fills the mouth with rich, complex flavors that are well supported by a backbone of firm, ripe tannins and balanced acidity. The multi-layered finish goes on for at least a minute.

As a final note, by writing an article in defense of tasting notes, I am not slighting the importance of their soulmates: scores. Scores are incredibly practical when you consider that standalone tasting notes are open to a broad range of interpretations and that one often doesn’t really know for certain where the critic stands or, indeed, where the wine is positioned qualitatively in relation to its peers. But scores aren't everything when it comes to understanding a wine for the purposes of making a buying or drinking decision, and I for one would hate to see them go the way of bookstores.

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