PUTTING IT DOWN ON PAPER: HOW TO WRITE WINE NOTES
As you become more and more interested in the wine tasting experience, you will eventually want to start writing tasting notes. There are as many ways of describing wine as there are wine drinkers but there some standard elements of any good set of tasting notes. Without getting too formal (do we ever?), we'll talk about what makes a good wine tasting note this month.
There are really two purposes to a wine tasting note. The first is to communicate the aspects of a wine to another person. Since wine and the sensations of aroma and flavor are so complex, someone that takes on the task of describing it faces a challenge not unlike that of describing a work of art. Describing a great wine so that a person who has never tasted such a "masterpiece" can share the experience could even be equated to describing the work of one of the great masters to a blind person - not easy but possible.
The second, and I believe more important, purpose of a wine tasting note is to capture the tasting experience for one's self. If done well, a tasting note read months or even years later should bring back the tasting experience in vivid detail, and let one recall the special and unique elements of that particular wine.
A side note here: The very act of writing a tasting note also helps one focus on a wine and its characteristics. This is why I suggested writing down one's thoughts in each of the first two tasting articles.
Over centuries of trying to capture a wine's characteristics with the pen, people have utilized styles ranging from poetry and song to very strict cut-and-dry scientific terms. Most writers in the popular wine press have settled on roughly the same set of elements. I'll use these with some specific modifications to create a brief, fairly precise way of describing wine that will satisfy both purposes - communicating the tasting experience to others as well as to one's self.
ELEMENTS OF A TASTING NOTE
The first tasting note acronym I learned was ANT. That's Appearance, Nose, Taste. Certainly you will find these three elements in most tasting notes, but I no longer believe that this is the best way to segment a wine's description. That acronym places fully a third of the importance on the wine's appearance, which is way too much. It likewise neglects the wine's finish, which to me is one of the two most important aspects of determining a wine's quality. Finally, it does not explicitly allow for an overall description of the wine tasting experience, a literary summary if you will. Over the years, then, I changed my tasting note format to contain the following elements:
I always make sure to write down as much information as possible from the label and the purchase. This is basic stuff like the producer, varietal, vintage, region, any special designation, price, where it was bought and tasting date. If this wine is part of a blind tasting, I make sure to get this data when the wines are revealed. Missing a critical element pretty much invalidates the tasting as it makes it hard to determine whether a wine is worth buying again or where to get it, for instance.
Except in that it can provide some clue to aroma and flavor characteristics (i.e. it gets your brain ready to taste) and the somewhat esthetic elements of the way a wine looks, appearance to me is not very important. After all, almost all well-made hearty red wines look alike, as do most whites. Now if I run into a red that's unusually light or profoundly opaque, that's noteworthy. Likewise, a very pale white wine or one with a slightly greenish edge is worth writing about. A Blanc de Noirs' color ranges so much and can be so much a part of the enjoyment experience that I often will note this. For older wines, appearance varies and can provide esthetic appeal and important information about the wine. But again, for the vast majority of today's wines, appearance is not much of a distinguishing feature. That's why I very often omit any appearance description from my notes.
This is the most important aspect of a wine and the one on which I spend the most time. Here is where most of a wine's complexity will show itself, so I take it in distinct steps.
I will take a brief sniff of wine as my nose approaches the glass, back off and jot down the descriptors that immediately come to mind. Quite often these will be the floral or light fruit elements and make up my first impression. Any strong "off" notes should be readily apparent in the impression, too. In short, this first sniff from afar will give me a good idea of whether this is an enjoyable wine or not and what else I'm likely to find in it.
After taking a sniff of fresh air to "clear my receptors", I'll swirl my glass, re-approach it and take a sniff with my nose just at the glass rim. This quite often will give me a second set of descriptors, as well as confirming or contradicting the impression. This second group of characteristics seem to usually include heartier fruit notes, vanilla and buttery elements and the first indication of alcohol. Any barnyardy, earthy or musty aromas should be clearly present here. This "rim shot" is where I get the most subtle nuances so I may write down two of three terms and then repeat until I feel I've captured as many aroma descriptors as I can.
Now the fun part. After backing off and getting another cleansing sniff of fresh air, I'm ready for a little showmanship. I know I said that I'm an informal wine drinker, but I also like to raise eyebrows. I'll cover the glass with one hand and swirl it vigorously. This concentrates the aromas wonderfully and usually makes people stop and look at me like I'm a little daft. I then move my hand slightly, thrust my nose far into the glass and take a deep snort. In this way, I quite often pick out elements that I hadn't notice before or confirm descriptors that were previously very faint. Now if you want to do this, be careful. There's nothing quite so embarrassing as coming up with wine dripping from your nose. And don't try this with Cognac or other spirits - you'll likely fry your nasal passages.
Now I take one more sniff to confirm everything.
At this point, I have a jumbled list of aroma descriptors, in rough order of when I noticed them. I may also have a couple of adjectives to quantify intensity and pleasurability. For me, the challenge is to turn this all into one sentence that conveys the entire aroma profile (how's that for a fancy term?) of the wine in a semi-poetic piece of prose. This sentence should be as packed with aroma descriptors as possible and roughly follow the steps that went into the analysis. It might go something like this:
"Lightly floral notes open up into a broad honey and citrus aroma with a nice earthy mushroom touch. " (An aged late harvest white)
"Raspberry/blackberry nose with some briery character and toasty vanilla oak to smooth it all out. (A good Zinfandel)
"Unidimensional cherry nose." (A cheap Merlot)
"A wonderfully rich and complex nose of truffles, plums, tobacco and minerals with a touch of classic pencil-lead and leather. Stunning." (A well-aged top end Bordeaux)
"Peaches and cream aromas swirl around the tangerine/citrus core with distinct lichee-nut character and just a whiff of herbs that add interest." (A Viognier)
By the way, notice I use "aroma" and "nose" pretty interchangeably but prefer the former? While really particular tasters will make a distinction between aroma and nose, I believe the popular press uses the latter term simply to seem more wine-formal. Since I believe profoundly (another over-used term in the wine press) that wine should be an informal beverage wherever possible, I resist the use of terms like "nose" to describe wine. I don't know about some folks, but I use my "nose" to enjoy the "aroma" of my wine.
Oh, and I abhor the word "bouquet". Flowers come in bouquets, wines in bottles.
Now comes the flavor statement. While we call it wine "tasting", flavor is actually a secondary concern. In it, one can distinguish elements such as acidity and tannin that might not have been noticeable in the aroma, better gauge a wine's overall intensity and confirm or contradict the aroma characteristics. Quite often, though, the flavor statement is often less descriptive and poetic than the aroma statement.
To create it, do what comes naturally. Approach the glass, (inhaling as you go) and take a healthy sip. Think about the first impression the wine makes as it hits your mouth and its overall impression in your mouth. I often (quite rudely, I'm told) jot down a word or two while holding the wine in my mouth, and then swirl it around. This performs the same function as swirling the wine in the glass did for aroma - it concentrates the flavors and exposes all the taste buds to the wine. I generally look for fruit flavors and others that I've noticed in the aroma, acidity level, wine concentration and a first impression of the tannin level. I also look for anything that wasn't in the nose - "surprises" if you will. I swallow the wine but (for now) tend to ignore the finish. I write down as many of the descriptors as I can.
Next I rest a moment. Chat, take a sip of water, eat a tasting food, whatever. I let my mouth get reset, essentially.
Now a second sip, as big as the first. This one I really swirl around in my mouth, slurp a little air over (another rude habit my dear Sandy likes to remind me of) and concentrate on any new flavor elements, tannin levels and overall intensity of the flavors. Down on paper these go. I also think a bit about the finish on this second sip, only as to create an initial impression.
Now it's time to make up the tasting sentence.
This sentence should serve to support or contradict the aroma characteristics, describe new flavor elements, point out major flavor flaws, describe balance, intensity and tannin level. If poetry is called for, the "mouth feel" can also be described. Examples might be:
"Rich flavors of plums and other stone fruits in balance with fresh acidity and toasty oak are present in this full-bodied wine." (A high-end, but still young Cabernet)
"Fruit characteristics present in the nose are mostly faded from the mouth, with only woody, hard flavors and shrill acidity remaining." (An old, filtered, overly oaked Cabernet perhaps)
"The aroma notes resonate in the mouth with added dimensions of coconut, butter and sweet oranges. Refreshing acidity in good balance with the sweetness keeps this almost viscous wine from being cloying." (That late harvest white again)
"Tart green apples are the primary flavor component although some vanilla oak is noted". (A basic Chardonnay)
Notice I only discussed "body" in one of the notes above? To me, this is an overused phrase in many tasting notes. One popular wine magazine seems to include body in every single note, and coincidentally seems to totally skip useful flavor and aromas descriptors in many of them. To me, this does not create a useful tasting note. I think I could use this method to create technically correct, non-controversial and totally useless tasting notes about wines I never actually tasted. So you'll see me skip the body description unless it's something out of the ordinary and concentrate on flavor descriptors.
As I mentioned earlier, I feel this is an extremely important element of a wine's quality, and one that is often skipped in the popular press. While it's possible to make aromatic and even pleasantly flavorful wines out of inferior grapes, you can't fake a long finish. It (along with complexity) are really only possible from the best grapes using the best wine making methods. So to punctuate any tasting note where I wish to make a quality statement (which is most), I describe the finish.
Remember that second sip of wine? I started to think about the finish as I was swallowing (or gasp! spitting) it. It becomes pretty clear when a wine doesn't have much of a finish. As soon as it's gone from your mouth, it's gone. But a long finish grabs you whether you want to be grabbed or not. The only thing you really have to do is quantify it.
I do this with a third sip of wine. Yes, I use this as a final confirmation of the flavor characteristics, but it's mainly to judge finish. I swish it even more vigorously in my mouth, suck in some air over it, hold it in my mouth for maybe 30 seconds and swallow. Then I start enumerating the elements of the finish. What flavors do I get, what is the feeling on my tongue and throat? How low does it last? Are there new characteristics that show up only after a period of time? How pleasurable is it?
This goes into what may be the easiest sentence to write. Make sure to quantify roughly the length of the finish and the characteristics. I also like to describe the "feel" of the finish. Examples:
"A long (30 second+) finish with white pepper notes to the plum flavors and a slightly chalky texture." (A well-made, youngish Cabernet)
"Short to nonexistent finish." (Airline wine)
"Tremendously complex finish lasting more than a minute, with black pepper, tobacco and raspberry notes and very fine tannins. A great wine." (A young, very well made Bordeaux)
"Subtle nuances of leather and roses resonate into the long, but soft finish." (A well-aged Barolo)
"Long finish with rather harsh tannins dominating the blackberry fruit. May soften with age to become a very good wine." (A young blockbuster Zinfandel)
Now I did start to sneak into some analysis of what a wine might evolve into in a couple of the finish statements above. More on this soon.
Another important element of a good tasting note is an overall quality statement. Surprisingly, this is omitted in many of the popular press notes. It seems as though the ubiquitous 100 point rating system has caused some win writers to feel a summary statement is redundant. Love it or hate it, the 100 point system cannot substitute for a one-liner about the wine as a whole. An absolute 100-point scale cannot possibly describe in one number what each individual wine taster may like or dislike about a wine nor can it encompass both the pleasurability of the wine today, and what it has the potential to grow into. The summary statement should do all of these things.
To create it, stop tasting or sniffing for a moment. Chat. Take your mind off the wine. Then come back to it. What was memorable about it? What is your overall impression? What would you say to someone you just met about this wine, in one sentence? What's the one thing that will be important to know about this wine next week?
This is the most subjective statement, and it is really where your personality comes out. Here are some examples of summaries I have used or heard used.
"I liked it"
"A monumental wine in all ways. The best Bordeaux of the vintage".
"A weak, insipid, insignificant wine"
"Mind blowing intensity and concentration. A spectacularly decadent wine"
"A good light picnic wine."
"Would go well with pasta"
"Hollow, structureless and unbalanced, this wine wasn't worth my time tasting."
"A well-made wine lacking in distinguishing features."
"I'd drink it if it were free."
"A tannic monster now, it may be spectacular in ten years."
"The medicinal characteristics make this a difficult wine to like".
Here's the other optional category. I tend to use this to talk further about what the wine might be like at maturity and when I think that might be. I also use it if a number of people that I'm tasting with have a strong opinion I don't necessarily share. Examples are:
"Should be great between 2005 and 2020."
"While some many people in the tasting likewise found this to be highly complex and potentially great wine, some were put off by the animal-barnyard notes."
"A number of people enjoyed the unabashed fruitiness of this wine"
"A once-great wine well past its prime. Large bottles might still be great."
"Tasted 5 times with consistent notes."
"This bottle was corky."
"Drink in the next year".
But since my basic wine note is already four sentences long, I often delete this portion. Is four sentences too much? It certainly is a lot of work and is usually more than any of the other tasters write down. Some people go so far as to argue that any truly memorable wine doesn't need to be written about - it stays in your memory for a lifetime. While that's true, there are plenty of elements of such a wine that will quickly blur if not put down on paper. There are also plenty of good, but not great wines, that you will immediately lose if you don't write them down. And, as I've said before, the very act of analyzing a wine and trying to write about it succinctly but completely helps to sharpen one's tasting ability.
For all these reasons, I feel strongly that any effort put into tasting notes is well worth it.
Until next time, I'll leave you with:
DAVE'S TOP 10 OVERUSED WINE NOTE PHRASES:
3. Drink now through...
Do you have a wine tasting experience you'd like to share? E-Mail us at email@example.com and tell us about it.
'Til next time: May all your wines be viscous, full-bodied and mind-blowing!
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