First published in Issue 21 2008
Words by Professor Barry C Smith
Wine merchants, wine writers, and producers all supply tasting notes in prodigious volumes, and we, the readers, consume them in liberal quantities. But what purpose (or purposes) do they serve for suppliers and consumers? Are they a form of communication? Do they merely provide descriptions, or are they also evaluations of wines? Are they predictions or recommendations?
Perhaps they are all of these things, but we would surely distinguish between the recommendations of a critic and those of a producer. A producer may have the upper hand when it comes to advice on expected dates of maturity or how to serve a wine. Here, the back label of a bottle can serve as educator. For example, on the back label of A&P de Villaine’s 2006 Côte Chalonnaise Les Clous, we find the elegant imperative sachez l’attendre (“know how to wait for it”) and the warning that the wine will not reveal all the complexity and finesse of its aromas for five to seven years. Further, we are advised that the deposits of little crystals are a natural phenomenon and no cause for alarm. We are also politely but firmly encouraged not to serve the wine too cold, but to choose a temperature between 12 and 14°C. In addition, we are given recommendations of foods that will match the wine and a selective list of accompanying cheeses: chèvres, reblochon, beaufort, comté. Highly specific advice—and surely preferable to the bland and totally unconvincing declarations by certain winemakers that “our wine can be enjoyed on all occasions and is especially good with white meat and fish.
The point of a tasting note
But what of the wine critic’s tasting notes? How should we regard these? Should we see them as quick sketches of wines at certain moments in time, or as slowly arrived-at conclusions based on prolonged and methodical study? More importantly, can tasting notes convey the aromas and flavors of a wine to someone who will never taste it? or are they merely aides-mémoire for the critic to keep track of his or her own tasting experiences?
Whether or not they have a wider role, we may wonder whether tasting notes tell us more about the wine writer than the wine. And certainly, if we read enough tasting notes we will come to notice Jancis Robinson MW’s use of “crunchy fruit,” David Schildkneckt’s attention to “chalk dust,” Michael Schuster’s to “gravel,” Robert Parker’s addiction to “Asian spices,” and Neal Martin’s delight in “Dorset plums” and “sorbet flavors.” What do we, as consumers, glean from these descriptions? Often, they seem to be of little use to the novice, who can neither produce nor decipher them. And without sampling the wines ourselves, can we really get any closer to knowing the taste of an extraordinary wine like Romanée-Conti?
Perhaps you, like me, often wonder what wines such as this in the great vintages taste like; and like me, you suspect that you may never have the opportunity to try them. That being so, the next best thing is to hope that expert tasters can share their knowledge of those wines through their tasting notes. Ideas such as these may explain our desire to read so many critics’ tasting notes of wines we may never experience. And yet, what are the chances of success?
Suppose we turn to the highly respected critic and connoisseur Michael Broadbent MW for a glimpse of the joys of Romanée-Conti in an exceptional year such as 1959:
“A hot vintage, a rich vintage, with a sort of caramelly sweetness on the nose, later almost jammy, though with almost unplumbable depth. On the palate—faultless. still well endowed with tannin and acidity. Holding well, with many years of life still remaining.”
WFW 1, p.39
Or what about Michel Bettane’s note on 2003 Latour:
“A magical, unprecedented wine that is sure to become a classic more quickly than the 1945, 1961, or even the 1982. Its full, naturally velvety texture is the finest we have seen from Pauillac in the last 30 years. The Cabernets, for all their high alcohol content (approaching 14%), have a freshness and aromatic sleekness unlike anything we have seen for more than a century.”
WFW 1, p.112
Are you any the wiser about how these wines actually taste? Can you align a critic’s description of a wine with a vividly imagined experience of tasting it? Sadly not. Moreover, few of us will be able to make use of the comparative references to “1945, 1961, or even the 1982.”
And yet if we cannot go from these elaborate descriptions to knowledge of how a wine tastes, what exactly is the point of a tasting note?
The fault, of course, lies not with Broadbent or Bettane but in ourselves: that as humans we are surprisingly poor at imagining aromas and flavors (in comparison to our capacity for auditory, visual, and even tactile imaginings). Moreover, as experiments by Harry Lawless revealed, even experts are poor at matching descriptions of wines to presented samples of those wines, even when those descriptions included their own descriptions procured at previous tasting sessions.1
I’m sure wine writers produce their tasting notes with a firm conviction that they are getting across to their readers the finer part of a wine’s qualities and character. Their optimism, however, may be akin to the conviction we have when drumming out a tune with our fingers, assuming that others will be able to recognize the melody. Psychologists have noticed that we retain a high level of confidence in our ability to communicate a tune in this way, despite an extremely poor success rate. Our confidence levels are perhaps explicable by the fact that the tune is running through our heads, and the tapping sounds we make appear to us as inseparable rhythmic accompaniments.
Could it be similar for tasters and their notes?2 Are tasting notes merely snapshots of richly textured multisensory events—a way of embroidering an experience that, while entirely appropriate for the one having it, leaves the rest of us with a task a kin to guesswork? If this is right, then perhaps tasting notes don’t communicate anything. At best, they are just recollections of the purely personal associations of a taster. And yet this worrying lack of connection (for readers) between a wine and what is written about it doesn’t deter readers from consuming countless numbers of notes. There is an appreciably large audience for the notes of respected writers. so what exactly do we get out of reading them? Why do we do it? Perhaps the problem lies in our expectations of tasting notes and our assumption that there is just one function for them to fulfill.
Maybe, like watching competitors at the Olympic Games, we enjoy watching the bravura display of a high level of skill that we know we will never attain. I’m thinking, here, of David Schildknecht’s descriptions of 2005 Burgundies:
“I had to draw a deep breath in anticipation of what would rise from my glass of Leroy 2005 Musigny, and in that moment Madame Leroy trenchantly observed that ‘it’s another world’ down in there. tea, ginger, tangerine rind, myriad sweet flowers, cherry distillate, truffles, and fraise des bois preserves are among the scents that pour forth. Bloody fresh meat and implacable chalk join the medley of fruit, floral, and spice concentrates on a palate whose texture “polish,” “refinement,” or “velvet” are pitifully inadequate to describe. For all of its amazing richness, this displays more of a confident inner sweetness than a superficial sucrosity, and there is no lack of sheer energetic brightness of fruit and drive. Indeed, seatbelts would be advised before attempting to swallow this elixir, such is the phenomenal thrust of its finish.”
Acuity worthy of our admiration, certainly, but if it is beyond us to imagine the exotic aromas and flavors described, do such descriptions tell us less about the wine than about the taster? The lack of connection between the notes and an ability to come to know the flavors of the wine seems to render tasting notes elegant but redundant. And if what you are after is just a recommendation of a truly great wine, why not settle for the much derided 100-point scale?
By now, skeptics of wine critics’ tasting notes will be warming to their theme. In his “Journal of the Phenomenology of Wine?” (WFW 20, p.56), Randall Grahm offers a two-pronged attack on wine criticism. First, he invites us to recognize “the impossibility of ‘objective’ tasting,” given the different experiential histories of individual tasters. There is nothing objective about scores, he warns. Second, words are inadequate, he claims, to capture the taste of a wine: “all attempts to capture its inmost qualities in language are like shooting arrows at a swiftly fleeing target.”
The question of how language relates to aspects of our tasting experience takes us to the heart of the issue, and I’ll come back to it in a moment. But first it is important to get clearer about objectivity. When Grahm says that “if one is honest with oneself, one is always making mistakes, always missing something” about a wine, he is implicitly acknowledging that there is something to be objectively right or wrong about. And when he also tells us that “most of us have observed the phenomenon of a wine ‘retreating’ some time after its bottling” and usefully informs us that “chemically, this is probably linked to something like crossing a particular redox threshold, whereby certain sorts of flavor compounds are favored in their expression,” he demonstrates that we do sometimes get matters right. So while I agree with him that a large number of factors, including the condition of the wine and the condition of the taster, enter into the judgments made,3 and that frequent tasting of the same, developing wine is necessary to improve accuracy and understanding, the move to the impossibility of objective tasting is surely unwarranted.
As for the arbitrary and personal nature of evaluations based on numbers, we should not get too carried away. Remember that the men who invented the numbers still produce detailed tasting notes to justify their scores. So while consumers tend to discard everything except a number in the 90s, the scorers are required to display their workings to tell us how they arrived at their results.
Nevertheless, I suspect the reason we still prefer notes to numbers is not only because information about the individuality of a wine, its region, and typicity are lost when we resort to numbers, but because we also lose the exhilaration and passion behind a person’s anointing of a great wine. If we are honest, we read the notes to stimulate the desire to taste such wines, enjoying vicariously the excitement of the taster. And numbers less than 100 tell us nothing about how excited the scorer was by the wine he or she was tasting. Accuracy matters, of course, but we want evaluation as well as description. There is a surrogate pleasure in the wine writer’s rapture in discovering an outstanding wine. thus, evaluations may do better than meticulous but often sterile descriptions. Here we see Serena Sutcliffe MW move from being purveyor of purely technical information to being a passionate advocate for the wine, 1989 Cheval Blanc:
“The earliest vintage of the century at Cheval Blanc. Close to 50% Merlot, 50% Cabernet Franc. An ultra-generous 47hl/ha made. there were days when the temperature went over 104°F (40°C). Very ripe Merlot nose— mushrooms. And that real Cheval Blanc leather element. totally like a liqueur in the mouth. so exciting and classy at the same time. raisins and Russian leather. Divine, with a finish of smoky fireplaces. this is an absolute winner.” WFW 20, p.83
It is safe, I think, to conclude that she enjoyed the wine rather a lot. Could a number convey the intensity of the experience so well? Surely not. Tasting notes are here to stay.
A lack of names
Let us now tackle the question of whether language is able to capture the distinctive aromas and flavors of wines. Perhaps the tools wine critics are using to fashion tasting notes are just not up to the job. It is often said, for instance, that we have few names for aromas and flavors. And it is certainly true that we lack names for tastes themselves, though we easily refer to them using the names of objects that have those tastes—for example, strawberry, pineapple, litchi. (Notice that we do the same thing with sounds, talking not about the acoustic signals themselves but about their sources: the sound of a violin, the sound of a taxi.) The complex nose and palate of an extraordinary wine at various stages of its development, however, are not familiar enough for us to talk about the taste of 1959 Romanée-Conti. Besides, there is no single taste it has at all the different periods of its life. But notice that these are not linguistic problems: they are problems for us because we lack the relevant experiences, and because the complexity of the object challenges our perceptual powers.
We are also challenged, perhaps, by the lack of names for the complex aromas and flavors we encounter in wines. We should not, however, push this point too far. Some of the most familiar smells in our environments are complex, and yet they are named in the usual way by referring to the thing that produces them—the smell of the sea, for example.4 There are many constituents that make up that elemental odor, but just imagine trying to list them all. It is not language that lets us down; it is the complexity of the task that daunts us. And contrary to what the skeptics say, there is connection between a good tasting note and the objective properties of the wine it describes; it is merely that the connections are complex and subtle, and equally obscured by our confusions about the function of tasting notes and the kind of experiences they are based on. Some sorting out is in order. There certainly are objective properties of wine, and if we are skilled enough we can use the qualitative experiences they cause in us to pick them out. It’s true that wine critics convey their own experiences through their tasting notes, but this need not mean their tasting notes are subjective and devoid of interest. The qualities of a wine, like its sharp acidity or firm tannins, give rise to certain subjective responses in tasters. And experienced critics will read the qualities of a wine from the character of the experiences to which they give rise. Subjectivity needn’t exclude objectivity. The form and character of our perceptual experience is shaped by what we take in of the world around us, though some experiences are more accurate than others. The experiences of expert tasters are often better not merely in sensory terms but in terms of the conscious attention and care experts take in documenting their experiences.
The task of crafting a tasting note is formidably hard, not because we lack words for aromas or flavors, but because we have to analyze ensembles of aromas and flavors into identifiable constituents using the names of fruits, flowers, minerals, and spices, while saying how harmoniously these constituents are resolved or united. Moreover, all of this is based on a moment of conscious experience that is both multidimensional and fleeting. The perception of flavor is the perception of something with a complex sensory profile and a dynamic time course. The taster’s perceptual experience is an integrated response to the visual, olfactory, gustatory, and tactile properties of the wine encountered under the particular conditions that the taster and the wine are in. The result depends both on the chemical compounds in the wine and on the acuity and attention of the taster. The flavors we recognize are a complex mixture of volatile, non-volatile, structural, visual, tactile, and irritant elements integrated into a single, vanishing impression with a specific hedonic valence. How could we expect to capture all this in words? Perhaps no words, however well chosen, could hope to substitute for the intense and vivid moments of such experiences. (The problem, notice, isn’t restricted to taste.) Surely, a sip is worth a thousand words.
The key question is whether a sip provides a single impression or something articulate with definite parts. A single, immediate impression is the way less attentive or less experienced tasters experience a wine’s flavor at first. And it is here that we mark an important difference between experienced and inexperienced tasters. Experts attend to segmented aspects of the whole experience: the levels of acidity and ripeness of the fruit, the mid-palate qualities of the wine, the grip of the tannins, the persistence of the finish. In other words, experts taste analytically, while other people taste synthetically, fusing (or confusing) aromas and flavors into a single awareness of the taste as a whole. The meticulous notation of analytic impressions may appear odd at first to those not used to this process. Non-experts also have great difficulty in imagining the resulting effect of these component parts, or in fitting them into their own taste experiences, while experts may use this information to modify an already composite understanding of the wine.
This difference helps explain the difficulties people have with tasting notes without impugning their producers.
Analytic tasting certainly promises greater objectivity and is favored by enologues, who have developed a precise but limited technical vocabulary of terms they agree upon. At the same time, there are limits to analytic tasting, in terms of both its accuracy and its communicative potential. Components of taste are very difficult to isolate, and in some cases their interaction or integration may be preperceptual. Congruent aromas and flavors have additive or super- additive effects on our perception of creaminess and sweetness. Introducing the smell of vanilla to a wine recently sampled can induce one to think that the wine is sweeter than before. The different sense modalities interact in complex and subtle ways, making it quite natural to talk of sweet-smelling aromas and wines that taste velvety, even though sweet is a taste and velvet is something we touch. these cross-modal effects are the subject of intense neuroscientific research, and much more work is needed.
At the same time, the agreed vocabulary of volatile acidity, Brettanomyces, diacetyl (the buttery taste produced by malolactic fermentation), fruity esters, fruit tannins, and wood tannins—while important and useful for winemakers, especially when identifying faults—is of limited use in conveying the overall impression of a wine, when we are looking for some culmination, a summing-up. Conspicuous attention to the quality of tannins in a lengthy technical tasting may render one unaware of what the wines were like and what pleasures they would afford. The wine lover is left feeling that analytic tasters can’t see the wood for the trees.
Assuming expert tasters know what they are doing, the question remains whether they can share their experience and knowledge with others? Can they convey both the qualities of the wine and something of the experience we could expect from drinking it? A critic with abundant tasting experience may be able to make use of the former in the absence of the wine, but for most of us, tasting notes simply do not take us from language to a precise knowledge of a wine’s flavor. This fact does not, however, rule out the reverse direction of fit. With glass in hand, could the connection between a tasting note and the wine in question be more easily grasped? Going from the wine to the words, rather than vice versa, may enable one to appreciate more in one’s experience, as well as coming to understand more about the vocabulary deployed by a good taster. With glass in hand, one may come to understand more fully what is meant by precise delineation; why combining minerality with acidity is so important in white wines; why purity and ripeness of fruit is so important, and what mid-palate weight is all about. (I’ve never fully understood what “lifted” means, though.) An equally important aspect of combining tasting and tasting notes is corroborating one’s own impressions. Confirmation may be had that surprising scents like mint, iodine, or bubblegum are present in wines, and that one really can taste apricot, orange, or tangerine flavors in red wine.
Because of bottle variability and the passing of time, however, it is best to learn these terms in the presence of the writer or, better, the wine producer. There you cannot only learn what you taste, but discover why the wine tastes as it does. Patrick Javillier will explain to you why his Les tillets has a taste between a Meursault and a Puligny-Montrachet, and why, surprisingly, for a wine with more new oak than others, it shows less.5
Technical information vouchsafes a certain objectivity, but it has to be admitted that most drinkers benefit little from the descriptions wine producers provide on their back labels (though personally I am a fan of what Paul Draper calls his haikus on the back label of his ridge wines). Such information can go too far even for the cognoscenti. In the wise words of Andrew Barrow, writing in The Guardian:
“I like to know what composition of grape varieties goes into the bottle. What I do not want to read about is acidity levels, when the grapes were picked, who switched on the destemmer and so on. The chemistry stuff bores me to tears. I can put up with a bit on the type of oak, seeing as it is crucial to the winemaking process, but do I really need to know that Pascal toasted the inside of the barrel on a sunny Tuesday back in July? No, I do not, thank you very much.”
But what do people want to read, and how minimal is the description that will do the job? A recent competition on the website spitoon, to describe a particular Italian wine in not more than seven words, produced the following: “Chewed end of a wooden ink pen”; “A gulpable feast of cherries and leather”; “Cherry trees in tobacco field by barnyard”; “raspberries, cranberries, tar, and spices on horseback”; “riding horses through eucalyptus and berry fields”; “never thought to put raspberries in coffee!” The caricature skill of the cartoonist captures something fresh and vital here and—who knows?—maybe even accurate.
Some will insist that objectivity can be achieved only by sticking to a record of the properties of the wine. But is this so? In conveying the qualities of a wine, don’t critics also convey the qualities of the experiences we are likely to have in tasting it? Most of all, good tasting notes offer us a way to examine our desire to reflect upon and discuss the wines we are sharing. And very often allusive words and metaphors work best.6 Perhaps this is because the physiology is so complex and because the attitudes and moods created by a wine are important. Conversely, moods can diminish as well as enhance wine perception—so it matters how things are suggested to readers. The mixture of the descriptive and the evaluative, so derided by professional enologues, can be highly successful at guiding choice and setting expectations. If we say the wine is “too acidic” or “too tannic,” it follows that there is a fault in the wine, simply from the meaning of “too.” too much of anything is, by definition, a bad idea. Delving a little deeper, compare “cassis fruit” with “gorgeous cassis fruit”; “aromas of white flowers” with “heady aromas of white flowers.” It is not simply the use of “gorgeous” and “heady” that does the work here, though this contributes a great deal. The combination of certain adjectives with their descriptive nouns can add up to more than the sum of the parts, as happens with metaphors. Nor is it only the leading adjective that matters. Could one be as intrigued or persuaded by “gorgeous volatile acidity” or “heady aromas of saddle leather and sweaty horse?”
“Gorgeous cassis fruit” can conjure up for us something that already starts our mouth watering. At the same time, the effect can be heightened, or deflated, by the final word that ends the phrase, as Shakespeare knew well. End one way, you get bathos; end another, you get pathos. Compare the boringly accurate with the surprising and intriguing: “light, elegant, dry” or“ light, elegant, ethereal”; “rich, intense, even” or “rich, intense, unfathomable.”
Consider, too, this description of 1982 Mouton Rothschild, as tasted en primeur by Fiona Morrison MW:
“… it had gorgeous cassis-scented fruit, it was lush and full on the palate, gliding through the mouth like velvet on marble staircase, it was opulent and rich […] immediately accessible.” No. Wine 4 (June 2008)
The end confers a slight note of flatness. We might expect “mysterious” or “profound.” But “accessible” is all we get.
Good tasting notes, like good wines, have to be balanced, and balance is always a matter of judgment. In the end, whether we taste analytically, or synthetically; whether we look for description or evaluation, prediction or recommendation, there is no single way that tasting notes work, and no unified explanation of how they succeed when they do. Tasting notes can fulfill more than one function at any one time, and it is we, their consumers, with our different interests and needs, who must decide what we want and what we can take from them.
This article is based on a paper presented at the Third International Conference on the Philosophy of Wine at Pollenzo in May 2008, and a version will also be published in the proceedings, Wine, nature, and Culture. We are grateful to the author and publisher for permission to reproduce it here.
- Harry t Lawless, “Flavor Description of White Wine by ‘Expert’ and non-expert Wine Consumers,” Journal of Food Science 49 (1984), pp.120–23.
- Most of us readily assume that others taste what we taste.
- This may be why Burgundian Albert Thibaudet famously concluded: “there are no good wines; there are only good bottles.”
- I owe this example to innovative research by researchers at the Université de Bourgogne in Dijon, working as part of UnESCo Professor Jocylene Pérard’s “Culture et traditions du Vin” program.
- Javillier explains that the vines grow in soil that is less clay-rich and more rocky. David Schildknecht, however, reminds me that science has still to corroborate this explanation and that all we can claim is a site-specific cause for the difference in perceived flavor.
- Andrew Jefford, perhaps the best exponent of the art of capturing the elusive aspects of the tasting experience, was trained in Malcolm Bradbury’s school of creative writing in the University of East Anglia.