To steal a line from jazz great Thelonious Monk, writing about wine is like dancing about architecture.
The limitations of our language and the associated vinous lexicon used to describe the aromas and tastes we can attribute to the liquid in our glass becomes glaringly obvious as we descend into the abyss of fruit-salad descriptors and waffling prose. Guilty as charged, Your Honour!
I also understand that such flowery tasting notes are open to ridicule. And perhaps justly so. A few years back, some mischievous punter wrote his own tasting notes and swapped them with legitimate shelf tasting notes in a UK supermarket. Two of my favourites were: JP Chenet Shiraz – “Bitter clowns’ tears with a hint of suspicion. Great with lobster thermidor or best drunk on the street. Pair with trouser jazz.” And this other gem for Blue Nun – “Made by actual Blue Nuns in sea caves protected by wild otters. Full-bodied with a hint of wet sand.” It’s the work of a pure genius and I guess we deserve it.
With the confessional-esque disclaimer out of the way, let’s dig into tasting notes and decode some of the more mystifying elements, before perhaps suggesting a way of writing tasting notes that makes them a bit more meaningful on a personal level.
Whites range from pale-green straw through to brown, and reds from purple through to brown as they age. The easiest way to get an example is to pop “wine colour” into your search engine of choice and let the internet do the hard work. I like to add some indication of clarity and the vibrancy of a wine. And in these days of natural wines and minimal intervention, cloudiness in wines is certainly not a fault, indeed it is seen as a positive by some lo-fi aficionados.
Aromas and tastes
The organoleptic characters – those that we can discern as aromas and tastes – are next, and smelling and tasting widely is the only way to build up your vocabulary. There are various aids available to assist this process of defining the characters that those wily wine hacks seem so capable of dragging out of a bottle.
You may have seen the aroma wheel, which is one such aid that often helps to discern smells and flavours; a visual glossary, if you will. Aromas are split into three basic categories. One thing to remember is to write down any characters you see in the order that they appear. As you progress, this can give you an indication as to a wine’s grape variety, origin and age should you try to take on the palate gymnastics of wine options and blind tasting as you gain confidence.
PRIMARY CHARACTERS are those that cover the type of grape and where it is grown. These include fruit and herbal flavours, earthiness, floral notes and spices.
SECONDARY CHARACTERS are the ones that come from the winemaking process, the action of yeasts and other microbes.
TERTIARY CHARACTERS are those that come from the ageing process. Oak-derived characters such as vanilla, cedar and coconut obviously come into play here, as do those associated with oxidation and those that appear in aged red wines such as tobacco, leather, cocoa and dried fruits.
TIP: It may seem like overkill, but staring at one of those visual aids or charts certainly helps reveal a wine’s smells and flavours, should you be struggling to find the words to describe them. Cat’s pee on a gooseberry bush (NZ sauvignon blanc) anyone?
Mouth-feel and tactile sensations (and their associated descriptions)
The BODY of a wine is light, medium or full-bodied; thinking of skim, light and full-cream milk is a good prompter.
TANNIN is that furry feeling on the roof of your mouth, the grip or astringency of a red wine; something increasingly seen in white wines as winemakers experiment with skin contact and phenolics. And of course, there’s also the lively drive of ACIDITY, which is that tang on the tongue and energy across the palate that can be described as low, medium, high or anywhere in between.
MINERALITY is a term that often pops up and something I associate with acidity more than anything else. Ditto for characters of wet stones, crushed rocks, salinity, umami and other savoury notes. That said, don’t get too tied up in it. Wine is there to be enjoyed not analysed, but of course, feel free to liberally use “petrichor” (that smell that comes with the first rain on a hot day) and “sous bois” (a French term for those forest floor elements) in your notes if you wish to confound your enemies and impress your friends.
Personalising your tasting notes
I have some kleptomaniac friends who steal a napkin at every restaurant they visit. On the margin of that napkin, with indelible ink, they inscribe the date, restaurant and who they dined with. These napkins appear at dinner parties at their home and it’s a lovely reminder of past experiences. Perhaps something along those lines – sans thievery – you could note when you drank the wine, who you drank it with, what you ate with it, what you were listening to and some brief impressions on how it affected you. I like the idea of tasting notes bringing back memories of an experience with wine, food and people. And these are the notes that are most useful and endearing.