When Wine Tasting Notes Go Bad. . .
How useful are wine tasting notes to you?
Well, before we get too far, I do want to add the disclaimer that what is to follow in this post may very well hang me by my own noose, but it is all in the interest of bettering myself and my critique of wines on grapesrgreat.com.
What I mean is, if you read a review of wine that is say 3-6 sentences in length (which I find to be typical in “shelf talkers” found at grocery stores and wine shops as well as in widely read wine publications Wine Spectator, Wine Enthusiast, and Decanter, to name a few), what do you really take away from the blurb that helps you understand what is in the bottle? The implication here is not that tasting notes are not useful, but simply that in most cases I find that I tend to mentally erase 90% of what is said and only pick out the few descriptors that I may find appealing or offensive to my tastes. The following are real life examples of what I would describe as truly ridiculous descriptors of wine:
Shrimp shells, Gravenstein apples, Valrhona Chocolate, Sandalwood, Grandma’s purse, worn saddle leather, etc. just to name a few.
The common theme among most of these that I find to add very little value and if anything help to propagate the snobbery that surrounds wine, is the unnecessary adjective in each instance. Gravenstein apples? How about apples? When did apple lose meaning enough to require further description? How many people have such a strong familiarity with this particular obscure variety of apple to immediately pull away additional knowledge of the associated wine than if “apple” was used alone? Similarly, “Asian Pear,” “Bing Cherry,” and “Thompson Seedless Grapes” could all be paired down (I was joking with Thompson. . . at least I haven’t seen it yet) to great efficiency and effect. Terms like “worn saddle leather” and “shrimp shells” are just literary tricks designed to make the writer feel like they are earning their paycheck. I also believe that terms like these work to alienate all types of wine drinkers who buy a bottle and expect to be punched with a flavor of Asian pears, only to find that they don’t pick out that particular flavor and immediate feel that their palate is unsophisticated or somehow inferior. Just know that the wine critic isn’t always right and no two people taste things the exact same way.
On the flip side of this coin, the type of the descriptors that I find particularly helpful (and I try to use in my own musings) are the more vague, broad sweeping terms that give more of a sense of the style of wine than any specific flavors I might find. Terms that describe the level of acidity, the fruit concentration, or the mouthfeel/body tend to give me enough information to basically know what I am getting into. Dark fruits versus red fruits (for red wines) is a good comparison to make because different wines from the same grape can go drastically different ways on this (California Pinot tends toward dark fruits whereas Burgundy Pinots tend to be brighter with red fruits). In addition, calling a wine bright or “high-toned” tends to accurately describe a high acid wine and luscious or flabby would generally describe low acidity (luscious = good, flabby = bad). A quality wine review should also mention the level and type of tannin in a wine. A harsh, hard to drink wine may be described as having “gripping” tannins whereas wines with low levels of tannin could be said to be soft, smooth, or drinkable (I do not like describing wines as drinkable, seems like a left-handed compliment). Once in a while, I will admit that I taste and wine and something strange immediate pops into my head (e.g. watermelon jolly ranchers, banana bread, lil’ Smokies, etc.) because, dang it, the wine tastes just exactly like that! When this happens, I feel compelled to share that with others because of the novelty of it. I would be remiss if I didn’t include these in my tasting notes, even though they may be of limited use to the readership. Let me know if you have any particular feelings on this topic or if you have come across any awesome descriptors of wine worth sharing. I also suggest you check out the now long gone www.winelibrarytv.com or www.dailygrape.com, as Gary V. is king of describing wines in such terms as “like Mr. T punching you with a velvet glove.” Cheers!