Tasting Notes Part I — What are they?

“Writing about music is like dancing about architecture” Martin Mull. Can the same be said of wine? Wine and dancing, contrary to popular belief, are not a good match… but that’s another story.

The humble, hastily scribbled tasting note; commonly used tool of the wine professional, wine student and really anybody that wants to record their experience with wine. Tasting notes have been used for well over a hundred years now in the world of wine and despite being lampooned by some folks quite recently, very much have a purpose and place.

A tasting note can have many purposes but what it actually is, is essentially a medium to communicate either the technical details and/or the experience of drinking a wine, clearly and concisely, either to other professionals or to potential consumers. Simple eh? However, due to the variation of style between tasting notes of different critics, the new trend that sees expert advice replaced with the wisdom of crowds and the varied, sometimes baffling and saturated use of descriptors involved, we still aren’t really any closer to making tasting notes mainstream and easily understandable. Or useful for that matter. So what is the purpose of the bloody things?

A caustic vintage with notes of winter mornings, sad beagles and lochness monster fins. Best drank whilst single.
  1. To sell. At an industry level, all tasting notes serve the same purpose; to sell you, the customer, a bottle of wine. This generally true for a lot of critics, producers and of course, any shop that you happen to be in. This was most clearly shown in the 100 point scale initiated by Robert Parker in the 1980’s, essentially to quantify the quality of the wines he tasted but which realistically ended up being a selling guide, even replacing staff training to a certain extent. Don’t know which wine to buy? This one is 95 points! It has to be good! The next time you buy a wine, check the website of the winery that produced it. Whether it is a 5 euro bottle of table wine for dinner, or a 50 euro bottle of wine for a special occasion, I can guarantee you won’t see a big difference between the tasting notes. Why? Because no winery in their right mind is going to say “Well, it’s our cheapest wine and honestly it’s pretty basic.. that’s why it’s 5 euros”. My advice here is to completely ignore all tasting notes written by the person who created or is responsible for marketing the wine, unless it happens to be someone you know and trust. Even then, you may spend a lot of time trying to figure out where the ‘Long and persistent’ finish has gone, time after time. This is partially why customers are preferring to use apps such as Vivino or websites like Cellartracker to check average scores from a bigger sample size. So if tasting notes aren’t particularly useful when it comes to buying a wine — are they any use to yourself as a customer? The answer is yes — but mainly as a tool for yourself! See below.
  2. To learn: Wine is one of those things where the more you know, the more you realise you don’t know. However, at the same time you gain an appreciation for the product and an understanding of your personal tastes, preferences and often why that is. Tasting notes are invaluable in this process and are about as practical a tool available when learning about the world of wine. Whilst I recommend formal wine education for anybody that has the time and money, simply learning as you go along, taking notes and appreciating the product is often more than enough and will improve your enjoyment of wine hugely- needless to say, this will also help with any decisions of future purchases! Also, as you learn how to create tasting notes yourself, you start to understand others and can read between the lines a little on producer tasting notes: “Smooth” Micro-oxidised and probably full of glycerol. “Full bodied” High alcohol and liable to melt your face. “Long and persistent finish” Likely to disappear before you’re even properly introduced.
  3. To communicate: Your own personal perspective of a wine is just that, very personal. However, you might be surprised by how often many others share your views, regardless of whether you are just starting out or have been in the industry for years. Eric Levine, an ex-Microsoft executive, is well known in the wine community for creating cellartracker.com, a website for tracking your wine collection but more commonly used to record tasting notes from over 380,000 users creating over 2 million reviews to date. Often when considering a purchase of an expensive or unknown wine, I am as likely to consult well-respected tasters through Cellar Tracker as I am through other sources; admittedly it helps that Cellar Tracker is linked to reviews from critics I trust. I myself record my tasting notes here as it is a convenient place to store them and allows me to compare my blind tasting notes with others and also to discuss the wine in a closed forum.
The WineCuentista 4 step approach to analysing wine. Never fails.

So, to summarise a 1000 word post: tasting notes are very useful, just not as something to be followed blindly. Better yet, if you start to make a few scribbles of your own you are likely to be in for a pleasant surprise after a while. When I first started, prior to any sort of education, I used to jot down some very basic points; Was it easy to drink, did I like the flavours, what did I like about it and so on. I would always finish with the qualification of: Would I buy it again? Part II of this same article will look at creating tasting notes and the comparison of styles but to leave you with some starting advice:

  1. Start. Just try it — a lot of people are nervous about all the different words used to smell, taste, describe.. sod all that. Your tasting note is for you and no-one else, qualify it how you want. You will change your notes over time as you read, learn and evaluate — how you start isn’t important, so long as you do.
  2. Mentor. Find a critic, journalist or amateur poster whose style makes sense to you. One of my favourite taster is a gentleman known as Richard Jennings in San Francisco. He works in HR but is considered to be a professional wine taster and posts his tasting notes and stories atcellartracker and also his own blog, sadly discontinued, rjonwine.com. By reading their notes and potentially comparing them to your own, you pick up descriptors, styles and start to gain understanding.
  3. Record. I’ve mentioned Cellar Tracker a few times now as I believe it is the ideal place to store your notes. For a long time I just had pieces of paper floating around the house that were impossible to summarise, reference to or even store — I lost hundreds of tasting notes in the Great Spring Clean of 2015 (We will never forget). It’s nice to be able to reference your own personal opinion on a wine, especially if you decide to buy it again in the future. With hundreds of thousands of wineries in the world — it makes sense to keep your notes somewhere safe and easily accessible.
  4. Haters gon’ hate. Arguably the biggest reason why people are put off by taking notes, you don’t want to look like that guy (Hi!). I suppose if this is genuinely a concern you can do your notes in the comfort of your own home, but my own experience has always been positive with taking tasting notes. More often than not it provokes conversation and discussion — people want to know what you’re doing and what you’re thinking. Go for it and spread the word in the process, that guy is back in fashion.
Go forth and make notes!

Wine Cuentista: The literal translation is ‘Wine story-teller’. We run high quality wine tastings in central Barcelona, Borne area, with the intention of tasting and learning about high quality Spanish and Catalan wines in a relaxed atmosphere — perfect for a fun evening out in Barcelona! If you would like to get in touch or see our services, check out the website here: winecuentista.com Thanks!