Tasting notes about wine have been written since 3500 B.C. and became prominent in ancient Egypt. During Greek and Roman times they expanded utilizing simple easily understood descriptions.
In the 17th-century tasting notes lengthened with even more advanced content featuring added detail and explanation. It’s only since the late-1970s that tasting notes and reviews began to include various overly expressive terminology and hyperbole (referred to as “winespeak” by some).
In a May 3, 2021, Wine-Searcher online posting titled, “Science Makes a Mockery of Tasting Notes,” Dr. Virginia Utermohlen Lovelace of Cornell University’s Division of Nutritional Sciences stated, “there are significant differences in the way the general population tastes and perceives different flavors.” She identified four groups of tasters: “sweet, hypersensitive (aka supertasters), sensitive and tolerant. And within each category there are aberrations.”
Lovelace also explained that while certain flavor impressions are quite pleasing to some in a specific group they may be off-putting to others in a different group. This dichotomy was further explored in the same article by New York City’s Terroir owner, Paul Grieco, who attempts to avoid the risk of offending customers by interpreting the flavors and aromatics he observes in a particular wine as being different from what the diner may perceive.
When conducting a formal tasting or merely enjoying a glass of wine with friends, I often hear a common question: “What is that I’m tasting?” It is impossible to honestly answer that question as our gustatory and olfactory senses originate from our own experience and memory bank, along with our ability to express them within our personal context and not necessarily dependent on what we read or hear from a critic or someone else.
Each taster has her own individual sensitivity to specific aromas and flavors. This is not to say my impression of green apple will be comparable to another’s sense of ripe pear. But quite possibly, I may detect peaches and another taster may describe nectarines. Or your blackberry may be my blueberry. We are all right within our own lexicon of memories and frame of reference.
Our different expressions of flavors and aromatics represent just one side of the “winespeak” argument as there is another equally important component. Descriptors are the key to any communication, though there are too many obscure examples commonly used to describe one’s impression of a specific wine. Some descriptors are easily recognizable (e.g. banana, gardenia, freshly cut grass), but others are quite esoteric and not easily understood by most readers.
How many of us have ever tasted a gooseberry or smelled cat pee? Both common descriptors of New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc. Is the signature of licorice root or licorice snap common to most consumers? Does one really appreciate the difference between coffee, cappuccino, or espresso notes when smelling a wine let alone connect with the scent of fleur de sel or peach skin?
And what about the often personal pronouncements of profound, hedonistic, broad-shouldered, sexy, etc.? Let alone one of my “favorites,” "liquified Viagra," in a Wine Advocate description of a highly regarded Napa red wine. These are all actual terms extracted from various published tasting notes and are descriptors lost to the vast majority of readers
For centuries tasting notes have been intended to convey the quality and character of a wine in terms that are accessible to the reader and offer guidance about what to expect when sampling the wine. Yet, in the late 1970s, the critical sector adopted the 100-point scale and winespeak became the norm.
The adaptation of these newer renditions may be more about the author in support of a numerical score and the marketing needs of the producer than an honest well-intentioned observation of the wine itself. And why have references to such basic expressions of balance, structure, and texture become so rare? Each one, on its own and as a complement to the others, is the ultimate arbiter of a wine’s character.
Balance suggests that all the components of fruit, acid, tannin and alcohol complement rather than oppose one another. Structure is more the expression of the acidity (skeleton) supporting the tannin (musculature) and fruit (flesh) in a way that makes the wine stand erect and not collapse on the palate. Textural appeal is one of the most overlooked elements in a wine's anatomy and refers to how it feels in your mouth. Is it silky, rich, watery, or rough like sandpaper?
Older tasting notes stressed these elements combined with straightforward descriptions of aromatics and flavors. Today, widely used unfamiliar terms mostly leave readers wondering what’s being said. Wine, by its very nature, can be an intimidating beverage. So why further unnerve anyone with complex or curious terms that bear little if any relationship to the aromatics and flavors accumulated over years in the memory bank?
Wine author and educator Karen MacNeil observed in the January/February The SOMM Journal that, “Even the briefest dialogue reveals that wine language is messy, inexact and widely open to interpretation.”
Hopefully, a new generation of wine lovers (who rely less on critical acclaim and “expert” advice) will bring us back to the “old days” where we can read tasting notes without having to interpret their relevance and meaning.