The Tasting Note as a form of wine critique is not new. It was around long before Michael Broadbent first published his detailed observations. He reputedly has over 90,000 of them in his famous notebooks. But Broadbent certainly established this concise analysis of a wine’s colour, bouquet and palate as the gold standard of wine criticism. Then, in the 1980s, we in Britain experienced a new form of tasting note from the extrovert vocabulary of Jilly Goolden, on BBC TV’s Food and Drink Programme. I must thank Tim Atkin, via an ancient Times article, both for the Goolden wine description which I’ve nicked as the title for this second piece on wine writing, along with the suggestion that British Food Writer Delia Smith had once called that show “the most disgusting programme on television”. Around that time, the most famous living wine critic, Robert Parker, was also honing the form, with his gobs of sweet berry fruit and his hundred point scoring system,
In my last Blog Post I tried to justify the existence of the Wine Blogger. As a species we are often writing about a breadth of wines which do not get much attention from many of the established wine writers, in the established wine press. There is a market for these wines, exciting wines of personality from outside the classic wine regions, and we are able to bring such wines to the attention of eager consumers, and to lead them to where they might make new discoveries. In this second part, I’d like to describe why this new world of wine requires a new kind of wine writing, and why the tasting note, as we know it, might be a moribund vessel for conveying the information the new consumer craves.
The new breed of wine consumer has an open mind. They are prepared to try anything which sounds interesting, and they have a glass half full approach to wine contemplation. It’s not about what qualities the wine might lack, it’s about the positives in the glass. The new consumer wants to be stimulated, occasionally shocked as well. Not for them the certainties of the same old thing, although she (and increasingly nowadays it’s she as well as he) is as interested in nuance and subtlety as any wine pro.
The tasting note form began, I think, as a personal observation which, when published, acted as a good little snippet of information which would help the wine lover know what to expect from their bottle and, they hoped, when best to drink it. It can work especially well when describing the same wine as it has evolved over time, in describing perhaps a vertical run of vintages of the same wine, and perhaps even a group of different but closely associated wines, in order to differentiate them. But over time it developed into something very different. It became an expression of the subjectivity of the critic. Not only was it shaped by the tastes and prejudices of the writer, but in its language, it expressed ever more complex organoleptic sensations. Whether the reader also found accacia blossom, or was it linden flower, who knows? I’m not sure some of the writers producing these works of High School poetry really cared. Bung on 99 points and your description would surely find itself on the shelf tickets of several wine stores. The tasting note became, in some cases, not so much about the wine as about the critic.
The tasting note, with its fruit compote of strawberries, raspberries and loganberries, was fine for those who wanted to be told what the wine tasted like. But it is tempting to wonder whether the “TN” would suffice for some instead of actually drinking the wine, and if one did drink it, then would we really get some of the more fanciful scents and flavours. Don’t misunderstand me. Some scents, like cherry for instance, are pretty easy to spot, although whether they are black, morello, or was it maraschino, who can say? But many tasting terms are fanciful to many readers – even my own description of Vin Blanc de Morgex, “like licking a pebble freshly taken from a mountain stream” (which I swear relates to a mouthfeel/texture thing, not minerality!). It’s purely subjective because, unlike me, the reader does not have a mountain stream filled with pebbles near at hand.
But there are good and bad tasting notes, as in all things. All of this is very abstract, so I’ll give some more concrete examples. TN number 1 talks of a “waxy, nutty nose…Creamy texture…concentrated peachy fruit…Ample body…clean, fresh, zippy finish…” Nothing wrong with that. It’s descriptive without verbosity. Yet what does it really tell us about the wine? It comes from Decanter’s 2016 Italy Supplement, and an article about sparkling wines. Maybe it was an over zealous sub, but look at the wine’s name – Fongaro, Lessini Durello, Metodo Classico Brut. Nothing here tells me anything about the wine’s composition, nor the producer, nor exactly where it comes from, unless I’m a smart alec who knows Lessini Durello is a sparkling wine DOC covering Verona and Vicenza provinces.
Another style of tasting note appears on page 154 of World of Fine Wine 50 (December 2015). It’s written by that poet of the vine, Andrew Jefford. I can’t quote much of the note as it takes up a whole page column. It tells me nothing, in either a technical sense, nor in a plainly descriptive sense, about what its subject, Château Latour 2000, actually tastes like. But boy, is it writing! “…a kind of velvet bomb, quietly ticking inside…Quarternary rivers have come and gone…The great coffee-coloured serpent of the Gironde…no ten minutes at Latour is like any other…Congratulations then on spending your money on half an infinity of chances”. I think many of us can spot Jefford’s finest without attribution. You read it in awe of the words, and he paints a picture like Turner. You almost wallow in writing like that. You become as if curled up on the sofa with a hot mug of coffee, no, a glass of old Boal, a log fire roaring in the grate. But there’s another kind of tasting note, too.
TN number 3 and we are back in Decanter’s Italian Supplement. The first article there is by Monty Waldin, and it’s called Natural Heroes, focusing on the natural wine stars of Italy. It’s not really a TN as such, because the wine gets seven lines at the bottom of the page. But in a box above, Waldin uses four paragraphs in a narrow column to introduce its maker (in this case, Angiolino Maule from Veneto). He talks about Maule’s struggle to buy his vineyard, his philosophy, his methods, and his belief in the future of the natural wine movement.
One page later, TN4: Waldin does the same for Stefano Belloti from the Monferrato sub-region of Piemonte, whose A Demûa Monferrato Bianco I bought on the basis that a wine merchant told me it was her favourite orange wine of 2015. But if you read Waldin’s story of how Belloti left the city for a tiny plot of his grandfather’s land in the Tassarolo Hills, eventually creating a farm as close as possible to a self-sustaining living organism, then I reckon you’d be tempted to try a bottle.
What we have here is a different kind of writing, one which tells the reader a story. It’s a story about a place, about people, about a particular way of life, with its struggles. It tells us why the people have persevered, and what they have created as a result. It matters little that, in Belloti’s case, that blend of Timorasso, Verdea, Bosco, Chasselas Musqué and Riesling, fermented on skins of grapes picked from vines over 100 years old, tasted of nuts, flowers and herbs with a salty-citrus aftertaste. “But they might not like it”, you say. “We need to tell them what it tastes like so they don’t waste their money”. But the modern wine lover simply seeks the adventure of discovery. Their questions are not “what does it taste of?”. They want to know “is it an honest expression of the land on which the grapes were grown?”, and “was it made according to a particular philosophy by an individual with a love and passion for what they are doing”? If so, if they like the story, then they will want to undertake the voyage of discovery. Sometimes, drinking a wine for the first time can be a little like hearing some wonderful music for the first time, or seeing a great film. You don’t always want a spoiler. Have you ever tasted a wine you know nothing about and been stopped dead in your tracks, thinking Wow!?
My own belief, based on spending far too long with other wine lovers who have a similar sense of wine being a wonderful adventure, is that they want to feel…like I felt the first time I arrived in Tokyo, or Kathmandu. Like I felt the first time I heard Aladdin Sane, or the last moments of Gotterdammerung. Wine is capable of moving us, even if on a level that’s trivial in comparison to life’s really important issues. And what pleasure we get if we have a story about the wine with which to enhance our pleasure, rather than some example of banal verbosity which says nothing, albeit with a flourish.
Wine writing is about one thing – communication. The critic tastes the wine, and then must describe the essence of it to the reader. But what is that essence? Is it a string of similes or something else? I agree with Mike Steinberger, who in that same (and current) World of Fine Wine, says that “(t)he worst wine writing, of course, typically takes the form of tasting notes”. And I’m just like Terry Theise in an article which follows in the same edition, when he says that in “contemplating the billions of words written about wine” he wants to “understand what it all amounts to, and whether it is helpful or illuminating”? Theise’s conclusion – “I can’t shake a dogged suspicion that it’s chasing its own tail”.
Do all those long lists of fruits, flowers, spices and minerals, appended with a mark of certainty, a score out of a hundred, actually mean anything to the average wine consumer? Perhaps to some, if they have no opinion unless it’s one validated by the critic. Do you never enjoy a film that the critics disliked? Or a book? Or a record you love, but which was panned because it happened to be out of fashion? When we take our head out of the proverbial, well okay, ground (to be polite), might not people just want a story, the truth without fanciful embellishment – The Story. I’m certain that it’s what the modern consumer desires.