February 23, 2011

Tasting notes...again

It's hard to get tired of debating the topic of tasting notes. Seemingly, the more people bring up the topic of a new approach to describing a wine, the more the critics using the 100 point system and flowery (Quixotic?) terms seem to persist in presenting an understanding of wine as out of reach and complex. Even Gary Vaynerchuk, who claims to be "Changing the wine world," falls into the trap of using a long string of descriptors and scoring wines. That's not change I can believe in. (For a comparison of scoring systems, check out this great graphic, by De Long Wine Discovery Tools.)

In contrast to the prevailing notion in most wine media, Eric Asimov just proposed a binary system of describing wine; sweet or savory. I completely agree that tasting notes should be simpler, but he has taken it too far. There's no doubt that proponents of scoring systems (100 points or otherwise) see their way of measuring a wines merits as simple and un-intimidating to the consumer - yet they do nothing to tell us about the experience of the wine, or its place in the world. And neither does Asimov's two choices, which are loaded with potential for misunderstanding.

There is the issue of why one would want to write a tasting note. In response to Asimov's column, Alder Yarrow wrote up this reminder of what tasting notes are good for. The list focuses on information being conveyed from wine writers to consumers. But lets not forget that tasting notes are also written by wine consumers for themselves as a tool to remember wines they have drunk. In this case, my advice is to write what suits you and makes the most sense of your experience.

Personally, I would rather see tasting notes that showed restraint when using descriptors (a la Broadbent), but conveyed what I think are the two most important aspects of a wine: its structure, and its typicity. Why these two elements? A description of a wines structure can convey how a wine is made, what it feels like in the mouth, if it is balanced or not, if it should be paired with food and what sort of food, and its ability to age. Also, a wines structure, though it evolves, is more permanent than any flavor. A wine out of balance cannot evolve into a balanced one. As for typicity and style, I believe its important to say whether a wine reflects its place of origin, or fits a style. Humans use broad categories to describe all sorts of things, why not wine? Furthermore, wine writers tend to make such a big deal of terroir, and seek out true vins de terroir. Why then don't we use this in tasting notes, and in this way educate consumers by pointing out useful benchmarks in a given category. Perhaps instead of trying to dumb down the discussion with reductionist descriptions, we should move the discussion towards expanding our understanding of the diversity of wine and where it comes from.

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