Ever tasted a boysenberry? What about cat pee?

Can you easily discern Irish breakfast tea from English breakfast tea?

And do you ever drink kirsch, the brandy made from sour cherries?

If you’re anything like me, your answer to all these questions is “no.” Yet descriptors like these fill the cornucopia of words that critics use to write about wine.

While the baffling rhetoric of a typical tasting note might benefit some oenophiles, it intimidates consumers and stands in the way of wine appreciation. It’s time to change the way we talk about wine.

Consider a recent review of Domaine du Pegau’s Chateauneuf-du-Pape Cuvee Reserve, an iconic wine of the Southern Rhone. In a recent issue of Wine Spectator, critic James Molesworth praised the 2010 release for its “well-endowed core of crushed plum, blackberry paste, and braised fig” and savored “brick dust, pepper, warm chestnut leaf, and smoldering charcoal” on the finish.

One can’t fault a novice wine drinker for feeling daunted — or scoffing at such descriptors.

Remarkably, though, the widespread use of longwinded tasting notes is relatively new. Until the rise of mass-market wine magazines, such notes were essentially shorthand — a way for sommeliers, importers, retailers, and collectors to track bottles they’d consumed and communicate with one another.

Today, though, they’re ubiquitous.

Last year, Wine Spectator’s critics sampled more than 17,000 wines. Add their reviews to the ones published in Wine Advocate and other publications, and you’d have enough blackberry paste and braised fig to last a lifetime.

Many of these notes find their way onto “shelf talkers” at local wine shops. It’s no wonder why so many aspiring wine enthusiasts think the path to oenophilia is paved with brick dust and smoldering coal — and decide to stick with beer.

After all, speaking in the stilted language of a wine critic at dinner would destroy any hope of a pleasant conversation.

Communicating effectively about wine doesn’t demand an encyclopedic knowledge of rare fruits and bizarre aromas. Indeed, New York Times wine columnist Eric Asimov has found that “people who have no idea how one is supposed to talk about wine are far more creative and clear in discussing it than those who have read some books or undergone some training in wine classes.”

Think about your favorite hamburger joint. When you rave about your go-to burger, do you simply rattle off its composite ingredients — and expect your friends to know why it tastes good? Probably not. “Two all-beef patties, special sauce, lettuce, cheese, pickles, onions on a sesame seed bun” conveys nothing about why the burger is delicious.

Sure, you’ll talk generally about the burger’s makeup and mention anything that makes it unique — e.g., “the meat is tender yet slightly charred and topped with Swiss cheese and thick-cut, applewood-smoked bacon” — but you’ll quickly transition to a conversation about how it makes you feel.

Talking about wine in this fashion makes much more sense.

When discussing a white wine’s general flavor profile, for example, consumers and oenophiles alike only have a few basic questions.

Is it light or full-bodied? Do the fruits conjure aromas of citrus, pears and apples, or tropical fruits — and are they tart or ripe? Are the aromatics subtle or intense? Does it smell like butter? Is it oaked?

From there, everyone wants to know if the wine tastes good — and why. My favorite Sauvignon Blanc isn’t enjoyable because it smells like gooseberries and fresh-cut grass; it’s enjoyable because it’s packed with flavor, refreshing, and evocative of summer.

Tasting notes certainly have a place. I collect wine, so I pay close attention to a handful of critics whose palates are similar to mine. But the omnipresence of such notes stifles clear and creative wine conversations. Let’s move on.

9 Responses

  1. Toss Those Tasting Notes – Palate Pres | Daily Wine Buzz

    […] Toss Those Tasting NotesPalate PresConsider a recent review of Domaine du Pegau's Chateauneuf-du-Pape Cuvee Reserve, an iconic wine of the Southern Rhone. In a recent issue of Wine Spectator, critic James Molesworth praised the 2010 release for its “well-endowed core of crushed plum, …and more » […]

  2. Lee Newby

    ……… nobody tastes cats pee, but most have smelled it………. I agree I nobody knows what “warm chestnut leaf” tastes like and using its is well… weird…….

    • Morten Båtbukt

      In general I agree, and I rarely read tasting notes that read like that (who reads WA and WS these days anyways? The same that have always read them?), but I see the point in using terms that we have all agreed upon (as in the aroma wheel). Also, I like to know the style, the length and concentration, how complex it is and how it unfolds on your palate. Here’s a tasting note that would be useful to me:

      Anthill Farms Sonoma Country Pinot Noir:
      Open and clear fruit of red berries, flowers and a touch of spices, full bodied, high concentration and a flavour that starts off strong and follows through the entire flavour curve. Medium plus acidity. Excellent example of an American pinot noir.

      Good value for money and will probably age well for 5-8 years.

      Goes well with mushrooms (and mushroom pizza), veal, chicken, duck (in particular) and simply prepared steak with not too much fat (best with tenderloin and sirloin). Should also be able to go well with lean white fish with non-fish stock based sauces.

      So what does this mean?

      Open and clear fruit is the opposite of closed (as in muted on the nose) and muddled (*) fruit (in Burgundy it’s sometimes mixed heavily with smells of dried herbs, soil, wet leaves, stables and leather – which is not negative, just descriptive. What you prefer is up to your preferences).

      Full bodied refers to the level of alcohol and weight in the mouth (a lot of body comes from the alcohol).

      Concentration refers to how much flavour actually hits your palate and how it persists for the few seconds. A low concentration will also make the alcohol obvious. The more alcohol the more concentration you need to not have the (for me) unwanted taste of alcohol. How it follows through is also important. Some wines hits you hard in the beginning just to disappear. Some will reappear a little later, where as some will just evaporate. Occasionally a wine will have a nice start and finish, but feel hollow in the mid palate (oak is often used to build the mid palate). I think a wine’s mid palate is often more important in pairing it with food than the start of the flavour profile.

      As you can see these descriptions are very useful to those who agree on their contents, but perhaps less so to those who do not know what they entail. However, I think the above description would be useful to both sommeliers and others working with wine and the casual drinker of wine (excluding those that only drink the cheapest wines, but I doubt they read reviews anyway).

      (*) I’m not sure what term to use in English but I’m referring to fruit that is hard to pick up because it’s mixed with a lot of other smell

  3. Thomas Matthews

    Never tasted a boysenberry? Nor kirsch? Can’t taste the difference between English and Irish breakfast tea? Seems like a pretty limited range of experience for someone who is serious about flavor and taste.

  4. David White
    David White


    Thanks for chiming in! Much appreciated.

    Tasting a boysenberry has been on my to-do list for about six years. I honestly haven’t seen them anywhere — the farmers’ markets around DC just don’t stock them! As for kirsch, sure. I’ve smelled it and I suspect I’ve had it in cocktails, but I’m just not a hard liquor drinker.

    As for Irish breakfast tea vs English breakfast tea, well, that’s an impossible task. There isn’t a TTB for tea and they’re both blends of Chinese black teas. So sure, while Irish Breakfast typically has more Assam in it (so is typically stronger), they can be one in the same.

    Next time I’m in New York, we’ll do a blind tasting. Three Irish vs three English. If you call all six correctly, a bottle of high-end Champers (Salon, perhaps?) is on me.

    Regardless, your comment misses the point.

    As I explain in the piece, I appreciate notes (and enjoy the ones from Molesworth!). But does the baffling rhetoric us critics insist on using benefit consumers — or intimidate them? I’d argue the latter.

    On dozens of occasions, I’ve chatted with folks who say things like “I’d like to get into wine, but I just don’t get it. I don’t pick up on all those obscure fruits I’m supposed to smell.”

    • Keith Levenberg

      I can’t even begin to count how many times I’ve heard the same comment; still worse is when it’s phrased in the form of a puzzled question, as in, “Can you really taste all those fruits in wine, like boysenberries and blackberries?”—the idea being, “What a weirdo. Why would you be so obsessed with something that just tastes like a bunch of berries?” You end up explaining, well, sometimes wine tastes kind of like some of those things, but usually not, and in any event, that doesn’t really have anything to do with why we care about it. And if those things don’t have anything to do with what we care about, it’s worth thinking about another way to write notes that actually does express what we care about. David’s example of “refreshing, and evocative of summer” seems to do this perfectly, and has the added benefit of not requiring anyone to be able to discriminate between Irish and English breakfast tea.

  5. Daniel Posner

    Good topic. Unfortunately, I agree with David. Your TN example is poor. Just choose one of David Schildknecht’s TNs for examples of stuff.