Jamie Goode: On wine tasting notes

By , 2 June 2022

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I’ve gone public saying that I hate tasting notes. Maybe this is a little hyperbolic. After all, like most wine writers who feature individual wines, I write them all the time. But in the wine trade, I think we’ve grown a bit lazy in the way we use them, and we could do a lot better.

The problem is that it’s difficult to write a tasting note. That’s because we lack a strong vocabulary for tastes and smells. We find it very hard to connect flavour and words, and this makes it tricky to capture the flavour of wine verbally. After all, what we are doing is a bit strange. If I give you a plate of steak and chips, I can ask you how you like them, but I wouldn’t expect you to try to capture their flavour in terms of descriptors.

There are some common sins of tasting note writers. One is writing brief generic notes that could apply to pretty much any wine. Often critics score a wine, and then just jot down a sentence or two about the wine – not a full note, but just picking out one or two features.

Another is the other extreme of being over-elaborate and fanciful, writing grandiose notes full of verbal invention, seeing things that never were in the wine in the first place and generally messing with the reader’s head: you can see all these things in the wine, therefore I must be an inadequate taster because I don’t.

A big problem is templating. This where we have learned what is effectively a code language to describe wines. We come to a wine and either know what it is, or if we are tasting blind we decide what it is. Say it is Sauvignon Blanc. We’ve learned the flavours and aromas found in Sauvignon, and we template these onto the perception. Rather than focusing what is in the glass, we interrogate our template – our own Sauvignon lexicon – and then pluck the descriptors we want from this list and construct our tasting note not from what is actually there, but from our knowledge of what this sort of wine usually tastes like.

Then there’s the issue of mental imagery of olfaction. Some people are able to conjure up a flavour in their mind, much as all of us can in vision when we think of a picture, or the face of a friend. I can’t, but I know people who can do this sort of mental imagery. Is writing tasting notes easier for them? And are tasting notes more meaningful for these people?

So what does a good tasting note look like? I suppose it depends on the purpose of the note. But I think a useful test would be whether you could recognize the wine from the description out of three similar wines placed in front of you. So a good start is actually describing what is there. Dwell in the experience a little and don’t rush to words. And actually taste the wine – maybe before you sniff it. I think focusing too much on the aroma in the absence of having the wine in your mouth is unhelpful.

Then structure the note. We want some specific descriptors, but not too many. Try not to go too exotic, and remember that many of your descriptors might be culturally limited and not useful to others who lack your frame of reference.

Holistic tasting terms are useful, and within the bounds of being sensible figurative language is useful – metaphor, simile and metonymy. How does the wine feel in the mouth? Is it silky, or coarse, or velvety (all fabric metaphors)? What about its structure? Is it harmonious, elegant, complex or short (all global descriptors)?

What is it like? Compare it with other well known wine styles. Try to think of fresh ways of describing the wine without going crazy, and avoid heading to clichéd, lazy territory. Try to avoid habitual tasting note tics: those terms you just add as a matter of course. If you are tasting lots of wines that are similar, keep describing the wines and don’t just try to be novel to avoid repetition.

It’s difficult to write good tasting notes, but we can do much better than we do, I feel.

  • Jamie Goode is a London-based wine writer, lecturer, wine judge and book author. With a PhD in plant biology, he worked as a science editor, before starting wineanorak.com, one of the world’s most popular wine websites.

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  • Lisa Harlow3 June 2022

    Jamie, I always appreciate your tasting notes and especially the live ones that you do. I do like some emotion in a tasting note, wine is something to be enjoyed for me. However, I agree. There are some dreadful tasting notes out there, but I guess we come to take notice of those from people we trust

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