Michael Fridjhon: On wine tasting notes

By , 22 November 2023



Very few people who write about wine go through life without composing wine descriptions: whether it’s in the form of purple prose to induce purchase, or in the more oblique references – to a winery, a winemaker, even a site where the grapes were grown – sooner or later you can’t avoid saying something about the wine itself. At its most prosaic this might be nothing more than “wines made from these ancient vines rooted in impoverished granitic soils can never be anything other than austere.”

The other end of the spectrum offers full-on Robert Parker: his note on the 1982 Petrus written in 2000 is worth quoting at length. “This remains one of the greatest wines I have ever tasted. …The colour reveals some amber at the edge. A sweet nose of caramel, roasted herbs, cherry jam, cedar, and smoke is followed by a thick, full-bodied, unctuously-textured, low acid Petrus that is approaching full maturity.”

Some people – producers, editors and readers – clearly like their wine descriptors laid on thick – despite the fact that it is generally agreed even the most sophisticated taster cannot distinguish more than three (at most four) aromatic notes from whatever miraculous liquid has landed up in the glass. The more this style of wine writing is in vogue, the longer it’s likely to continue: people are clearly too frightened to opt for an economic (and possibly more accurate as a result) wine note when the fashion is for the more flamboyant.

I write notes which are meant to give guidance to consumers and professionals: I start with something about the colour – which guides those who know about these things to work out extent of evolution, weight of tannin, even degree of freshness. Notes on aromatics/flavours serve a similar role: “fruit compote” on chenin tells you a lot about ripeness as does “green apple and white pear.” “Hints of marzipan” lets you know a little about the oaking, “gamey” or even “animal” is a message about brett, as clear to consumers (who may know nothing about brettanomyces but can smell the pong) as it is to professionals. After this everything else is largely factual: is the oak integrated or not, is the wine “hollow” – with a gap in the middle – is it persistent?

To declare my position (which I think is pretty obvious) I aim to write notes which are measured and informative. That doesn’t mean that I haven’t been guilty of descriptors on steroids, especially as I flail around for something to say about a very ordinary – but decent enough – drink that hardly warrants anything more than “good, easy going, perfect for a braai.”

A century ago descriptions were usually matter-of-fact – or vastly more poetic. George Saintsbury (in his “Notes on a Cellarbook”) describes the 1873 Rebello Valente “if there was ever any devil in its soul that soul had thoroughly exorcised the intruder and replaced him with an angel.” Andre Simon was even more colourful. A note written in 1931 about the 1878 Lafite which followed the 1900 at a luncheon went as follows: “The ‘78 was much finer; it belonged to another class, even more than another age. It reminded me of the late Lord Curzon being announced immediately after the late Lord Leverhulme.”

Is there a golden mean, and is there even a justification for seeking middle ground? The overly safe note is either a euphemism, or else it is a functionally useful description about as memorable as a directive drafted by the Department of Agriculture. If the former, is it really – as a recent tweet suggested – a coded message where “ambitious” means “drowning in oak,” “delicate” means “thin” and “rich” means “overripe?” If the latter, does anyone really want to read it?

Don’t we sometimes want the kind of poetic masterpiece produced recently by Tamlyn Currin for Jancis Robinson’s site – one which transcends the ordinary to arrive instead at what T.S. Eliot called an “objective correlative” – an expression which evokes in words the same sensations and emotions produced by the object (in this case the wine) itself.

I am taking the liberty of quoting her in full: the wine was Andre Bruyns’s City on a Hill Thousand Hills Grenache 2022. “Exceptionally pale red. Not much on the nose bar a smudge of rooibos and iron. One of those wines which defy the flavour-wheel descriptors. Roses and rust – it tastes of rose petals and the deep old-iron tang of blood; it feels like rose petals and the crisp-dust curve-hard scratch of rust. Like licking a hundred-year-old tap in an abandoned garden. It’s red fruit, but it’s not really fruit. Or mineral. It tastes like the sound of a woman singing folk song on a barren, sea-wind swept cliff. Like a keening that lifts the hairs on the back of your neck and sends a cold tine-scrape of old silver down your spine. It has the sweetness of a goodbye kiss, the bitterness of winter thyme, the tannin texture of old fynbos roots clinging to cliff paths. A wine with quiet, graceful, under-the-radar defiance. André Bruyns has a gift for making breath-taking red wines.”

Who wouldn’t want to drink that?

  • Michael Fridjhon has over thirty-five years’ experience in the liquor industry. He is the founder of Winewizard.co.za and holds various positions including Visiting Professor of Wine Business at the University of Cape Town; founder and director of WineX – the largest consumer wine show in the Southern Hemisphere and chairman of The Trophy Wine Show.


2 comment(s)

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    Simon | 22 November 2023

    Fascinating point about flavour notes also indicating facts about the object under discussion. The elegance and precision of, e.g., ‘hints of marzipan’ informing the reader about about the use of wood while simultaneously describing the effects of oaking on the wine, translating fact into experience. (And if there critic happened to be mistaken it would prompt us to ask why. Was the effect achieved in a surprising way? Did the taster have a cold?) It’s useful advice for writing about anything.

    Kwispedoor | 22 November 2023

    “Some people – producers, editors and readers – clearly like their wine descriptors laid on thick – despite the fact that it is generally agreed even the most sophisticated taster cannot distinguish more than three (at most four) aromatic notes from whatever miraculous liquid has landed up in the glass.” This does indeed happen more and more, especially on Instagram. I think some people are just afraid of being boring, so they embellish. Or they think people will think more of their tasting abilities if they rattle off a string of different aromas. What they don’t realise, is that constant embellishment is also boring – like too much gratuitous violence in a movie.

    Some wines do grab you in a way that really moves you. For me, this is more likely to happen with mature wines, so it wouldn’t be an everyday occurrence. But when it does, it actually helps the reader if the writer can convey that in some way. Thus, the occasional embellishment is very welcome. The problem is when it becomes a writing style: every wine reviewed has six or seven distinctly identifiable aromas and/or moves you to some lyrical/emotional brink.

    No. Much rather give me realistic and honest info about what the wine tastes like. Write less for simple wines and more for complex or engaging ones. Then, if it really moves you in some way (or fails to do so in some disappointing way), let me know that as well.

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