Why Wine Tasting Notes are Not Helpful

by Dwight Furrow

Look on the back label of most wine bottles and you will find a tasting note that reads like a fruit basket—a list of various fruit aromas along with a few herb and oak-derived aromas that consumers are likely to find with some more or less dedicated sniffing. You will find a more extensive list of aromas if you visit the winery’s website and find the winemaker’s notes or read wine reviews published in wine magazines or online.

Here is one typical example of a winemaker’s note:

The 2016 Monterey Pinot Noir has bright cherry aromas that are layered with notes of wild strawberries and black tea. On the palate, you get juicy, black cherry flavors and notes of cola with hints of vanilla, toasted oak, and well-balanced tannins. A silky texture leads to a long finish.

The purpose of tasting notes is apparently to give prospective consumers an idea of what the wine will smell and taste like. And they succeed up to a point. Wine’s do exhibit aromas such as black cherry, cola, and vanilla.

But do notes like this give you much information about the quality of the wine or what a particular wine has to offer that is worthy of your attention?

The tasting note above describes a typical Pinot Noir from California’s Central Coast. If you have some background knowledge about such wines, you might infer that the wine is typical of Pinot Noir from that region. In other words, the note tells you the wine is like hundreds of other bottles in the wine shop. Beyond that bit of knowledge, it’s hard to see what is useful about the description. It certainly doesn’t distinguish this wine from the countless other examples of California Pinot Noir. And none of the verbiage has much to do with quality at all, unless you hang your hat on “silky” or “well-balanced,” both terms that would describe almost any Pinot Noir that is not seriously flawed.

Does anyone really purchase a wine because it smells of black cherry rather than blackberry? Does anyone say, “I’ll drink any wine that smells of black tea?” I doubt it. I suppose there might be specific aromas that some people detest. Perhaps a tasting note dissuades them from purchasing the wine. However, the aromas in wine are so muted and hard to single out that I doubt the presence of a particular aroma discourages many purchases.

It should also be mentioned that tasting notes published by a winery are marketing devices designed to encourage a purchase. Their primary purpose is not to provide an accurate description of the wine.

Tasting notes, and the tasting model they are based on, fail to capture what is most captivating about wine—its aesthetic qualities. The reason they fail is that a list of individual elements does not reveal how these elements interact to form a whole. We get pleasure from a wine because the elements form complex relations that we taste as a unity. However, tasting notes force the reader to guess the overall impression of the wine from a list of individual characteristics or, more likely, rely on a numerical score as an indicator of quality. A proper review, by contrast, should describe that unity.

To be fair some tasting notes do go into more depth. They might include references to holistic or aesthetic properties such as intensity, power, elegance, or finesse. However, these would describe most high-quality wines and thus they fail to characterize the individuality of a wine. Most premium Cabernet Sauvignon from Pessac-Leognan or Napa Valley will have intensity and power. Most quality Pinot Noir will be elegant. Language that distinguishes between them must be more precise about what kind of power, intensity, or elegance a particular wine exhibits. But that is not what we get from tasting notes.

Why would the wine industry employ a form of description that offers so little helpful information? There is a background to this approach to wine description that is important to bring to the surface if only to explain why tasting notes are not more useful to consumers.

The tasting method employed by wine professionals and wine educators and disseminated to the wine consuming public via these tasting notes uses a divide-and-conquer strategy to describe a wine. A wine is broken down to its elements—individual aromas, flavors, textures, and tactile impressions—from which we are supposed to gain an overall sense of the wine. Why are individuated impressions so important, especially if they don’t tell us much about wine quality? The answer has to do with the practice of blind tasting, which the wine industry uses to assess wines.

In blind tasting, tasters are trained to dissect wine into its component elements while being unaware of the producer who makes the wine, the geographical region in which the grapes are grown, and sometimes the grape varietal used to make the wine. The goal is to deduce the origin and provide an accurate description and assessment of the wine solely from the sensory properties the wine expresses. Aromas are the signature of a wine in that they reflect the geographical location of the grapes, the weather conditions under which they were grown, and the winemaking style that produced the wine. By meticulously cataloging the aromas and structural characteristics exhibited by a wine without the influence of prior knowledge about what one is tasting, the wine’s origin is revealed, at least to someone with the background to make such judgments.

The purpose of this exercise is to provide a reasonably objective description of the wine, which is useful in a variety of professional contexts. As tasters we are notoriously susceptible to influence—if we know the producer, the price, or the region in which the grapes are grown, that knowledge is likely to shape and perhaps distort our perceptions of a wine’s properties. If I know this wine I’m drinking should smell like lemon, I’m more likely to find lemon there. Wine is a vague object that sends weak signals to a brain striving to find meaning. The sensory signals can be overwhelmed by too much cognition penetrating our sensory experience.

Thus, blind tasting helps to insure we’re responding to the wine and not a figment of our imaginations. But most consumers don’t taste wine blind and aren’t particularly interested in the arcane art of deducing origins from data.

Blind tasting has another important function as well. It is excellent practice that trains your perceptual abilities. When forced to attend to only sensory properties, we increase our capacity for discrimination and learn to make subtle distinctions instead of relying on what should be the case. So blind tasting plays an important educative function for people who want to train their senses. But, as important as education is to wine lovers, most of the time, enjoyment is the point of tasting, not education.

Lurking behind this practice of blind tasting is a sophisticated science using gas chromatography that identifies the flavor components of a wine. By analyzing chemical compounds in wine, science can explain why we smell the many aromas that quality wines exhibit. The emergence of this scientific study of chemical compounds in the 1980’s led to the development of the aroma wheel that has now become a primary tool in educating wine professionals and consumers about wine tasting. The aroma wheel divides aromas into categories and subcategories and makes them visually accessible by displaying them on a wheel, thus giving wine tasters the vocabulary to describe what they are tasting. In the instructional materials developed to accompany the aroma wheel, each aroma was associated with a reference standard—an accessible household item or food with an aroma that students could use to develop their aroma memory and fix the reference of the vocabulary term. The motivation behind the development of the aroma wheel was the very real need for a common, reasonably objective vocabulary to facilitate discourse about wine.

Thus, through the development of the science of taste and the deployment of the aroma wheel for educational purposes, we gained not only a common vocabulary for describing wine but also well-established causal relationships between compounds objectively “in the wine” and the subjective impressions of tasters displayed on the aroma wheel, thus enabling standards of correctness to be applied to wine tasting. This development of what has come to be known as the “referential model”—aromas directly referring to chemical compounds in wine—has provided the foundation for the rigorous certification exams that sommeliers must pass to gain access to top jobs in the wine industry.

So the tasting note is the product of a need within the wine industry for a mode of communication and a definable, teachable tasting skill that is anchored in facts. These developments were useful and necessary in establishing the credibility and objectivity of wine tasting. However, notice that there is no mention of aesthetic appreciation here, which is really what a wine consumer would want from a tasting note. The kind of pleasure one might expect from the wine or the kinds of experiences the wine makes available to tasters are not addressed.

This suggests that our current habit of analytical tasting needs a reboot. Picking out aroma and flavor notes is a starting point for appreciating wine, but we do not drink wine to smell blackberries just as we don’t view (most) paintings to experience a shade of blue or listen to a symphony because it is in the key of C major. A wine leaves an overall aesthetic impression; it evokes feelings, moves us, stimulates the imagination, invokes memories, and even makes us think. And different wines have different ways of doing so. If wine writing is to reach a higher level, it must capture that broader aesthetic experience.

What is alternative to the standard tasting note? I have some ideas on the subject, but preparations for a (socially-distanced, quarantined) Thanksgiving are consuming my attention. A solution to the problem of the tasting note will have to wait until next month.