A Remedy for Tired Wine Tasting Notes

by Dwight Furrow

Last month I argued that wine tasting notes don’t give us much information about how a wine tastes. Most tasting notes consist of a list of aromas that are typical for the kind of wine being described. But we can’t infer much about quality or distinctiveness from a list of typical aromas. Whether a Cabernet Sauvignon shows black cherry or blackberry just isn’t very important for one’s enjoyment. The basic problem with this approach to describing wine 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—aromas, flavors, and textures—form complex relations that we taste as a unity. But our wine vocabulary does a poor job of describing that unity.

This unhelpful approach to tasting notes has a history. Aromas are caused by compounds in wine that can be objectively determined. Thus, there are well-established causal relationships between compounds objectively “in the wine” and the subjective impressions of well-trained tasters that enable standards of correctness to be applied to wine tasting. These standards provide the wine community with a definable, teachable skill grounded in facts about wine. The development of that skill and the standards of correctness that enable it is a worthy goal, but this tasting model leaves the aesthetic experience of wine out of the picture.

What then is the alternative?

Tasting notes have not always been restricted to a list of fruit aromas that ideally refer to chemical compounds in wine. Before this technical, analytic approach to tasting became entrenched, wine writers used a wider frame of reference for their descriptions, attributing personality traits and emotional states to wine. As Steve Shapin writes in “The Tastes of Wine: Towards a Cultural History,” quoting the legendary critic Michael Broadbent:

 I do like a bit of pure poetry, my favourite author being the late and great André Simon. At the end of a lunch at the Hind’s Head in Bray […] his host asked Simon for his first reaction to the wines. He answered that […] a 1926 Chablis reminded him of the “grace of the silver willow;” the 1919 Montrachet “of the stateliness of the Italian poplar;” the 1920 Cheval Blanc “of the magnificence of the purple beech;” the 1870 Lafite “of the majesty of the Royal Oak” […] Mind you, the French have always been good at this sort of thing. […]

Truth be told, this “poetic” approach to wine description led to some abominations which James Thurber famously skewered in 1937 New Yorker cartoon: “It’s a naïve domestic Burgundy without any breeding, but I think you’ll be amused by its presumption.” We can do without classism and we surely must drop the sexist language that lazily refers to wines as feminine or masculine. Nevertheless, certain personality and emotive descriptors seem appropriate and perhaps more useful than Simon’s litany of tree imagery. Wines can be lively, dark, austere, fun, aggressive, sensual, luxuriant, fierce, muddled, unfocused, grandiose, angry, dignified, brooding, explosive, amiable, joyful, bombastic, calm, languid, carefree, feral, provocative, reflective, somber, tender, tense, or visceral. Most of these descriptors refer to traits we might attribute to persons and their feeling states or the outward expression of feeling states.

Metaphors based on personification are useful when trying to describe wine for two reasons. First, instead of requiring that we break a wine down into its elements, such metaphors describe a wine as a whole. As noted, we enjoy wine because the elements form complex relations that we taste as a unity. Such metaphors make the wine as a whole intelligible because personality traits, emotions, and behavioral patterns are also complex unities, summaries of a vast number of concrete details that make sense only when viewed together as a relational aggregate.

Second, metaphors can help describe the individuality of a wine. Wines made from the same varietal or hailing from the same region often share aroma notes. Their aromatic profile is typical of its type. To describe the uniqueness of a wine we need to go deeper finding more differentiators by focusing on how those aromas are presented and how a wine feels or makes us feel. Describing a wine as boisterous or amiable goes a long way toward describing the kind of appeal a wine might have. Personification gives us access to what winemaker and consultant Clark Smith argues is the most “discriminating system of perception that human beings have—people watching.” Our perceptions are exquisitely tuned to the individuality and uniqueness of persons as well as their overall character, and we have a rich vocabulary for describing these aspects of persons.

The assumption I am making is that our primary response to a wine is not about discriminating aromas for the purpose of identifying their origin. Instead, we react with intuition and feeling to the aromatic bursts and textural changes in wine in much the same way that we react to music as it unfolds. Wines, like musical works and other forms of art, especially abstract works, evoke moods and images. They have an emotional tone that stimulates the imagination. Just as the music of Slipknot feels angry and aggressive, so do some young Cabernet Sauvignon if they haven’t been “micro-oxed” to death. Older Cabs are more brooding or luxuriant depending on how they are made. Beaujolais can be as lighthearted as a carousel ride, a Riesling as steely as the gaze of that cop who didn’t appreciate your joke.

It is probably not reasonable to expect bottom shelf, inexpensive wines to be so evocative. Wine’s that are not expressive will not provoke the imagination in the way more interesting wines will. But when consumers purchase a special bottle that they want to spend time with and fully experience, they want this intuitive, felt experience. As Clark Smith writes, “When you open a bottle of wine, it’s no different than going to a blues club. You want to experience soul.”

I’m not suggesting we replace the vocabulary of fruit aromas with personification metaphors. I’m suggesting that we build on top of the competence required for discerning aromas. As I pointed out last month, our referential model of aromatic description is based on good science. There really are compounds in wine that smell like black cherry, vanilla, or peaches and they account for part of our enjoyment of wine. And the features of wine that stimulate the imagination to metaphorical flights also require skill, practice, and experience to discern. There is nothing about this new model for tasting that is incompatible with the old one. My point is that there are sensual depths that are not reducible to individual aromas or textures that requires a language that describes the whole wine.

This proposal of course raises worries about subjectivity. There have been few studies of how experienced tasters attribute emotions, personality traits, or other holistic properties to wine and the jury is out on whether these attributions are broadly shareable. There are however objective features of wines that are plausible candidates for explaining why certain emotion words or personality descriptors are appropriate. I provide a comprehensive defense of this claim in Beauty and the Yeast: A Philosophy of Wine, Life, and Love.

But should this approach to wine description turn out to be laden with subjectivity, what is the harm in that? Each of us gets something different from a musical work or a poem. Even experts disagree about the meaning or quality of any creative work. But that does not entail we should dispense with interpretation.

This dimension of wine has been suppressed and ridiculed because of this fear of subjectivity. Many wine experts prefer not to talk of wine in this way because they have been cowed by the worry that, in the absence of agreed upon reference points, we will lose touch with what genuine expertise in wine tasting is. But it is time we give up that fear. It has been well established that wine tasting is a genuine skill that requires training, knowledge, and practice to acquire. If wine appreciation is to reach its full aesthetic potential, we must view that skill as serving a larger purpose, learning to appreciate the soul of a wine, which requires full engagement with wine’s ability to stimulate feeling and imagination.

For more on the philosophy of wine visit Edible Arts or consult Beauty and the Yeast: A Philosophy of Wine, Life, and Love.