I do review wines – almost every day, in fact – but I rarely publish my tasting notes. This is mainly for two reasons: firstly, because I don’t think my wine conversations would be anymore illuminating if I did; and secondly, because there are so many better voices already doing so.
But, if the truth be known, it’s also partly because I don’t think it really ‘works’. Among all recent posts of New Year’s lists and predictions, the idea that the wine community has got to improve its ‘communication’ - internally, and above all, externally - has been common to many. It is therefore interesting to consider both the influence and reliance we put on tasting notes as a key delivery.
To me, one of the aspects of our wine language and behaviour that seems increasingly arcane is how we describe wine and why. The fatuous nature of back label narrative is now almost beyond parody: the ‘good-with-grilled meats-fresh fish-pasta-rice-salads-ice cream’ sort of mainstream nonsense; or the equally universal ‘hand plucked-hand picked-hand made’ declaration of artisan endeavour… Both approaches seem worryingly formulaic – more autobiography than story.
Similarly, the pool of ‘agreed’ adjectives seems to have acquired the uniform register of received pronunciation rather than the liberating accent of infinite variety – ‘nervous acidity’; ‘dusty stone fruits’ and ‘filigreed tannins’, all featuring among the current ubiquitous favourites.
Ultimatley, I am beginning to believe that tasting notes are only of real meaning and benefit to the author, and suffer greatly in translation, and even more so in wilful circulation and distribution.
That is until I revisited Chandler Burr’s excellent, The Emperor of Scent, and remembered Luca Turin’s – the book’s de facto hero – explanation of how he strives to review perfume: “I assume it’s what a movie director feels when he has got great dailies in the can. When I manage to capture this awesome beauty and greatness in language, translating smells and black-and-white words on the page and making this ether tangible and real – that is thrilling.”
Turin continues: “Perhaps the edge I have in turning smell into language is that for me smell has always had an utterly solid reality that, to my utter astonishment, it doesn’t seem to have for other people. Every perfume I have ever smelled has been to me like a movie – sound and vision – which to most people are thoroughly real senses – but not smell, for some reason. To me, smell is just as real as they are.”
To be able to convey a reality – a sense of product truth that goes beyond subjective opinion – is quite an achievement. When wine tasting notes comprise a word salad of adjectives, they can only ever be of limited use and comprehension. However, if they can ‘frame’ a wine – put it into context, character and reference – then they can be of enduring and transferable benefit.
Consider Turin’s note on one of the great classics, Apres l’Ondee by Guerlain: “Apres L’Ondee (After The Rainshower)…a prototype of the cold, melancholy fragrance, this stunning creation is the counterpart – the brighter, fresher, younger brother – of the mysterious L’Heure Blue (Guerlain). Apres l’Ondee evolves only slightly with time: its central white note, caressing and slightly venomous, like the odour of a peach stone, imposes itself immediately, and retains its mystery forever. Its simplicity, its keen nostalgia, and its unadorned beauty, make this an anomaly for Guerlain.’
Now that’s a note that doesn’t just tell you how a perfume smells, or indeed how it was made, but rather engages you with how it acts and breathes and behaves, and with what kind of character it has. Not only would I buy such a scent, I would celebrate it and talk about it!
Now for those of you who are thinking that this approach is just too purple a style of prose for the rigour of critical review, inhale the withering contempt with which Turin can put away a young pretender, Python (Trussardi): “The absurdly named Python is a poverty-stricken sweet-powdery affair, a very distant relative of the wonderful Habanita (Molinard). It belongs in a tree-shaped diffuser dangling from the rearview mirror of a Moscow taxi.” Quite.
Ultimately tasting notes need to be reflexive, and they should be able to convey the interest and the fascination of the wine they are describing. Unfortunately, more often than not, they tend to reflect the features of the author rather than the subject.
My top three winehero tips for reviewers with every bit as much insight and elan as Luca Turin are:
- Dave Brookes (@vino_freakism)
- Ned Goodwin MW (@rednedwine)
- Juel Mahoney (@winewomansong)
None of the above will tell you what a wine tastes like, but they will make you want to taste it for yourself. ‘Tangible and real’, as Turin would say…