Just what makes for a good tasting note in 2020?

Recent controversies over offensive language have brought the humble tasting note to the fore. Harry Eyres chronicles the format's evolution and asks how critics can craft colourful but considered content

Words by Harry Eyres

Wine Aroma Chart

In these polarised and sensitised times, you might think the humble tasting note was one area of discourse that was relatively free of controversy. You’d be wrong. Like any other form of communication, tasting notes reveal prejudices and conditioning. Often, they say as much about the writer as about the wine/spirit/beer.

A recent furore around the language used by well-known whisky writer Jim Murray shone a light on the need for more self-awareness in the format, especially in relation to sexism. Various whisky producers decided to sever links with Murray after notes such as “Have I had this much fun with a 41-year-old Canadian before? Well yes I have but…” came to light. Few of us would leap to Murray’s defence, but are there also dangers in a kind of self-censorship which removes all personality and colour from what are, after all, a writer’s subjective impressions of aesthetic experience?

Man tasting wine wearing a blindfold
In trying to locate more and more vivid descriptors, critics have waxed increasingly lyrical

First, un peu d’histoire. The evolution of the tasting note reveals much about culture as well as wine. In my early days in the wine trade, apprenticed to a wine merchant father and then to Michael Broadbent at Christies, a tasting note was mainly a shorthand, professional “memo to self”, deploying a very limited vocabulary, and employed mainly for internal trade use. This “stiff-upper-lipped” note harked back to earlier times; if you read the wine merchant Charles Walter Berry’s entertaining memoir In Search of Wine, for instance, about his wine-buying trips in France in the 1930s, you will hardly find anything resembling a modern tasting note. Berry was clearly an expert taster, but didn’t feel the need to deploy an extensive vocabulary (on a vertical of Château La-Tour-Blanche: “1934. Not fit to taste; 1933. This was good…yes, very good! 1930. This tasted of sugar only.” No mention of stone fruit or cinnamon spice, let alone erogenous zones à la Murray.

In Search of Wine book
Charles Walter Berry favoured a minimalist approach: "Good... Yes, very good"
Charles W Berry

Broadbent was a pivotal figure, maybe the first person to publish books consisting of tasting notes, for which of course the vocabulary and literary ambition had to be expanded. At the same time, wine merchants started incorporating notes in lists, brochures and offers. Two points here: firstly, this is the beginning of a new era, featuring the tasting note as entertainment or sales pitch; and secondly, we are talking about a period when the wine trade was still overwhelmingly male, and dominated by a certain kind of man – often public-school educated, sometimes ex-Services, usually a member of an all-male club. The atmosphere at the St James’s wine merchant Christopher’s when my grandfather, an England rugby international and captain in the Royal Navy, worked there in the 1950s was probably not so different from that of the locker room or the officers’ mess.

Broadbents guideto wine tasting
Michael Broadbent was among the first to publish tasting notes in a book

This was a patriarchal milieu, and the communications about wine which emerge from it cannot help but reveal such characteristics. It was not only the wine trade in England, of course: the international wine world was also male-dominated, and rife with a kind of language we now find questionable or unacceptable. All of us who work in wine will have met that French vigneron d’un certain age who, on comparing two of his wines will reach for the “If this is the solid woman you marry, then that is the sexy mistress” schtick. At a more literary level, one could point to the notes of the revered wine writer André Simon, who in 1920 described a 1905 Château Margaux in a fashion that treads a very fine line between Edgar Degas and Jeffrey Epstein: “A girl of 15 who is already a great artist, coming in on tiptoes and curtsying herself out with childish grace and laughing blue eyes.”

Broadbent, by comparison, was something of a chameleon: the pinstripe suit and stiff upper lip were something of an act. He was an amateur artist and pianist, and some of that artistic sensibility found its way into his notes. On the whole, though, he stuck to an English restraint (on Château Labégorce-Zédé 1983: “Dry, medium-full body, a bit lean but very flavourful, good length, dry tannic finish”.) Metaphors appear surprisingly rarely.

Robert Parker
Robert Parker: comprehensive, but no poet

Then came Robert Parker, who initiated the big, heavy tasting note, laden with adjectives and descriptors. In true American style, his Bordeaux notes came in at several times the length and weight of a Broadbent effort. Parker’s notes were undeniably solid, comprehensive and well-researched. Not for nothing did they become the gold standard. One thing they were not, however, was poetic. (Château Petit-Village 1989: “Its huge, chocolate, plum and sweet-oak-scented bouquet roars from the glass. In the mouth, there are expansive, fat, hedonistic flavours that coat the palate with gobs of sweet, ripe fruit.”)

What was needed was the tasting note’s reincarnation as a poetic, literary genre: the tasting note as haiku, perhaps, though often greatly exceeding the 17-syllable rule. At its best, in the hands of a writer such as Andrew Jefford, this has scaled heights of literary distinction; at its worst it has given rise to mountains of jumbled prolixity.

The poetic tasting note is not an entirely new phenomenon, if you remember the famous passage in Brideshead Revisited where Charles Ryder and Sebastian Flyte indulge in an exchange of figurative brilliance or toe-curling campness, according to taste:

“It is a little, shy wine, like a gazelle.”
“Like a leprechaun.”
“Dappled, in a tapestry meadow.”
“Like a flute by still water.”

Brideshead Revisited
Charles Ryder and Sebastian Flyte in the adaptation of the Evelyn Waugh novel Brideshead Revisited

But poetry is the literary form which depends most on metaphor and other figures of speech, and metaphor in tasting notes can often appear suspect. Chastened by the Jim Murray affair, the wine writer David Williams wonders whether his own notes are “entirely free of…casual sexism” and berates himself for “unthinkingly employing archaic imagery” such as “boudoir” and “buxom” when describing a Zuccardi Torrontés. “This time around I’ll simply say it’s a beautiful, spicy-food-friendly white,” he writes. In so doing, Williams has boxed himself into a corner. Surely there is a third way between sexism and inoffensive blandness.

Jim Murray on the cover of his book
Jim Murray, as seen on the cover of his 2016 Whisky Bible

Drinks writers are in a quandary. They must talk about what turns them on about a liquid, but they must do so without sounding antediluvian. Sticking to purely scientific terminology, as some urge, will not do the trick when the experience of tasting, like the experience of art, is subjective and emotive. Some colour is required. In these pages, Ella Lister manages it well with a nice line about the “tantric length” of Château Latour 2010 – but would such a line sound different coming from a male writer’s pen?

Fortunately, I believe there is a solution. If the tasting note is the record of an encounter with another – an entity not to be appropriated in selfish terms and which retains its own inviolable mystery – let that encounter be a respectful, even loving one – not an over-hasty, thoughtless fumble in the dark.