Wine tasting notes come under the microscope

Some interesting discussions have opened up around the way we write about wine. David Kermode considers how to strike the best balance when penning tasting notes that capture a flavour – and, more often than not, a feeling

Words by David Kermode

wine tasting

I do my best to dodge the deep rabbit warrens of ‘Wine Twitter’ as they rarely lead to any kind of Wonderland. Rather, it often seems to be a place where scores are settled, know-alls parade their pomposity, or a seemingly innocuous comment about volatile acidity somehow triggers an explosive row. So, it was refreshing to stumble into a conversation about tasting notes prompted by an article Tamlyn Currin had written for the Financial Times, covering for her boss and regular columnist Jancis Robinson OBE MW.

On the theme of ‘why there’s more than one way of writing about wine,’ Currin uses her own lyrical, sometimes extravagant, style of writing such notes to argue the case for diversity, at the same time admitting that she gets some serious stick from regular readers, some of whom think she is having a laugh.

jancis robinson the drinking hour
Jancis Robinson OBE MW has led the way with 'the succinct combination of simple words' in her wine tasting notes, says Kermode

I enjoy reading her tasting notes for their creativity and ingenuity though I confess I sometimes feel I’m left standing at the platform, so I have a modicum of sympathy for those who have had a (polite) pop at her. In the FT column, she talks of an intuitive connection with Robinson while transcribing tasting notes for her some 15 years ago. Her mentor had written ‘piano teacher’ to describe a 1976 Mosel and, somehow, she knew exactly what she meant. I think I do too, even though I never learnt the piano (I opted for the saxophone, and sadly, my tutor suffered the effects of severe halitosis so is unlikely to feature in my own tasting notes), because her metaphor speaks of a place and, perhaps, an atmosphere. Wine is a sensory experience and well-chosen words can – and arguably should – communicate a lot more than the contents of the bottle, which is why certain wine writers inspire such a following.

Currin goes on to cite an intricate tasting note she wrote for a Roussillon wine, which imagines a winter walk in that region with a punnet of ripe cherries. ‘I know. There are no cherries in winter. But imagine how it would feel if there were.’ This really gets to the nub of it. It is not meant to be literal and is a hell of a lot more interesting than ‘red fruits with a hint of dried herb,’ surely?

punnets of cherries

The Tweeters down this rabbit hole seemed to agree with Currin’s case for using more diverse literary styles to describe a wine, providing a rare consensus around the importance of freedom of expression. Even those who, like me, feel befuddled by some of the more outré metaphors came leaping to her defence. There are boundaries, of course, with one user relieved to have left behind the language of the 1970s, when a wine might be described as a ‘nubile ballerina’. Thankfully, we have moved on. Like most others, I always avoid any reference to gender in my descriptors, as it feels inherently sexist. As for nubile, enough said.

I love the flair, the exuberance, of an elaborate tasting note, but there is something with which I still struggle. To me, the most effective communication of anything comes from the succinct combination of simple words, and I’m not sure it happens as often as it should when it comes to writing about wine (though, to be fair, Jancis usually nails it).

I recall a fellow wine judge noting the aromas of ‘horse’s bottom’ on an unusual and uniquely unpleasant wine

My own training in journalism was on the job, with my only qualification a City and Guilds in something nebulously called ‘media’ – I trained at a tech college, alongside those learning proper jobs like bricklaying and plastering – and, during my formative experience as an 18-year-old rookie radio reporter, I carried a small thesaurus alongside my tape machine, in the hope that I could embellish my on-air vocabulary. Slowly, it dawned on me that less is more.

This thought was reinforced some years later when I joined the BBC newsroom. Its preposterously titled ‘World Affairs Editor’, John Simpson, is the master storyteller. An erudite, war-ravaged veteran, with vast experience and encyclopaedic knowledge, his scripts are studies in simple straightforwardness.

Turning my focus to wine, taking the diploma at the WSET, I railed against its regimented language and, sometimes, the lack of relatability, becoming particularly furious when my description of Pedro Ximenez as ‘Christmas cake in a glass’ was rejected with a red line, because I had failed to specify individual dried fruits. Outside the wine world, people don’t rummage through kitchen cupboards, nose first, furiously snorting dates and candied peel – but come on, we all know what Christmas cake smells like.

red wine glass swirl and tasting notes

Annoyingly, the most useful words in a tasting note are probably the most boring and repetitive – the likes of lemon, green apple, floral, spice or cherry – paling when compared to the more personal or obscure. I recall a fellow wine judge noting the aromas of ‘horse’s bottom’ on an unusual and uniquely unpleasant wine. I hadn’t noted it myself; I don’t doubt that it was accurate, but it was not especially enlightening.

The tasting note serves a really important purpose – particularly when combined with a score, or a medal, for validation – providing a proper snapshot. The best examples give us confidence, with an accurate and inviting summary of a wine, while also making our mouths water with anticipation. Beyond a simple descriptor, a shape, metaphor, story, or even some technical detail, all have their place. Currin is right that we need diversity – but we also need the basic, boring stuff as well.

What David has been drinking (…mindful of the use of his tasting notes)

  • Dom Ruinart 2010 Blanc de Blancs (£238 at The Finest Bubble) A major departure for the oldest producer of Champagne, aged entirely under cork rather than crown cap. Impressively fresh, zesty citrus offers a teasing sense of vigour, while baking spice, raw almond and toasted hazelnuts add a more seductive lustre. Taut, brooding with a richness and roundness that is delicately revealed, like layers of the finest filo.
  • Limite Norte de Ramon Bilbao 2017 (£20 at Great Wine Co) White Rioja, but not as you know it, thanks to the combination of two relatively obscure varieties, Maturana Blanca and Tempranillo Blanco, both grown at 450 metres. Vibrant, bursting with pithy grapefruit, with rich texture and an unexpected salinity.
  • John Forrest Collection 2019 Syrah (£28 at Virgin Wines) From the Gimblett Gravels of Hawkes Bay, an enticing, seductive wine with crunchy foraged blackberry, jellied damson, cedar spice and a subtle smoky note. Built to last, but hard to resist.
David Kermode 2021
By David Kermode

David Kermode is a journalist and broadcaster, with two decades of experience across TV, radio and print media, and a lifelong love of wine and spirits. Don’t miss his weekly podcast, The Drinking Hour.