Lost in translation


What fabulous nectar does the following tasting note conjure up?

“…notes of tangerine, candied orange, cooked peach, stone fruits and hint of lavender on the back of palate.”

A sweet Loire Chenin Blanc? A Muscat de Beaumes de Venise? Perhaps even a Tokaji Aszú? Nope; it’s the Equinox Seasonal Blend from Union Coffee Roasters.

If you went back to read the note again, that makes it one of the few tasting notes, of coffee or of wine, ever to be read twice by the same person. That’s because although they are the primary building blocks of wine communication, all too often they are soul-sappingly dull to read. There are several reasons for this, but as writers – and as readers – there are ways we can improve the lines of communication. As we’ve already seen, context is vital, but it’s not the only consideration when writing, and reading, a tasting note.

Unlike an image or a sound, smells and flavours aren’t easy to record. I’d love to email you a high-res copy of the smell of the Condrieu I’m drinking, but instead I can only describe it. Tasting notes are a necessary evil.

There are two stylistic camps of tasting note. Both attempt to communicate the characteristics of a wine, but their respective methods are very different. Firstly there is the analytical approach. The intention here is to produce a clear and relatively objective depiction of the wine. It’s a laudable aim, but the results are often repetitive and joyless; the jottings of a jobsworth with a ruler for a tongue.

Secondly, we have the impressionistic tasting note. No ‘medium minus acidity, medium plus tannin’ here. Rather than what was registered with the senses, what was felt takes precedence; the impression that the wine made upon the taster and their reaction to it. These notes are more likely to include emotion, memories and cultural references, which makes them more human and entertaining. But they risk being so subjective that they alienate readers: at their worst they sound like the ramblings of Kate Bush on magic mushrooms.

The first style is the product of the left hand side of the brain; the second most certainly born of the right. The most useful and readable notes tend to combine the two. But however hard we try, the result can never quite capture the essence of a wine. Wine has its own language; one of aromas, shapes and textures that speak of a place and time, the depiction of a landscape and man’s effect upon it. Translation into any earthly tongue robs it of colour and anchors it in the mundane.

We remember a great wine with all the colour and intensity of recalling a vivid dream. Reading someone else’s tasting note is as second rate as hearing them tell you about the dream they had last night.

So what is the best way to describe a wine? It depends who you’re writing for, but some of the following ingredients will help:

  • Factual information. Grape varieties, soil types, oak regime and so on for sure, but any point of interest that might pique someone’s interest could be included.
  • Aromatic descriptors. Those that make the wine stand out among similar wines are most useful. It’s interesting that we use these more when writing about a wine than when talking about one.
  • Shape and course. Smelling, sipping then hanging on to the resonance of a wine takes time; tasting doesn’t happen in an instant. Like the structure of a song or the plot of a film, can you describe the shape of the wine or the course that it takes?
  • Balance and harmony. Does it leave you feeling satisfied? If not, why not?
  • Ageing potential. If you had some in your collection, when would you drink it?
  • Someone will read your note – raise a smile if you can.
  • Flavour stimulates memory; did it remind you of anything?
  • Did it taste how you expected? Did it surprise you? How?
  • Did you like it? Would you buy it?

But it’s not all down to the writer; there are also some points that the reader too should bear in mind.

Tasting notes have a shelf life. They are a sketch of a wine at one point in its life. They should be dated; if they are a few years old, it’s likely the wine is now in a very different state.

Know your critics. They will naturally gravitate to styles they personally enjoy. Recommendations from some critics have me running for my wallet; glowing reports from others have me running for the hills. If you’re making a buying decision, it’s worth consulting more than one opinion.

Context is crucial. An excellent Alsace Pinot Noir would look pretty average in among a line-up of Grand Cru Burgundies. Tasting like with like gives fairer results. Wherever you stand on scoring wines, in large tastings scores are invaluable. Effectively they rank the wines in order of preference, and quickly answer that essential question; which ones performed the best?

Wine, that most sociable of drinks, is also the most indescribable; it is literally too wonderful for words. So it’s not surprising that so many tasting notes lack sparkle; it’s hard to stay enthusiastic when you know the task is essentially futile. But it’s the only way to answer those two most basic questions, for somebody else or for yourself: what does it taste like, and if you like it – why? Although rare, a good tasting note is a joy to read. Whether it’s about wine – or even coffee.