“BRIGHT dark ruby color, fragrant nose with hint of leather, robust and powerful, majestic up to the last drop” — this is an example of a wine tasting note you may see for a young Grand Cru Bordeaux, which, to the uninitiated reader, could be a description of anything from a new sports car to a signature brand of perfume. But this is exactly the description that makes wine writers good at their profession. This is also the art in wine writing. However, many times, the notes can be too vague, too general, or even a bit incongruous.
Wine writers/critics taste wines and write their notes for the public to know what their opinions are about the insane number of wine choices out there. The tasting notes therefore serve as guides, very much like restaurant and food reviews. So, the description of the wines, should be as vivid and “sensory-inferential” as possible. When I get to watch Jamie Oliver or Nigella Lawson on their TV cooking shows, I can already somehow savor the food they are describing. This is what tasting notes on wines should do — even though in the case of wines, the time you open the bottle and how you aerate the wine, as well as other factors like serving temperature and food accompaniment may affect the tasting per se. Still, overall, the tasting notes, if written well, should give the readers the essence of the wines being described. But do take into consideration that there will definitely be biases and very subjective views, as, after all, wine appreciation is still a personal experience between the drinker and his/her own preference.
THE AROMA WHEEL AND THE DESCRIPTION SEQUENCE
One of the most influential guides to tasting notes is the Aroma Wheel which was created in the University of California Davis in 1984 by then faculty member of the renowned Department of Viticulture and Oenology (now retired) Professor Ann Noble. This graphic illustration of the different aroma categories and components that are found in wine has provided a useful basic terminology on the “nose” of a wine using metaphoric scents we are familiar with, like fruits, vegetables, flowers, etc. The Aroma Wheel has very general terms starting from the center, going to the more specific terms in the outer tiers. The Aroma Wheel can be viewed and purchased at the official website www.winearomawheel.com.
The Aroma Wheel is the first step to combat the so called “olfactory verbal gap” of wine novices, or the usual expression “I know what I smell, but can’t quite say what it is” or the more common “The description is at the tip of my tongue.” After all, the idea of tasting notes is to be able to communicate what one thinks of the wines. And the clearer the communication, the better. So the usual description of a wine being simply “fruity,” can be better understood if it is specified to be fresh tropical fruits like bananas or pineapples, or to be dried fruits, like raisins or prunes.
The Aroma Wheel only covers the Smell side of the 2S3T Wine Sensory Evaluation, the 2Ss being Sight and Smell, and the 3Ts being Taste, Touch, and Totality, written in this order when wine is being described.
Other than the smell descriptions, the Touch portion is probably equally as important. Touch refers to the “feel” of the wine when it touches the mouth, and is where wine body — whether it be full, medium, or light — and the finish — whether the flavors thin out or linger long — are expressed in the tasting notes.
This is really where entertainment value to me comes in. Simply saying a wine is bad or good just doesn’t cut it, so wine writers can call use more colorful terms. I have seen and heard wine critics say a wine has a foul smell reminiscent of un-flushed toilet bowls, or a wine is so good, it has sent them to cloud nine. As a writer, the hyperbole is for emphasis, and this holds true to any writing job, when tackling sensorial subjects like food, hotel facilities, spas, and so on.
There is, sadly, no substitute for saying a wine is surreal, majestic, magnificent, superb and all the superlatives if the writer is so enamored by the quality of the wine being tasted.
It is now just up to the readers to try the wine being described and to agree or not with the writer. So the writer who resorts to hyperbole may lose his or her credibility among some of the readers who disagree with him/her.
DESCRIBING WINES THE ASIAN WAY
I remembered an instance almost two decades ago when I was in Hong Kong selling California wines. I had a tasting session with a top hotel chain in the Kowloon side, when I asked the waitstaff to help me describe the wine I just poured for them. It was a Sonoma County Cabernet Sauvignon. While I got the usual descriptions of black berries, chocolate, vanilla, licorice, etc., one guy from the back of the function room screamed “Peking Duck.” Everyone suddenly laughed at him. But then, I swirled my glass a bit more, and I somehow identified a fowl-like nose, as well as some oiliness and creaminess in the wine. So when I asked this fellow if that was what he was detecting, he nodded his head. Then, the rest of the waitstaff reexamined their glasses, and eventually all agreed that it had that “Peking Duck” note… even the Hoisin sauce used for the Peking Duck skin wrap was noticed. To me this made sense, as the sweet over-ripe berries in the Cabernet have Hoisin sauce-like qualities.
So, tasting notes here in Asia can be used with more familiar regional similes. I do not think many of us can perceive a rhubarb, raspberry, or gooseberry aroma which Western wine writers use a lot to describe certain wines, but we can identify hawthorn berry (the famous haw flakes), coconut, and other more familiar fruits. In one of my more recent tastings, I remembered a New Zealand Chardonnay that has this unbelievable aroma resembling buko pandan (young coconut with screwpine leaf).
Learning about wines can be doubly enjoyable if one can communicate tasting notes that fellow wine aficionados can understand. And the first step is to be perceptive of the different scents and flavors around us on a day to day basis. I always believe that chefs or culinary professionals are the most perceptive wine aroma spotters, as they are exposed to different herbs and spices which can tremendously help their wine aroma vocabulary. As for the hyperbole, just leave it to us wine writers to entice your wine imagination.
The author is a member of the UK-based Circle of Wine Writers (CWW). For comments, inquiries, wine event coverage, and other wine-related concerns, e-mail the author at firstname.lastname@example.org. He is also on Twitter at twitter.com/sherwinlao.