Reasons not to pay too much attention to tasting notes

Only two reasons for now – if I put my mind to it I am sure I could find more. In summary they are:

  1. There are often variations, sometime very large ones,  in tasting notes from different authorities
  2. There can be quite large variations in one taster’s experience of a wine – well, mine at least, and I am sure I am not alone.

Perhaps the best known example of authorities having widely divergent opinions is the widely publicised spat between Parker and Jancis Robinson over Pavie 2003.  I don’t want to discuss the rights and wrongs of the disagreement here, but do want to emphasise that the two people disagreeing here are hardly johnny-come-lately wine bloggers.

While this case got a lot of attention, it is not at all unusual for well known critics to have very different opinions.  If you read The World of Fine Wine you will see many examples of this in their tastings section.  Spending only a couple of minutes flicking through the latest edition, I find a notes on a couple of Riojas to illustrate my point.  Here we have three tasters:  Tim Atkin (T), Jesús Barquín (J), and Marcel Orford-Williams (M) – maybe not quite in the same league as Parker and Jancis when it comes to authority and influence, but not too shabby.  It is not explicitly stated, but the implication is that each taster is tasting from the same bottle – not that it makes much difference to the reader, who will be drinking a different bottle anyway.  Here are TN extracts that I hope give an impression of the tasters’ opinions, together with their scores:

CVNE Imperial Gran Reserva 1994
T: Mature, feral… gamey… smokey… sweet oak. 15
J: Spicy raw meat… red fruit… fleshy. 17.5
M: Dumb, quite fresh, hard, dry finish. Coarse. 9

Contino Viña del Olivio 2005
T: Firm, chewy… extracted… super ripe… hard to like. 8
J: Balanced structure: acidity, noble tannins… truly excellent. 18
M: Overdone… overextracted and lacking in charm. 15

In case there is any doubt, I am not criticising WoFW or their reviewers.  Quite the reverse in fact – I think it is good that they allow this diversity of opinion to be visible.  But what a range of tasting notes and scores! How is a poor punter meant to interpret this diversity of opinion?  The stock answer is that you should calibrate your palate against the critics and follow those with whom you share tastes.  But I think that is easier said than done.  OK, one might get an impression of a critic’s likes and dislikes, but I doubt very much anyone actually trawls through their own notes and does wine-by-wine comparisons.  I certainly have not enough tasted wines in common with any one critic to do such a thing, though it might be a bit easier to achieve if you are more into high-end clarets.

I would propose that the answer to understanding a wine is to taste it yourself. But it is not quite that simple, and it brings me to my point number 2: variation in my own palate.

A couple of weeks back I attended an informal stand-up tasting at my local wine merchant.  A representative of the producer was pouring, and providing interesting information about the wines, but there was no hard sell. On the back of a small but unhurried tasting sample I bought a bottle of Langmeil Hangin’ Snakes Barossa Shiraz-Viognier 2007.  I didn’t take notes at the tasting, but as I bought the bottle for £12.50 I must have thought it worth 3 or 4 stars.

On getting the wine home, I realised that I had tried it a few months back at with my tasting group, a more leisurely tasting in a home environment.  Checking my notes I was dismayed to see that I was very dismissive of it.  It got 1 star, and I actually used the phrase “cheap and nasty” – ouch! I also thought there was a whiff of hydrogen sulphide about it, and as our hostess had recently acquired a Vinturi aerator we decided to give it a spin (as it were) with this wine.  When served treated and untreated samples blind, I correctly identified the samples and decided that the machine had made the wine drinkable.

So was I now the proud owner of a £12.50 cheap and nasty bottle that could perhaps be improved by a gadget, or was my quick in-store tasting sample to be believed?  I discovered when I took the bottle to Aladdin it was OK, if unspectacular – a grudging 3 stars I guess.  But tasting it at home, both before and after the restaurant trip, it was transformed back to its cheap and nasty mode – a grudging 2 stars.

No, it was not the glass – not entirely at least.  On the Aladdin evening I used the same glass on all occasions.   It was not cork variation, as these bottles were under screwcap. And it didn’t seem to perform consistently worse with or without food.  I do not usually notice such wide variation in my experience of a wine.  But clearly this does happen, and I urge you to bear it in mind when you read any of my tasting notes, or indeed (dare I say it?)  anyone else’s.  I am usually reluctant to to publish notes anyway, and when I do I like to base them on the experience of drinking several bottles on different occasions, though I have offered a few recently based on much more limited experience.

Having said all that, do tasting notes have any value at all?  Yes, I think they do.  For me, my own notes work mainly as memory joggers about previous experiences.  And if my experiences have been inconsistent it is no bad thing to be reminded of that fact too.  But when it comes to the notes of other people I am not so sure.  In my opinion they are mainly useful as a good starting point for a dialog.

Am I going to buy more bottles of  Hangin’ Snakes?  It might be interesting from a scientific point of view, but I am going to save my liver for better stuff.  And if my opinion still counts for anything at all at the end of this article, I would recommend that you take your money elsewhere too.

Author: Steve Slatcher

Wine enthusiast

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