About Tasting Notes

(Note:  this is posted for two purposes:  one is to buy me a little time to organise my notes from Essência do Vinho – there were several groups of wines that stood out for me, and I want to do some further background research on those before posting details.  Second is in response to some feedback about my comments on wines, this is offered partially as a rumination on tasting generally and partially as an explanation of what I am and am not trying to do here.)

Why are you always so dim and vague about tasting notes, Cynthia?  “Fruit and earth” to describe a wine’s flavour isn’t really helpful, is it?

Well… depends what you want.

This blog was begun on a bit of a lark for an audience of friends when I quit the City and ran away to Burgundy to work my first harvest.  Since then the blog has become a rather more serious affair for me, not only because I have committed to pursuing a career in the wine trade myself, but because I learned that a broader network of wine enthusiasts and professionals had picked up on it, and were following it and giving me feedback.

Because of the broader audience I am more careful than ever to double check names, web links, facts, etc., occasionally working with the relevant folks to review my postings before they go up.  But – I still am deliberately keeping this a very personal and idiosyncratic blog (strains of “It’s my party…”).  I am not, and don’t want to be mistaken for (“fat chance” I hear you mutter) the sort of wine critic that makes or breaks sales of wines.  If you are a stranger, think of me as simply an enthusiastic friend who wants to share with you something I think is wonderful and fascinating.

I have had WSET training to Advanced certificate level, I have attended other wine courses and I couldn’t number the tastings, tutored tastings and producer tasting dinners I attended in London the past 8 or 10 years before setting out on my travels last summer and ultimately re-settling here in Portugal.  I worked behind the scenes at the International Wine Challenge in 2009 and I’ve had the opportunity to attend press tastings and some of the big en-primeurs where I watched and eavesdropped on a few of The Big Names in wine buying and wine reviews as they worked rooms and bottles.  So, I do have a sense of how the professional critics work.  And bluntly, I ain’t up to that standard.  Don’t know if I will ever grow up to be one, and honestly I’m not even sure if I would want to.  They have my deepest respect (mostly).

In a way, I think I don’t want to take it THAT seriously.  To me, wine is a pleasure, a real joy, and it is meant for sharing.  I absolutely cannot drink alone – not for moral reasons, but because it simply breaks my heart not to be able to share and discuss a wonderful bottle with a like minded friend.  The blog is an extension of that impulse.

Back to the matter of technical (or not) tasting notes.  Over and over again I have found one person’s banana is another’s vanilla bean, or my cherry is your raspberry.  Sensory perceptions can be intensely personal, shaped by what’s familiar to you – Proust and his madeleines.  One example that comes to mind is violets.  I often encountered the tasting note of violet applied to burgundian reds – which I adore and have tasted widely and never picked up on violet.  I finally figured out why last spring when I spotted a clump of violets in my garden, and got down on my hands and knees and buried my nose in them.  Violets to me meant a slightly powdery sweet grandmothery scent, something I think I must have learned from violet confectionary and violet eau de cologne or talc.  Imagine my shock when I got my nose into that clump and discovered an incredibly earthy scent – floral, but so sensual and earthy as to be nearer civet than rose (and by the way, I picked some and smelled them again inside the house, after washing the mud off my hands, and they still smelled earthy).  My immediate reaction to the violets was, I think, Nuits St. Georges.  Like the time I sniffed the truffles on my plate and was struggling to identify the scent – wasn’t that a Cigliutti Barbaresco?

I think some people – the major critics apparently among them – have a good “absolute” sense of smell and can recall and identify scents cleanly, and parse out what’s in the blend – one scent doesn’t distract them from another.  As if they have tapped into the Platonic eternal ideal Form of what a red currant scent is, un-swayed by memories of the scent of their mother’s garden when they were a child, where the currant bushes were surrounded by mint and bergamot perhaps.  It’s a gift.

Coming back down to earth and the sensible world, my tasting notes are deliberately a little vague for these reasons:  first, that detailed scent perception, certainly mine, is often intensely personal, and second, that this blog is meant only for friendly guidance – along the lines of  “if you like broadly earthy tannic reds, then here’s one you may want to try if you get the chance…”  If you want really detailed guidance to flavour notes, value for money and buying or investment advice, please refer to the big name professional critics’ pages.

Or best of all – find a good wine salesman whose preferences you share, and whose palate you trust.  There were two firms I dealt with in London, and at both firms, though I knew and thoroughly respected everyone on the selling staff, I ended up working with just one person at each.  When we talked over wines we both had drunk, and I realised we were perceiving and enjoying the same qualities and taste sensations in wine, I knew I could trust their recommendations on wines I had never tasted, and be certain of enjoying them.   And it worked – I cannot remember the last time I bought a wine I really didn’t like.  Also, rather amusingly, in the case of the smaller firm, I got to the point where I could recognise who had picked the wines for that night’s tasting – my salesman or one of his colleagues.

Sunday night as I was leaving Essência do Vinho, I wanted a glass of port to see me off for the night.  Someone at the Heritage Wines table poured for me a glass of Romariz Colheita 1988.  I tasted it, and then thought, I don’t want to rush this (he’d given me a generous measure) and asked, do you think they will let me walk out of here with a glass full of wine?  He said, why not?  Silly me, I’m in Portugal… so I wandered out and slowly wended my way up Rua das Flores towards São Bento metro station.  The fresh cool air was a slight shock – I hadn’t appreciated just how stuffy and warm it was in the Palácio – and when I paused to sip my wine again, it had improved.  Inside what hit my nose was the alcohol and something I think was  glycerin, but outside in the fresh air it was more pleasant, some fruit and burnt honey began to come out.  1988 was a fairly rough year in the Douro, but being a bit rough myself at the end of a long night, we were well matched.

So one more factor in wine tasting – climatic conditions in the tasting venue.  Maybe like Constable on his paintings, I should begin noting the wind direction and velocity in my notes?

Another of my photos from October visit to Pinhão – this one taken on the hills above Quinta de la Rosa, I think this would be Quinta da Foz land, looking roughly north by northwest.  I don’t recall much of a breeze that day…