From April 2011 through February 2012, I had a wine column in a local publication, In the Kitchen Magazine entitled “Beneath the Cork“. It was a fun project and my first published work. I have often said I’m going to repost all those articles here on my blog and thus far, have only done so with one, in June of last year. I’m fixing that with this article, originally published in April of 2011.
The idea behind the column was that I write about wine simply, making it accessible to people who might like wine, but didn’t necessarily know all the wine speak. It was the roots of my semi-infrequent wine posts that I do in this space. For more of my wine writing, you can always take a glance at my Wine tab across the top of the page.
I once tried a wine simply because on the back label, it told me that it had “classic notes of apple, pear and pineapple and a delightful hint of crème brûlée”. That hint of crème brûlée captured my interest to the point that I had to try it, even if it was a varietal that I’m generally not a fan of. It did indeed have that hint, so much so that I think we may have noticed it without the tasting notes, but it may have taken us longer to pin down exactly what it was we tasted.
Wine writers spend years developing their palate, as well as their craft. They can taste several hundred wines a month, and tasting involves a thoughtful evaluation of the the many features of wine, including, but not limited to the flavors, texture, quality, aging potential and so on. It takes a good deal of work to develop one’s palate to pick up on the nuances between two bottles of the same grape by different winemakers and adequately describe the differences. And it is always best to keep in mind that everyone’s palate is different. My crème brûlée may be your vanilla.
There are certain aromas and flavors that each varietal typically has. After that, there are any number of factors that make wines stand apart from each other. Most wine writers have the space of a few sentences to parlay that information, and like any other writers, they each have their own style. Kermit Lynch might be able to pull off using the phrase “It’s alive” when speaking about a wine, but I know if I were to describe a wine like that, people would probably laugh out loud at me.
Of course, the most important factor to consider when reading tasting notes is knowing how similar your palate is to that of the writer’s. If you find someone whose recommendations are often wines you like, no matter how they describe them, then go with it. On the same token, it’s okay to not be wowed by a wine that a well-respected writer or publication gives a high rating. Wine is completely subjective and there is no right and wrong to it.
To develop your own palate and wine vocabulary, simply start by taking an extra notice of the flavors and smells around you. The crispness of the fall air when leaves are turning colors versus the smell of the earth after an early spring rain. The flavor of an apple compared to a pear. As your senses develop, you might find yourself noticing that hint of cherry, that classic note of apple in your wine. You might never be able to adequately parlay that information to your friends in a manner that they take seriously, but, at the very least, you might be able to use that in picking out a bottle of wine for dinner. Or happy hour for that matter. For when it comes down to it, that’s exactly the purpose of tasting notes. To help you navigate the huge, sometimes overwhelming and confusing, but always delightful and tasty world of wine.