the good, the bad, and the clueless

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

It happened again the other day. As I went through a tasting of new releases I scanned the winery’s tasting notes/tech sheets. And found my jaw inadvertently dropping with astonishment. I’ll get to that in a moment.

For those who don’t normally see a tech sheet, these days such information is usually posted online. So it’s available to anyone with an interest in the rather dry details of winemaking. Some wineries are content to note just the basics – vintage, AVA, case production. But the optional details are endless – fermentation practices, yeasts, clones, vineyards, blending percentages, barrel regimens, acidity, residual sugar, pH, and on and on. Bring it, I say. You cannot give me too much information.

Then there are the tasting notes. Here’s where things get really interesting. Some winemakers don’t bother to write tasting notes, believing that it’s up to the reviewer (or consumer) to generate their own. Fair enough. Some write very thorough, incredibly detailed tasting notes – these can be very fun to read. And some – far too many I’m afraid – write blather.

Blather #1 (an oaky chardonnay): “Our third vintage of chardonnay is our most exciting yet. It starts off with hints of [blah blah blah] then displays examples of [blah] and classical chardonnay traits. The finish makes this wine shine with [blah] like nothing we have ever produced. Overall this wine exemplifies the three different layers wines should have. Experience it while it’s still available.”

I’m still scratching my head about those three different layers. Have I been missing something all these years? I have to confess I was not aware that there were three different layers I should be looking for along with those “classical chardonnay traits”.

Blather #2 (an estate-grown cabernet): “A blend of four separate blocks, each vinified separately and expertly combined to create a complex wine… ready to drink now or age gracefully for years. Displaying hints of [blah blah] this wine will take your palate for a ride.”

Does any of that seem at all useful to anyone? Drink it now or age it? (OK, do I have a third choice other than pour it down the drain?). The hints referred to flavors I couldn’t find amidst the volatile acidity, prunes and nail polish. In fact, this latter wine was not reviewable.

Conclusions? By all means put some effort into your tech sheets. Make them as accurate and comprehensive as possible. They are valuable and help me to both understand and appreciate your wine, since I am not one who has drunk the kool-aid that declares that only blind tasting delivers objective results. If you are going to write tasting notes, please, make them interesting. Make them honest. Make them real. And use spellcheck if you plan to chat about your "terrior".

Want to see some really good tasting notes from a winemaker? Here are a couple of gems from Walla Walla Vintners. They combine good information on vineyard sources, mouth-watering flavor descriptions, and interesting food match-ups. (Note: I have not yet tasted these new releases, but I’m sure looking forward to them after reading these descriptions).

2008 Columbia Valley Cabernet Franc
Jam-packed with flavor beginning with a spun-sugar ripe fruit dark cherry nose, a mid-palate of an exotic blend of roasted Roma tomatoes, eggplant, artichoke heart, and porcini; and a lingering finish of baked apple with caramelized sugar. There is a diversity of terroirs in the 91% Cabernet Franc from Weinbau, Sagemoor, Cordon Grove, and Dwelley Vineyards and 9% Merlot from Killian, Cordon Grove and Spring Creek Vineyards. Grab your favorite Paella recipe checking that it contains Arborio rice, saffron threads, Spanish chorizo, prawns, mussels, clams and San Marsano diced tomatoes. This is a pairing that will win you friends seeking tips on how to get both the Cabernet Franc and your Paella recipe. Make enough Paella for eight and buy a magnum. The early bird gets the worm!

2008 Walla Walla Valley Merlot
The 2008 Merlot offers depth and concentration with sweet tannins all because of the vineyards: Pepper Bridge, Dwelley, Seven Hills, Killian and Spring Creek 84% Merlot, 9% Cabernet Sauvignon and 7% Cabernet Franc. The golden raisin, dried fruit nose is a ‘beak grabber’ which takes you to the mid-palate of red licorice, lavender, cassis and Lambert cherry. The wild huckleberry, oxheart cherry finish is pure pleasure and will gain length with age. Sauté turkey burgers with grated zucchini and carrot, garlic, thyme and egg, to place on a bed of succotash that contains corn, lima beans, and chicken stock. Add to these ingredients sautéed chopped jalapeno pepper, large shallot, sweet red pepper, chopped celery and Italian parsley. Finish the succotash with butter, heavy cream, a dash of nutmeg, and simmer for just 30 minutes.

To which I can only add "yum!"


Arthur said...

“classical chardonnay traits”

Not sure what you object to there, Paul, (maybe I missed something) but are you not one to assert that the wine in the bottle should taste like the variety on the label?

Or is it that I have not had enough coffee and your point is, merely, that globs of oak mask any varietal character?

PaulG said...

Arthur, my point is simply that the phrase "classical chardonnay traits" tells me nothing. To begin with, Chardonnay is about as innocuous a grape as you could name - it grows anywhere, tastes like almost anything you like depending upon where it grows, how it's fermented, and what kind of post-fermentation treatment it receives. What's classical? Chablis? Australian? Napa Valley? Oregon?

Plymale said...

Paul, the 3 layers of Chardonnay are "fruit", "oak", and "butter". I hope this helps. -andy

PaulG said...

Andy - kind of like the seven layers of enlightenment, only fewer!

Jo Diaz said...

The difference between an imaginative palate (and mind) and someone just doing his or her job is amazing, isn't it?

Anonymous said...

Hello Paul,

Just read your article on clueless and I think you make a very good point. Many and I mean many tasting room notes serve no purpose in my opinion, and I believe they often confuse tasters. Cluttering up a description of a wine with a fruit, spice or floral notes that are not common to us.

When I'm running a tasting and tasters follow the tasting notes so close and claim that they can't find those nuances, I take the tasting notes off the the bar and put it under the bar and say, your on your
own now. I also explain to them, see what you find in the wine and let's talk about it if you wish. I do
this with a smile on my face and we have fun with it.

I worked in a tasting room of a winery whereas, they just use the previous vintage tasting notes for the vintage that I was pouring. Many times I've seen very inexperience tasters writing a wineries tasting notes. Oh My!

I'm pretty much on board with your blogging and you provide a service to all of us out here. But I'm not in love with the two different tasting notes of Walla Walla Vintners, And yes I know it's easy to be critical of anything.

For me this would confuse most tasters in my opinion:

For the Cabernet Franc......”spun-sugar ripe dark cherry nose” & “ a mid-palate of an exotic blend of roasted Roma tomatoes, eggplant, artichoke heart, and porcini; and a lingering finish of baked apple with caramelized sugar”!

Are we talking about wine here? And also:

For the Merlot.......”The golden raisin, dried fruit nose” & “mid-palate of red licorice, lavender, cassis and Lambert cherry” and one more “The wild huckleberry, oxheart cherry finish”!

I'm not sure I would like a wine I made to have the attributes of “ The golden raisin, dried fruit nose”, but maybe it is. For the Lambert cherry and the oxheart cherry, I'm not sure what either Lambert cherry or oxheart cherry taste like.

My experience, most consumers of wine don't have any idea either. It just looks like the winery just had a lot of fun putting their tasting notes together.

So Paul, when you have a change to taste these wines, please get back with us with your tasting review notes.

Thanks, Rick

Unknown said...

Paul -

As somebody who is currently in the process of updating our tech sheets after years of neglect, I found your point of view quite interesting.

It has been my observation that 99% of the tasting notes that can be found for a specific varietal (let's take Syrah as an example) can be easily transposed from one wine/producer to the next. Everybody uses the same 50-70 words to describe what their wine (supposedly) tastes and smells like.

A quick search of a few of Washington's go-to brands confirms this -

"Plush plum, racy raspberry and blackberry fruit is showcased in this stunning Syrah. Discreet, spicy wood notes add complexity and intrigue. Solid acidity enlivens the lengthy finish. "

"DEEP PURPLE. Complex, rich and explosive. Think blackberry, violets, lavender and earth. So smooth."

"The wine is inky with ripe plum and dried cherries balanced around a wonderful aroma of earth after a morning rain."

"Aromas of Dark black fruit, smoke, spice and earth surround a core of blackberry, plums and cherry."

"This opaque, reddish-purple wine contains expressive aromas of pepper, spice, blueberry, and violet. It makes a fresh entry on the palate with layers of fresh fruit and soft tannins that carry through the long silky finish."

There is obviously some variation… but if I were to take the description from winery X and replace it with winery Y’s description, would anybody know any better? They sound delicious and they sound poetic, but they’re not really doing anything to differentiate the wine from the one down the street. When everybody describes their win in the same way, aren’t we all just blowing hot air?

That conclusion, of course, leaves us with a significant problem: we have to describe our wines somehow. My solution, and I hope it’s one that people find helpful AND interesting, is to basically stick to the “inner-most” area of the wine wheel and describe the wine in generalities (dry, sweet, red fruit, dark fruit, earth, etc) and let the taster determine the nuances of the wine beyond that. My tasting notes are just a small section of the tech sheet, which also includes a quick 1-2 sentence “run-down” of the wine on top along with a detailed “about the wine” section where I talk about vineyards, varietal, winemaking philosophy, blending intentions, etc… essentially all there is to say about the wine excluding what your senses will tell you.

We’ll see how it goes, but I really think it’s important to tell a wine’s story in a way that people actually can relate to and care about.

PaulG said...

Rick, I understand that the WWV notes can seem a bit over the top, but they are fun to read, original, and they do contain useful information. I'm not suggesting that everyone go out and study the many varieties of cherries - just that - as JJ says in the next post - too many notes are either vague or identical. So what's the point of doing them. I like JJ's idea to stick to the innermost wine wheel stuff and leave the rest up to the taster. Nothing wrong with that when all the other information is included in detail.

1WineDude said...

Which is why I avoid reading the tasting notes portion of tech sheets when I'm tasting any given wine, until *after* I taste it.

The reading of their tasting note is then usually followed by me saying to myself, "WTF?" :-).

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