Thursday, November 1, 2007

Tasting Notes Fundamentals

Lots of my friends ask me how I got in to wine and are often curious about how difficult it is to go through formal training/classes to learn more about wine. My almost always canned response to them is, "I've only learned how much I DON'T really know and how far I still HAVE to go...". One simple thing that amazes most novices is how I go through the tasting process (sight, swirl, sniff, sip) and/or how overwhelming it seems when they read tasting notes from 'experts' that go through a bevy of complicated terms or nuances in evaluating a wine.

To the average person, they could not in their wildest imagination think of coming up with descriptive words like - taut, chewy, loamy, or fleshy - along with describing flavors such as - dried figs, leather, cedar, wet stone, or mint - in some nice liquid in a glass we call wine.

Admittedly, I even sometimes have problems with the lengths some go in fancy descriptions that you know can only come from someone who has done this thousands of times and has all of these words in their mental Rolodex and quick recall capacities. I mean who REALLY knows what 'loamy' even means? It's actually easier than you may think...

To simplify a bit, I've pulled basic tasting notes from my Sommelier class that might help you get started in evaluating a wine. Below are the foundations upon which we did all of our tasting notes:

Appearance (clarity, intensity, color, rim vs. core color)

Nose (condition, intensity, development (age), fruit character, bouquet)

Palate (sweetness, acidity, tannin, fruit intensity, alcohol, length of finish)

Conclusions (Quality, maturity, opinion)


2004 Chateau St. Jean Chardonnay
Appearance: clear, med. intensity, straw/gold color, watery rim
Nose: clean, med. intensity, youthful, floral bouquet, orchard fruit elements with med. oak
Palate: dry, med+ acid, well balanced, clean fruit, notes of butter/oak, clean balanced finish, med. alcohol
Conclusions: good/high quality, new world youthfulness, drink now

A couple of tips to remember when just getting started:

1) There are few (if any) absolutes and your experience should be very individual. Rarely any "wrong" answers here...your nose/palate gets what it gets.
2) It takes a lot of practice. Start by just being more present to wine and what it offers. Begin by utilizing the 4 S's (sight, swirl, sniff, sip) with each glass.
3) Read other reviews. To get the hang of it, take some time to read reviewers that you like and how they go about their descriptions. Wine Spectator has a ton of these in the back of each magazine and does a good job in their reviews online.
4) Spend time in the produce section. One the best tips I ever got was to spend a few extra minutes in the produce/fruit section of the store and smell each fruit to help distinguish and train my olfactory senses. Close your eyes and make mental notes of what you're smelling so you can recall these when in the presence of your glass of wine.
5) Don't worry about long, drawn-out descriptions. Just describe what you are getting out of it, follow the systematic approach, and get to where you can say a couple of things about each category (above).
6) Share. The best way is to do this with someone and compare what each of you get from the wine. It helps to hear what others get from the same wine and get you thinking beyond your own experience.

Try this out when you start doing your tastings, you'll have fun as you see yourself get better, it becomes easier and begins to enhance the whole experience. Enjoy!

Until the next sip...swirl ya' later!


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