Toss Those Tasting Notes

Ever tasted a boysenberry? What about cat pee?

Can you easily discern Irish breakfast tea from English breakfast tea?

And do you ever drink kirsch, the brandy made from sour cherries?

If you’re anything like me, your answer to all these questions is “no.” Yet descriptors like these fill the cornucopia of words that critics use to write about wine.

While the baffling rhetoric of a typical tasting note might benefit some oenophiles, it intimidates consumers and stands in the way of wine appreciation. It’s time to change the way we talk about wine.

Consider a recent review of Domaine du Pegau’s Chateauneuf-du-Pape Cuvee Reserve, an iconic wine of the Southern Rhone. In a recent issue of Wine Spectator, critic James Molesworth praised the 2010 release for its “well-endowed core of crushed plum, blackberry paste, and braised fig” and savored “brick dust, pepper, warm chestnut leaf, and smoldering charcoal” on the finish.

One can’t fault a novice wine drinker for feeling daunted — or scoffing at such descriptors.

Remarkably, though, the widespread use of longwinded tasting notes is relatively new. Until the rise of mass-market wine magazines, such notes were essentially shorthand — a way for sommeliers, importers, retailers, and collectors to track bottles they’d consumed and communicate with one another.

Today, though, they’re ubiquitous.

Last year, Wine Spectator’s critics sampled more than 17,000 wines. Add their reviews to the ones published in Wine Advocate and other publications, and you’d have enough blackberry paste and braised fig to last a lifetime.

Many of these notes find their way onto “shelf talkers” at local wine shops. It’s no wonder why so many aspiring wine enthusiasts think the path to oenophilia is paved with brick dust and smoldering coal — and decide to stick with beer.

After all, speaking in the stilted language of a wine critic at dinner would destroy any hope of a pleasant conversation.

Communicating effectively about wine doesn’t demand an encyclopedic knowledge of rare fruits and bizarre aromas. Indeed, New York Times wine columnist Eric Asimov has found that “people who have no idea how one is supposed to talk about wine are far more creative and clear in discussing it than those who have read some books or undergone some training in wine classes.”

Think about your favorite hamburger joint. When you rave about your go-to burger, do you simply rattle off its composite ingredients — and expect your friends to know why it tastes good? Probably not. “Two all-beef patties, special sauce, lettuce, cheese, pickles, onions on a sesame seed bun” conveys nothing about why the burger is delicious.

Sure, you’ll talk generally about the burger’s makeup and mention anything that makes it unique — e.g., “the meat is tender yet slightly charred and topped with Swiss cheese and thick-cut, applewood-smoked bacon” — but you’ll quickly transition to a conversation about how it makes you feel.

Talking about wine in this fashion makes much more sense.

When discussing a white wine’s general flavor profile, for example, consumers and oenophiles alike only have a few basic questions.

Is it light or full-bodied? Do the fruits conjure aromas of citrus, pears and apples, or tropical fruits — and are they tart or ripe? Are the aromatics subtle or intense? Does it smell like butter? Is it oaked?

From there, everyone wants to know if the wine tastes good — and why. My favorite Sauvignon Blanc isn’t enjoyable because it smells like gooseberries and fresh-cut grass; it’s enjoyable because it’s packed with flavor, refreshing, and evocative of summer.

Tasting notes certainly have a place. I collect wine, so I pay close attention to a handful of critics whose palates are similar to mine. But the omnipresence of such notes stifles clear and creative wine conversations. Let’s move on.