Why do we get so hung up on tasting notes for wine? Why do they have so much hold over how we taste?
We should treat them (especially those written on the back of a wine bottle) with a big pinch of salt, like we do tasting notes on the back of a packet of cheese.
Half the time you won’t read it – and even if you do, I bet it won’t really influence what you personally get out of eating a slice. And yet, bizarrely, that is exactly what happens with wine.
When I was training for my Master of Wine, a few trade friends and I set up a blind tasting study group to hone our palates.
We’d pick a bottle at random and, without looking at the label, would try to work out what it was and where it was from.
To mix things up a little, one day, I decided to add odourless red food colouring to a bottle of white.
What was extraordinary was the descriptions of the wine that ensued – ‘fruit of the forest’, ‘hints of raspberries’. But this was a Riesling – no black or red berry flavours in sight according to standard tasting notes.
Everyone at the tasting had been informed by what they saw – the visual had set the parameters.
We live in a primarily visual world today.
Our eyes dominate much of what we do, to such an extent that we are pretty disconnected from our other senses, which is particularly tricky for wine since there is little visual distinction between two bottles on a shelf, or even two glasses of red.
Rather than simply taste, trusting our instincts and listening to what our body tells us about what we’ve put in our mouths, we hunt around for a guiding light.
Enter the tasting note. It is the food colouring of the wine world – a tool that preps us for what we are about to put in our mouths.
If the notes were treated like a starting point, or something to be considered but not taken too seriously, then it would be fine, useful even.
They’re great, for example, for giving clues to a wine’s style – dry or sweet, light or full-bodied, more or less tannins, and the like.
They’re also brilliant when they’re personally written as they’re handy for mental recall purposes – you taste the wine, you write a few words and later when you’re trying to remember the experience, your words help trigger your memory.
Instead, however, we’re given someone else’s notes on a plate and we cling to their every word, reducing our own tasting experience to a box-ticking exercise of can I taste the chocolate in this, or am I getting that undertone of smoke?
Wine becomes an intellectual exercise rather than a sensory experience.
It’s time to bring it back to its agricultural, food origins and put a bit more instinct back into tasting.
You don’t have to know about the history of art to be moved emotionally by a painting, and for wine, that’s even more true since our subjective experience of a bottle is so intimately connected to the place and people we share it with.
So the next time you’ve got wine in your hand, let yourself loose. Have your own stab at it. Give yourself the freedom to explore, reconnecting with what’s actually in the glass. Be present.
See how it smells and how its flavours evolve as you drink. Is it shape-shifting in your glass or is it pretty static? How does it sit on your palate? Feel how it occupies all sides of your mouth (or not) and how different the texture is from one wine to another.
But most of all, how does it make you feel? What does your gut say and do you fancy another glass?
Remember, taste first. Notes (maybe) later.
Isabelle Legeron MW is the founder of RAW WINE fairs in LA, NY, Berlin and London (March 11 – 12 ) and #rawwineweek events across the UK (March 7 – 14).