Wine tasting notes demystified (sort of)

Sally enjoying a glass of 2009 Benessere Black Glass ZinfandelWine tasting notes can be tough to decipher. Seriously, what the heck is cassis? Or pencil box? Or barnyard funk?

We’ve seen all of these included in wine tasting notes.

These weird flavors can confuse or even intimidate drinkers. Even folks with moderately sophisticated palates can have difficulty picking out the blueberry compote from the hints of leather, tobacco smoke, and wet concrete.

Wet concrete?! Yes, we’ve seen that one too.

Why have wine tasting notes?

The purpose of wine tasting notes is to describe the taste of the wine so people can decide whether or not to drink it. It’s not enough to simply say, “It’s good” or it “tastes link grapes” since that doesn’t explain the differences between one wine and another.

For example, if one Chardonnay on the wine list is described as “buttery” and the other Chardonnay has “citrus notes,” you can make a choice based on your preferences.

These notes can also be misused. One pet peeve is when you are tasting wine and your host gives you their wine notes before you have a taste. How about if I taste it first and then we compare notes?!

If I don't taste it, am I wrong?

There are no right or wrong tastes when enjoying wine. Just trust your palate and have some fun.

Here’s a little test we did last night with a bottle of 2009 Benessere Black Glass Vineyard Zinfandel. We compiled our own tasting notes and then compared them to the winemaker’s after we enjoyed our bottle.

Our notes: Earth, and plum on the nose. Jammy plum flavors up front give way to a little pepper, grilled plum and light tannin on the finish.

Winemaker notes: Spicy cherry and bright blackberry aromas that are complemented by clove and allspice tones that carry through to the palate. (You can read the winemaker's full overview here.)

We stand by our tasting notes, even as we’re sure the winemaker stands by his. Why is there a difference? Here are a few possibilities:

  • Different palates. Each person has their own unique palate, so we may be tasting something the winemaker didn't and vice-versa.
  • Different vocabulary. We might be using different words to describe the same taste. For example, cassis = black currant, pencil box = cedar, and barnyard funk = disgusting.
  • Different bottles. The same wine can have a slight different taste when it comes from different bottles.

Create your own notes

Try to create your own wine tasting notes the next time you enjoy a glass of wine. Here is a basic strategy:

  1. Aroma. What does the wine smell like?
  2. Front palate. What does the wine taste like when it first enters your mouth?
  3. Back palate. What does the wine taste like as it moves to the back of your tongue?

Remember - there's really no right or wrong answer though you may find it helpful to purchase a wine wheel. It's a sort of job aid for wine tastes. Our preference is Ann Noble's Wine Aroma Wheel which can be purchased online for $6.

Posted on July 28, 2013 .