Monday, October 24, 2016

Wine writing, and wine books

This blog usually deals with wine industry data in the form of numbers, but there are other forms of data that could be examined instead. One of these is wine tasting notes, which are supposed to provide us with important information about wines.

These wine notes, from critics and commentators, are odd things. They vary from boringly monotonous to verbally flowery, but I am not convinced that they give us much useful information, very often.

Part of the problem seems to be that half of the critics want to be writers, not commentators, and the other half want to be critics but can't write very well. The readers are then caught between the devil and the deep blue sea — they want some useful information, but all they get are words.

As an example of what I mean, take this recent wine tasting note from an Australian wine merchant's web site:
Brilliant very pale straw colour with a greenish tinge around the outskirts and a watery hue. Intense lime, green apple and citrus aromas leap from the glass followed by some distinctive talc notes and orange rind. Racy with great fruit purity, the palate features concentrated flavours of lime and citrus over talc with a steely mineral infused finish. Fresh crunchy acidity with a long aftertaste of lime, citrus, talc and steely mineral. A first class rendition of Polish Hill Riesling.
At the other extreme, here is Philip White, the poet laureate of wine writers, on exactly the same wine:
Pacing from the kitchen to my desk, I snapped the lid of this, and hardly was the cap away and a heady wherrul of the lychees and limes of the Polish Hill River stopped me in the doorway. It overwhelmed the smell of sheep and wet pasture blowing through my windows; cast out the smell of winter. It was as if it had a pump in it, or some magical compression was releasing a heady fresh essence of these fruits. Like, within a metre of pacing air it actually got right up my nose before the lid was properly off. It brought me to a halt. Pour it, and the dusty vintage sky of the old slopes east of Clare; their stubble and stone seem to cover those fruits in a grainy armour. It is a lovely summer smell in all this wintry damp; the paperflowers in warm stoneware. Drink it, and all that simply invades you. It makes me realise why Riesling scares some people. Wine like this is very authoritative. Rare examples like this can be surly organoleptic bullies unless you can handle it right out here on the front.
This is impressive stuff, to be sure, but I feel like I have drifted into a DBC Pierre novel, not a wine column. (Peter Finlay is a friend of White's, which is why I chose this example.)

When I read a wine note I wonder to myself three things:
  1. Will I like this wine enough to buy a bottle?
  2. When should I drink that bottle?
  3. What food should I eat with it?
Most wine notes do not answer even one of these questions, let alone all three of them together, in spite of the plethora of words.

The answer to the first question should be contained in the tasting comments which, in that sense, matter more than any score that might be given. Unfortunately, the answer is rarely contained in the words of the writer. Instead, it is contained in finding a writer who has the same tastes as one's self. This takes a bit of trial and error, but it needs to be done.

Back in the 1980s, in Australia, I learned that suggestions from Alan Young (author of Australian Wines and Wineries) were always worth checking out. James Halliday, on the other hand, gave every Australian wine 90 or 95 points, and so was of little use. Moreover, Jeremy Oliver, seems to have a palate similar to my own, and so his recommendations are helpful to me, as were those of Robin Bradley (compiler of many editions of Australian Wine Vintages) in his day. The Wine Front web site can also be good, but the tasting notes come from any one of three people (Mike Bennie, Campbell Mattinson, Gary Walsh), and their tastes in wine clearly vary.

It can also be helpful to consult the community sites, such as CellarTracker and Vivino, since the comments there come from a range of commentators, rather than a single person who may or may not match my own tastes.

The second question is important because I do not often buy more than one bottle of any particular wine. I figure that I should try as many wines as I can during my life; and given that there are 120,000 different ones produced every vintage, I am not going to spend much money buying multiple bottles. So, most wine/vintage combinations get one chance and once chance only in my cellar. I therefore need to know about the "cellaring potential" of my wines.

This question, however, is a tricky one, because no-one knows before-hand when a wine will be at its best, or how long it will remain there. But people with more experience than myself might have a better idea than I do. At best, their suggestions can be very helpful, and at worst they usually won't do much harm. I have drunk quite a few of my bottles too soon and some of them a bit late, but I have also drunk innumerable of them when they seemed very good to me. I am therefore very grateful for any advice I can get in this matter. [The first Polish Hill Riesling tasting note quoted above helpfully provided this information: "Drink now or cellar 6-8 years."]

The third question is important because I almost always drink wine with food, rather than on its own. This is not necessarily true of most most wine writers of my experience, who routinely attend tastings, or organize their own, where a large number of wines are tasted sequentially. Such wine tastings help you learn a lot about wine, but they teach you nothing about drinking it, because wine is best drunk with a meal.

Such an attitude does not sit well with the likes of Robert Parker, of course, whose taste in wine clearly does not include many wines that go well with food. I want to enjoy my wine at dinner, not arm wrestle with it beforehand, as he does.

So, I choose my meal first, and then I choose a wine to complement it, or enhance it; and thus an indication of which meal would complement which of my wines is a valuable suggestion. For example, in the graphic above concerning the M de Minuty wine, the four symbols at the bottom right provide some easily interpreted suggestions.

Why, then, do most wine writers restrict themselves to giving me little more than a flowery description of the smell and taste of the wine? Surely I can work this out for myself when I drink it?! No amount of adjectival wordplay is going to make the wine taste any different to me, because I have taste-buds of my own. I need expertise, not repartee.

Key to wine entries from Jeremy Oliver (1994)

In a similar vein, many wine books often suffer a related problem, but in reverse. Instead of giving me words they give me numbers. But are these numbers any more useful? The numbers provide me with ratings for each winery, ratings for each of their wines, and ratings for each of the vintages of those wines. However, can I answer any of my three questions from these numbers? Not often.

Even when there are words in addition to the numbers, the words usually tell me nothing more than I have indicated above. Mostly, I cannot even tell what style of wine the numbers refer to.

There are exceptions, however. The picture immediately above is from the second edition of The Australian Wine Handbook (1994), by Jeremy Oliver (mentioned above). It presents the key to the numbers contained in the book, and how to interpret them. Along with the Vintage Quality ratings (on a 10-point scale), there is a clear indication of the wine style (Style Code: DR1-7 for seven types of dry reds, DW1-7 for seven types of dry whites, SP1-4 for sparkling wines, SW1-4 for sweet wines, etc), an indication of the anticipated cellaring potential (Maturity Code), and a clear indication of when to drink each vintage. The only thing missing is the food; but I can probably work that out from the wine style.

So, a typical winery entry in that venerable book looks like this.

Wirra Wirra entry from Jeremy Oliver (1994)

In this case, the DR3 refers to: "Medium-weight wines with ripe fruit, soft palate and integrated medium tannic finish. The modern early-drinking cabernet-merlot blends, lighter shirazes." The DW2 refers to: "Floral, fragrant, fruit-driven and dry, able to develop great complexity with time. More of a 'riesling' style."

Sadly, this book ceased publication with the third edition (1997). With the subsequent publication of The OnWine Australian Wine Annual (2001) the Style Codes and Maturity Codes were dropped, and the Vintage Quality migrated to a 20-point scale. Subsequent editions of The Australian Wine Annual were similar, but used a 100-point scale, instead. I still miss the lost information.

Some alternative opinions about wine tasting notes

David Farmer

Do tasting notes have any value?
Writing tasting notes about great wine

Kim Brebach

Wine poetry, aroma wheels & perfect scores
Wine writers, tortured prose and hanging offences

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