Why Most Tasting Notes Are A Waste Of Space

Most tasting notes, inevitably, describe wines that are young; either out of cask, or recently bottled. This is all very well if what is being assessed is something that has been produced for early drinking. The note can be meaningful to the consumer who is likely to be consuming the wine soon. There can be much useful communication here, and I am not denigrating this at all. The danger – the nonsense you frequently read - is when the note is on a wine not destined to be consumed for five or ten years ahead. All too often, as well as being burdened with the critic's reaction to what is assaulting his or her taste buds – rather than being presented with a dispassionate assessment of the structure of the wine and its potential for developement – we are given a painting of what the wine tastes like when it was sampled, with, moreover, a plethora of different descriptors, not just fruit and spice flavours, but all sorts of other mumbo-jumbo. All this is meaningless in the context of what the wine is going to be like when it is ready. There is nothing useful being conveyed here. It is a waste of space.

Students are taught to divide their notes as follows: colour, nose, palate and conclusion, this latter element taking the wine's state of maturity, its future and its value for money into consideration. I discuss these in the context of fine red Burgundy.

Colour: Unlike wines from Cabernet Sauvignon or Syrah, it is a mistake to denigrate a Pinot Noir for being light in colour. Indeed a black-as-your-hat Pinot Noir should be viewed with the greatest suspicion. It will almost certainly have been over-extracted. Moreover, Pinot Noirs that have been vinified with all their stems will usually be less intense in colour than those made with the stems removed, especially if these latter cuvées have been cold soaked first. A whole cluster Pinot Noir will often put on colour as it develops and appear deeper in hue after a decade than it seemed at first. For reasons too complicated to explain (and I am far from confident I have all the answers) Pinot Noirs can vary considerably in colour as they age. One can still be very dark at ten years on. Another can be significantly tuilé. Yet both can be equally ready or unready for drinking. Finally, the addition of sulphur at the various stages of the wine's production will often leach out some of the colour. If you are sampling out of cask, not only should you inquire when the wine was last racked, but when it last had its level of sulphur adjusted (often this is marked on the cask). All in all, then, take assessments of colour with a pinch of salt.

Nose: While it may be very interesting to decribe a young wine as smelling of roast beef, leather or molasses, it is wise to remember that the same wine is unlikely to give off the same aromas ten years down the road. Most young Pinot Noirs in fact smell of young Pinot Noir, and when they are older they will smell of mature Pinot Noir. Young Pinot Noir has the flavour of all the small berries you can think of, biased in the Côte de Beaune (with the exception of Corton) towards red fruit, and in the Côte de Nuits towards black. Whether the predominance is of raspberries or cherries when the wine is twelve months old is of minor importance, (though a suggestion of coffee or mocha in aa young red Burgundy is often a promising sign). What is crucial is firstly the depth, complexity and intensity, together with the purity and cleanliness of this fruit; secondly whether this fruit is 'cooked' (in the sense of a cooked plum tart opposed to a fresh plum), for this will give you an indication of how warm the vintage was (remember the difference between 2002 and 2003); thirdly its terroir definition (if it is a Chambolle-Musigny, does it smell of Chambolle-Musigny?); fourthly the amount of new oak evident (remember that if the oak sticks out at the time of bottling the wine will always be too oaky for comfort - and it won't be very food friendly); and finally its freshness and elegance. It is the acidity rather than the sheer structure which holds the wine together. It is this which will enable the wine to age with dignity and keep as long as you want it to. Assess all this and you have decribed the wine and where it is going.

Palate: If you have assessed the nose properly you will find you have done most of the work. The rest is confirmation. What you will ask and answer under 'palate' are questions concerning the wine's structure, rather than its flavour. Much of this is textural. What is the quantity of the tannin? What is its quality? What is the mouth-feel like? Is the wine fat or thin, full-bodied or light, ripe and concentrated or a bit lean? The acidity is also paramount here, because it is this, plus the concentration of the fruit, which gives what I call 'grip', i.e. the vigour and energy of a young wine. Fine wines possess this grip, and are therefore long on the palate. Lesser wines tail off.

Conclusion: Where has the wine been? Where is it going? How good is it within its context and aspiration? (See Marking Within Context) Is it good value for money. And, finally, a value judgement. Good? Very good? Fine? Excellent?