What do you want to know about a wine?
And why tasting notes aren't always a help
I’m slap bang in the middle of the autumn tasting season and tasting up to 100 wines at a go so there isn’t actually a lot of time to concentrate on each one.
The odd thing though is that the information with which I get provided on my tasting sheet is not always what my readers want to know or rather, not what I assume they want to know.
It’s often technical - how the wine was made, whether or not it went through malolactic fermentation, what the pH is, whether it spent time in oak and if so how long - the sort of information you’d need to pass a wine exam.
But how many people at tastings these days - particularly press tastings - are studying for a qualification?
What I what to know, and I’m guessing you do too, is the who, where and why of the wine. Who made it? Where does it come from? What makes it interesting or different? The human factor.
How should you drink it? What temperature (roughly) to serve it? And with what kind of food? I know that’s partly my job (check out my website matchingfoodandwine.com for suggestions) but I also like to know what the producer recommends.
OK you need some basics too so I’m guessing the other information you’re looking for, apart from the name of the wine, the price and where you can buy it, is the following.
(It’s also the info to look out for on wine labels)
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Usually obvious at a tasting where wines are grouped into whites and reds but it’s not always obvious from the grape variety. Grenache (garnacha) can be white, red or rosé for example
Whether it’s light-, medium- or full-bodied. Usually the ABV (alcohol by volume) is the best indicator of that - high alcohol wines being typically more full-bodied.
But light wines can be dry like a pinot grigio or comparatively sweet like a low alcohol German riesling. Which can, confusingly, be described as ‘trocken’ and still taste pretty sweet. (Look out for the description ‘off-dry’ or medium-dry which generally indicates a sweeter style’)
References to oak-ageing e.g. barrel-fermented or barrel-matured or, in the case of Italian and Spanish wines ‘riserva’ or ‘reserva’ are another indication that a wine is fuller-bodied wines (and aged. See below).
Recent vintages like 2022 will typically be fresher and fruiter than older ones. Young reds for example typically have bright berry flavours whereas the flavours of older ones will be more like cooked or dried fruits
The grape variety/varieties
Useful to know but bear in mind it’s not the whole story. Chablis, for instance is a much leaner, more mineral style of chardonnay than a Meursault or the typical Californian chardonnay. And some wines are blends where no one grape is dominant. That said some grapes like sauvignon blanc and pinot noir are easily recognisable.
What it tastes like
Retailers don’t tend to give this information at tastings because they assume (in most cases rightly) that wine critics like to make up their own minds. But if you haven’t had a chance to try that kind of wine before you want to know what it’s likely to taste like, right?
The key thing is in how much detail? A word or two - or a fuller description?
Do tasting terms like crisp or long finish mean much to you? A lot of tasting terms I suspect don’t.
Whether it’s organic or suitable for vegetarians and vegans
Almost always on labels these days along with the description ‘sustainable’ which is so vague as to be meaningless. Is a wine that’s been flown half way across the world sustainable even if the vineyards it’s produced from are managed organically or biodynamically?
Mind you that’s a whole issue in itself!
Anyway I’d love to know what you think. What’s most helpful to you in terms of wine descriptions. Do you find them confusing or enlightening?