How To Write Meaningful Wine Tasting Notes

Make the wines mean something to you.

Make the wines mean something to you.

When you are out shopping for wines, let’s face it…there is an overwhelming number of them to choose from. Part of the fun in trying different wines is tapping into your palate; understanding what you like and what you don’t like are equally important. So what better way to document the journey of wine exploration by writing some tasting notes?

“But Tony,” you may be asking, “where do I begin?”

This is a fair question, because if you are going to do it, you want it to have meaningful data that you can refer back to at some point in the future. I feel very confident in saying that you all know what you like when it comes to flavors and aromas. The hard part can be articulating the sensations you are getting as you try a wine for the first time. Not only will you be getting know a wine for yourself, but chances are you may be sharing information about this wine with friends, family, acquaintances (and enemies, if you think a wine is terrible).

Your notes need to be somewhere in between…

“This is good.”

and:

“A lovely bouquet of narcissus and lilac leap out of the glass followed by candied pineapple and lemon curd. The kaleidoscope of aromas is joined by citrus fruit, crushed stone, and lightly toasted bread. The palate is expansive and rich on the attack, but tightens up some on the energetic finish.”

Side note: If I ever discuss a wine and I write a something like the above actual tasting note I read this week, feel free to unfollow/unfriend/disown me. It’s not my style. I am trying to pull you into wine, not push you away. I guess a daffodil (a.k.a. “narcissus”) doesn’t invoke enough of a romantic image, and who knew you could smell through a kaleidoscope! [end rant].

My (half) kidding aside, make your notes in a way that you and others can understand. There’s no need to go out of your way to write down a fancy descriptor (unless that flavor/aroma obviously shows itself AND your circle of friends will recognize it). You can use a wine journal geared toward tasting, a plain old spiral notebook, or an app. So let’s go step-by-step…

Observe It

Color is not going to indicate quality, but will help you see faults. For example, if you opened a 2018 unoaked Sauvignon Blanc from Chile and it pours cloudy and brown instead of star bright and lemon yellow, throw it away. If the white wine is golden or amber colored rather than water white or green-yellow, it could be a sign of age. If the color of a red wine is more brick red rather than purple-ruby, chances are you are looking at a red wine with some age on it. If the red wine is pale in color, don’t be put off…color intensity does not equate to quality; many times it can just be indicative of a grape variety. For instance, Nebbiolo wines from Piedmont are pale and delicate in color, but loaded with flavor and structural components (acid, alcohol, tannins) made for long-aging in a cellar. An $8 large brand red blend from Chile may be deep in color, but flavors could be one-dimensional and finish short on you. As for looking for tears or “legs” on a glass of wine after you swirl it, they’re pretty but they mean absolutely nothing when you want to assess quality. Make a note on color and then…

Smell It

If you can identify specific flowers you smell in a wine, go for it, but if you are not totally sure you can always call the wine “floral.”

If you can identify specific flowers you smell in a wine, go for it, but if you are not totally sure you can always call the wine “floral.”

Does your wine smell like wet cardboard or a musty basement? If so, the wine isn’t bad for your health, but it is likely going to minimize your enjoyment. This is courtesy of “cork taint.” If we have avoided that, then start noting what you are smelling.

You can group aromas into categories to keep them simple and more generic. Is the wine floral? Fruity? Do you smell spices? Does the wine smell “green” with earthy, herbaceous, or unripe aromas? Do you smell something nutty or woody? These are easy to use when you are unsure of what you are smelling, because these categories are distinct from one another. If you want to dive into specific flowers (i.e. violets), fruits (i.e. peaches), spices (i.e. cinnamon), and herbs and grasses, go for it. From there, how intense are the aromas…Light or strong? Make notes on intensity and types of aromas you get on the nose, then…

Taste It

A mouthful to swirl around in your mouth so you get all the sensations is all you need; this helps you determine if you mouth waters (presence of acid), dries out (presence of tannin), feels fiery in the back of your throat (presence of alcohol), or comes off as sweet. See if anything you smelled earlier is confirmed on your palate. Sometimes a wine that is spicy on the nose tastes fruity, or vice-versa. Notice if the texture feels light-bodied and on the watery side or full-bodied and creamy. Maybe the texture feel somewhere in-between. A wine feels balanced on the palate when none of these aspects is screaming out for attention over the others. After making notes on how the wine tastes…

Savor It

This is possibly your best indicator of combined quality and enjoyment. Do the pleasant flavors linger on your palate after you close your mouth and swallow the wine? No alcohol burn? Is it refreshing with acidity? Is there an interesting flavor that stands out? Are there many flavors going on that you can’t quite pick out, but make you feel happy? These are all components of wine that make you want to go back for another sip. If the flavors hit you quickly in the beginning but fade fast, or the alcohol burns, or the fruit intensity doesn’t feel in balance with the acids and tannins, the wine may not be as enjoyable after multiple sips. Make notes of these items, then…

Personalize It

If drinking a wine reminds you of this, jot it down! Image credit:  Food Network

If drinking a wine reminds you of this, jot it down! Image credit: Food Network

I spend a whole lot of time researching, analyzing, and critically tasting wines. While it is a part of my job that I really like, there is nothing like adding something personal to it. Did the wine smell like a botanical garden you walked through one Saturday afternoon? Make note of it. Did you have the wine with friends at dinner somewhere? Write that down. Did you open a bottle for a special occasion? Does the wine remind you of something from childhood? The Boss at Divine Wine always remarks how a good Argentine Malbec reminds him of blueberry pie baking when he was a kid. This is how you make a meaningful connection to the wines you drink.

Share It

Was it good? Really good? The best wine you ever had? Share it with others. Talk about it over lunch. Share it on Facebook or Instagram. Let your retailers and restaurants know how good the wines are. This kind of feedback helps everyone stay in business.

Now you should have a solid picture of what you just tasted. Snap a pic of the label/bottle. Make sure you write down the name of the wine and the vintage. Check out the back label and note who the importer or supplier is, and you may begin to see a pattern of what you like based on that particular portfolio.

Want an example of finished tasting notes? Check this out straight from my own notebook below. All written in plain language, no bizarre terminology. You can do this.

Wine: Menade Rueda Verdejo

menade.jpg

Supplier/Importer: European Cellars

Vintage: 2016

Price: $15

Color: Golden

Nose: Green olives, thyme, nutty. Aromas are intense.

Palate: Medium-bodied with texture, no alcohol burn, green apples, earthy, nutty, and savory.

Finish: Refreshing acidity, flavors stay with me for a while.

Overall impression: Very good for the dollar and Organic. Reminds me of the plates of olives and bread we get at Becco in NYC. I dig the label, too.

As always, if you have questions, please get in touch with a comment below. Good luck in developing your own library of tasting notes!

The Skurnik Files: How Back Labels Can Make You A Smarter Shopper

Last week, I wrote of my experience at the Grand Portfolio Tasting presented by Skurnik Wines & Spirits. That event spurred a ton of thoughts on how I can help you, my fellow beverage consumer and today I guide you in a direction that I think most shoppers take for granted.

Skurnik, along with other suppliers, distributors, and importers, sell their products to your favorite wine shops and beverage depots across the country. Depending on the retailer you give your hard-earned money to, you could be speaking to salespeople at a specialty shop to help guide you or you are left to your own devices at a big box store, based on the level of knowledge and experience of the employees. No matter the type of store you frequent, there is always one way to help yourself get an idea of what you might like.

Take a look at the back label of that bottle

The front label of a wine bottle or whiskey bottle is always the sexy, magnetic way of drawing you into the product. It is what is displayed on the shelves, and a lot of times there are some great pieces of information to help you get an idea of what is inside those bottles. There are names of grape varieties, a wine region shown, vineyard names, village names (often in French wines), whiskey age statements, and flavors of a vodka just to name a few examples.

However, on the back is where we find the names of the suppliers. A lot of times, the web sites are listed so you can see their whole portfolio. A supplier may be heavy in Old World/European wines (like Skurnik), almost exclusively Italian (Dark Star Imports), or into South American wine, lesser-known California wines and sake (Vine Connections). Click on any of those links, and you will get stories on individual producers and their products available. You can read about the company's philosophy. Maybe you share the love of organic wines that a supplier is focused on. Or perhaps you see a supplier focused on aged rums (which you might be able to add to your personal collection of aged rums). While each product may not be available in each state, you can oftentimes approach your retailer to see if they can order you anything of interest...and your order typically arrives in 1-2 days if the supplier has the products in stock.

So if, for example, it turns out you really like Skurnik's La Colombina Brunello di Montalcino, you may end up liking Skurnik's Brunello from the producer Mocali. Even if the style is different, it should still taste good. You liked the Mocali? Try their Rosso di Montalcino or the Brunello Riserva. This is how you can develop a personal flavor profile. A high-quality supplier is carefully screening what will do well in the U.S. market or individual states, and when a wine makes it into the portfolio, it will almost always be worth trying if the wine is a style that intrigues you. I like those odds.

You might also see a wine region you never saw before. Google "Salice Salentino". You will discover that Negroamaro is a grape used in this Italian region's red wines. Check out Negroamaro and you'll find descriptions that might mirror Cabernet Sauvignon. If you are a Cabernet Sauvignon fan, chances are you might like wines of Salice Salentino.

Three wines from Central Italy, all from different producers, subregions, and importers. Lots of good data to help you, including web sites for further research.

Three wines from Central Italy, all from different producers, subregions, and importers. Lots of good data to help you, including web sites for further research.

William Grant & Sons is a supplier of the best-selling single malt Scotch whisky, Glenfiddich. If you are a fan of Glenfiddich 12 Year, perhaps you want to try the 12 Year example from Balvenie distillery, which is also in the William Grant portfolio.

Provide your feedback to your retailer. The wine manager is going to meet with representatives of these suppliers, so your favorable reviews or harsh criticisms help make future decisions on what you will encounter on the shelves. A little research and dialogue go a long way in helping you figure out smart ways to branch out, all while sticking with a style that your prefer.

So flip that bottle around every now and then. You never know what kick-ass bottle you will discover next.

Be A Self-Made Wine Expert: How To Run Your Own Tasting

As I continue to grow and evolve as a husband, father, and general human being, more and more tasks and experiences fill up my schedule. I always have something that needs to be cleaned or cleaned up. A spirits class lands on the calendar. The kids have a Cub Scout meeting. My wife and I might even like to go out to dinner and not listen to an excruciatingly-detailed account of why the red brick was chosen over the blue brick in the building of a Lego structure.

And with the quest for occasional peace and quiet comes the infrequent visits with longtime friends. It's OK...they are going through the same thing. So are you. You have places to be, family to visit (or perhaps, family to avoid), and work to do. Hell, some people may have moved to D.C., Chicago, or Florida...perhaps even out of the country, which can make it even tougher to stay in touch.

Luckily, I know that I can count on two days per year that I can virtually guarantee I will get to see my friends from college: our fantasy football draft (nerding it up for 20 years!) and the NFL Divisional Round of the playoffs. Fear not, non-football fans...this is not a football post. Just stay with me here. The first event is just for the handful of us fools that keep torturing ourselves and one another with a ridiculous game every August. The second, however, is a larger affair in January with north of thirty people in attendance; one couple is gracious enough to put on this shindig at their residence every year.

This past weekend, not only did I receive my usual invite to the party, but we also discussed running a wine tasting before the games started. It's a great idea for those who want to hang for a party centered on football without having to care about the games. Easy enough...I am officially a seasoned professional with this subject matter! I learned that the group participating preferred white wines over reds and had an open mind to explore a wide range of styles. Beautiful...we tackled "White Wines of the World," where we tasted six wines from six different countries. All wines were unoaked and five of six wines were made with just one grape variety. These were also in a very fair, casual price range of $10-$17. Our hosts set out various cheeses, meats, and spreads with crackers and just like that, we were off and running with me bloviating about topics like Chenin Blanc, Verdejo, and Saint-Veran.

The setup from Saturday's tasting. Wines from L-R: Elvio Tintero Arneis, Cousino-Macul Chile Sauvignon Gris, Honoro Vera Rueda Verdejo, Finca El Origen Cafayate Torrontes, Les Trois Pecheurs Saint-Veran, Fairview South Africa Granite White Blend. Big thanks to the party hosts for having me run this for them! 

The setup from Saturday's tasting. Wines from L-R: Elvio Tintero Arneis, Cousino-Macul Chile Sauvignon Gris, Honoro Vera Rueda Verdejo, Finca El Origen Cafayate Torrontes, Les Trois Pecheurs Saint-Veran, Fairview South Africa Granite White Blend. Big thanks to the party hosts for having me run this for them! 

Sounds simple, right? By the way, it is. You can do this, too. Sure, my friends have access to me to plan it and leverage my knowledge and experience. But truthfully with a few guidelines, a little research, and an open mind, you can make a great event of your own. Here are eight that will help make your tasting a success:

  1. Open your mind
  2. Plan your theme
  3. Source your wine
  4. Food for all
  5. Pour an ounce
  6. Light to full
  7. White to red
  8. Sweet for last

Open your mind: I can't stress this enough. The reason you are doing a tasting is because you want to learn more. A tasting will not only help you identify something new to like, but you also learn what you don't like (equally important). If there is a wine you don't like, chances are someone else in your party will like it. Remember that everyone has different tastes and preferences of style: some like oaky flavor, others prefer fruity flavor. Some like bold wines, others go for delicate. Some like acidity, others like sweetness or strong tannins. If you are just bringing what you know you like, then you are not tasting...you are drinking (also an enjoyable activity, by the way).

Plan your theme: Our tasting featured white wines of the world. You can do six reds, roses, or even sparkling wines in a similar theme to get a broad brush of styles. Another way to go is to explore one region (Loire Valley, Oregon, Chile, Sonoma, Tuscany, and so on). Maybe you want to do a single grape variety from around the world. Chardonnay and Pinot Noir are easy to do a "worldwide" tasting since these grapes express themselves so differently as you go to different parts of the world. You can get as broad or as focused as you want; it's your show!

Source your wine: Get to know a retailer. Tell them what you are doing. Ask questions. If you can get to a specialty shop, where the employees are likely to know about specific wines, they will be able to guide you in your purchases and even suggest viable alternatives. Larger stores will have a giant selection, but if you have researched ahead of time you won't be overwhelmed by the choices. There is also a wealth of information on the Internet to arm you with what you are looking for...such as this web site!

Food for all: Even if you are tasting and spitting (typically preferred if you don't want to get loopy too soon), you need munchies on hand to counter the alcohol. It's even better if you ate a good hearty meal before your tasting. An assortment of cheeses, crackers, cured meats, bean dips and spreads are great options. Olives and grapes are tricky with many wines as they don't particularly mix well; olives work better with dry Sherry and grapes with sweeter wines (but that's another topic altogether).

Pour an ounce: Or two. No more than that. If someone ends up really liking something, go back for more at the end. Remember, there is a good chance you have several wines to taste through!

Light to full: Dry Riesling, Sauvignon Blanc, and Pinot Grigio tend to feel lightest in your mouth. Chardonnay, Soave, and white Rhone Valley French varieties tend to be the fullest. Going in reverse makes those delicate whites taste too thin and aggressively acidic. So taste the lightest-bodied wines first and work progressively fuller.

White to red: Red wine tends to be more intense than white wines, so taste the white wines first. Tannic red wines (Nebbiolo, Cabernet Sauvignon, Sangiovese, Syrah) should come after lighter, fruity reds (Barbera, Pinot Noir, Beaujolais). If you need a bridge from white to red, go for a rose wine from Provence or a rose of Pinot Noir from California or Oregon. These types of wines have the flavors of a red wine with the freshness of an unoaked white wine.

Sweet for last: Very sweet Rieslings, Ice Wine, Port, and sweet Madeira (for example) should always be served last. These wines have the richest mouthfeel and the residual sugar content is such that if you go back to a tannic red wine afterwards, an unpleasant astringency will overtake your palate.

Most of all, have fun with this! You have countless wines to choose from and get to know. Spend some time looking up some wines; Google searches will give you many credible results from retailers, restaurants, and wine magazines and blogs. The more you do these themed tastings, the sharper and more confident you will be with your wine purchases.

Of course if all else fails...give me a call. I'll be right over.