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    Blog

    Friday, 24 September 2021 10:16

    The Great Debate: The Language of Wine, Tasting Notes & Scores with Andrew Jefford and William Kelley

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    It is a regular occurrence, even for the most accomplished wine aficionado: a loss of words to describe exactly what’s going on in the glass. Try as we might, the language of wine will always be a tricky landscape to navigate. But, as educators and students of wine, it is a necessity. Whether scratched into a notepad or typed into a report, tasting notes help us commit our experience to memory, and serve as a vital avenue for sensory translation.

    Nonetheless, issues abound when it comes to finding a common understanding of these experiences. 

    In this edition of our Great Debate series, Andrew Jefford — wine writer and the Wine Scholar Guild’s Academic Advisor — is joined by William Kelley, wine critic for Robert Parker’s Wine Advocate, to discuss a host of issues facing the language of wine and its primary vehicle of communication: the celebrated (or maligned, depending on your point of view) tasting note.

    “A good tasting note should communicate as relatably and usefully as possible the character and perceived quality of the wine,” notes Kelley, who reviews roughly 5,000 wines annually from Burgundy and Champagne for his publication. However, he cautions, “it is a very limiting genre.”

    By and large, Jefford agrees, but he also calls for “an equivalent of the ‘natural wine’ movement for wine writing” to refresh the possibilities and broaden the perspectives of wine language worldwide. 

    In the end, this debate is a fascinating look into the process of crafting tasting notes from two of the industry’s most accomplished practitioners. But both admit that there remains plenty of open area for discussion on how to best utilize language to communicate the magic (or lack thereof) in the glass.

    Please note that this Great Debate is available for free! 

    NAVIGATE THE DEBATE

     
    Kevin Day: Let’s begin by setting the table on some terminology. Andrew: What is your definition of a tasting note, and what is its purpose? Do you believe their popularity as a vehicle for wine communication is warranted?

      

     
    Andrew Jefford: A tasting note is a description of the sensual personality of a wine, usually accompanied nowadays by a score. Hundreds of thousands of wines are produced every year. No drinker can taste every wine before purchase; no drinker, indeed, could taste even 0.001% of all of the wines produced each year prior to making a purchasing decision. Given this, all wine drinkers (William and I included) must be baffled or daunted by the theoretical global choice which confronts them. The purpose of notes, thus, is to help wine drinkers find wines they might enjoy from the colossal spectrum of possible purchases. This simple, friendly offer of help explains the popularity of tasting notes.

    For all that, I believe that the popularity of tasting notes is generally unwarranted. Here’s why.

    Tastes vary. They vary a lot. Experience will, relatively swiftly, teach every drinker the kinds of wines he or she enjoys so much that they would want to buy and own them in quantity (six bottles or more). I would suggest that — even for catholic palates — this will be a relatively small cohort of all of the available sorts of wine. (No one risks much with a single-bottle purchase.) 

    Tasting notes produced by retailers and critics tend to be universally laudatory, nuanced only by the degree of praise which each wine receives. Retailers obviously won’t pan their own wines, and critics have so many wines to rate that they will simply omit wines which they consider bad or unsuccessful in order to concentrate (not illogically) on the successful, the good and the great. So if you read the retailers and the critics ... whooee, everything is pretty good! 

    But for my palate, it isn’t.

    (I am speaking personally here, of course. Professionally, I need to be able to appreciate and write about good, well-made wines which personally I do not like much. Wine writers must cultivate palate width, even if their personal tastes focus on certain wine styles; only in that way can they serve a wide readership.)

    Consumer ratings (on everything from Cellartracker to supermarket or Amazon sites) are wonderfully refreshing in that wines are comprehensively trashed as well as lauded to the skies. I love that, and I enjoy reading supermarket wine reviews for that reason ... but I have to admit that the result is so chaotic as to be almost meaningless. Tastes vary so comprehensively that it is hard to believe — in those common cases where wines are both praised and damned — that the respondents are actually tasting the same wine as each other.

    I would also add that in practice, too, access to wine is usually restricted. Consumers living in London or New York might be able to access, say, 70 percent of “the full panoply,” but this will not be true elsewhere. Wine drinkers in countries where wine culture is new, or in less developed economies, will have very restricted choice. Price cuts off access pretty quickly for most of us, too.

    For me, therefore, self-education seasoned with experiment (and constrained by availability and budget) is a much better and surer avenue to wine pleasure than the reading of tasting notes.

    I said ‘generally unwarranted’ but I would make an exception for expensive wines where purchasing errors can be costly and/or catastrophic. 

    Even then, tasting notes can let the drinker down. Let me give you an example. I like tannic, structured red wines, and was always very happy with Robert Parker’s tasting notes on Bordeaux — so when I read that the 2010 Sociando-Mallet was “Deep, full-bodied and almost excruciatingly tannic” with a “full-throttle, balls-to-the-wall style” which needs “at least 8 to 10 years of cellaring and should keep for three decades or more,” I thought, yeah baby, that’s my style, let’s get some! I bought a case of halves. But the wine wasn’t like that at all; it was dry and rather linear, over-oaky, lacking inner wealth and not particularly tannic or dense. So after a few disappointing bottles I gave the rest to a friend. 

    Maybe this underscores the danger of reviewing pre-bottling, en primeur samples, but such disappointments have also happened to me when the taster is reviewing finished wines.

    I should also say that I have let myself down in this way! In other words I have bought wines which I rated highly on tasting (and in print), only to find that they didn’t develop well at all.

    The truth is that there is a large dollop of luck or unpredictability in all wine buying. Tasting notes convey certainty. This, too, is misleading.

    NAVIGATE THE DEBATE

     

    KD: William, what makes a good tasting note and what makes a poor one?

     

     
    William Kelley: A good tasting note should communicate as relatably and usefully as possible the character and perceived quality of the wine. While — as I’m sure we’ll discuss more thoroughly in the course of this discussion — attempts to parse a wine’s aromatic profile really devolve into the arcane or pretentious, I do believe that this is useful. And we should remember that, for perfumiers for example, where technical training is much more rigorous than it is for wine writers, there’s a right and a wrong answer when identifying an aroma: it’s more than mere free association. 

    More importantly, however, a tasting note should attempt to describe the physical structure of a wine: is it textural and enveloping or tensile and incisive, for example? If it’s red, are its tannins firm or richly powdery? And so on. In the process, the writer should attempt clearly and unequivocally to convey enthusiasm or aversion for the wine. There should be no evasion in this regard, and I am not sure that the word “perhaps” should ever be employed in this — critics, after all, are paid to make a judgement and advise their readers, not to abdicate. 

    So much for a good tasting note’s contents. Beyond that, I believe that a tasting note should read fluently. This is a very limiting genre, and it’s inevitably somewhat iterative if one reviews five or six thousand wines per year, as I do, for readers with certain expectations, looking for particular information in a format to which they are accustomed; but one should try to avoid becoming a servant of the genre’s conventions, all the same.

    KD: Andrew, I will now shift to you on this one, because I know from our discussions that you feel many are formulaic these days. Do you have anything to add to William’s assessment of good versus poor tasting notes, and secondly, how do you avoid, as he says, writing “iterative” or formulaic notes when you taste so many different wines? Any tips?

     
    AJ: William has summarised the essential requirements of the tasting note perfectly. What can I add?

    I should point out at this point that I’m not a professional critic, but a wine writer who is called on sometimes to write tasting notes. The two are very different — and I am filled with admiration for professional critics. The challenge of their work would be wholly beyond me.

    Quality relates to length. A back-label description must be super-concise. Concision is generally required in print, since pages of paper cost money to create, cover with ink and distribute; the tasting notes I write for Decanter (with its modest cover price) have to be more concise than those I write for World of Fine Wine. In principle, there is no limit to the space an online tasting note can cover. Concision is a good discipline, and many online tasting notes are rambling, indulgent and over-long. The advantage of a long note should be that it gives the writer a chance to layer and lard the note with different sorts of contextual information, and when this is accomplished with scholarship the results can be outstanding. Less so if it’s just a pile of allusions or gush of self-revelation.

    Escaping the formulae requires writing talent and an interesting and original mind, and in the end this can probably not be learned, though it can be honed. It seems to be quite rare — like ‘great notes’ themselves. But we should stress that this is not a literary genre. No one is reading wine-tasting notes for the pleasure of the text; they are reading them as a purchasing aid or for specific educational reasons. Notes can be devoid of literary merit yet still be great, as many of Robert Parker’s notes were.

    Mention of Parker leads me to one last thing which William hasn’t mentioned: enthusiasm. Zest. Fun. Delight. Most wine-tasting notes are laudatory, as I’ve already said, so to be good they really need to convey enthusiasm and excitement. They should leave the reader wanting to try the wine and in the best cases to rush out and purchase it. Many, though, seem to be ticking boxes, or strenuously saying what the genre requires in the way that the genre requires it. This is why I sometimes feel that tasting notes today almost seem to be written by some very sophisticated AI programme--

     

    WK: May I interject to say that I, too, have long thought that much contemporary wine criticism is written by botts.

     

     
    AJ: … But perhaps I am asking too much, and I can readily understand the difficulty of imbuing every one of three or four hundred notes taken during a week’s research trip with freshness, zest and delight.

    NAVIGATE THE DEBATE

     

     

    KD: Let’s explore this aspect further because some of it may come down to the process. 

    Most professional tasters follow a systematic, consistent process in tasting and evaluating a wine. Sometimes, this translates directly into the summary of a wine that consumers read. For example, the color is noted first, then aromas, textures, etc. The paragraphs tend to follow a formula, but you at least know what to expect. My question for you, William, is this: what is your process for evaluating a wine and writing the description, and how important is it for your reader to know this process to contextually understand the language? 

     
    WK: The context varies quite a bit, ranging from assessing a sip or two from barrel in a cellar, to drinking a mature bottle at home over dinner. Inevitably, there are many variables: glassware, ambient aromas, and temperature differ from place to place, to cite three of the most important. Ensuring maximum consistency is an art not a science; about tasting the same wine again and again (something I do as I follow my own wines from barrel) under different conditions, and learning about one’s own palate. 

    As you’ve observed, notes tend to be composed in chronological order; though I seldom bother to describe a wine’s color — unless it’s (for example) an unusually saturated red, or an unusually golden white: unless, in other words, it’s useful information. In either case, however, I take notes by hand in a notebook, typing them up afterwards. Even though this is more time consuming than entering them directly into our online database, I like the process of reflection it obligates: above all, working this way means that my assessment of the wine’s quality (summarized, of course, by a score) is more broadly contextualized.

    KD: Andrew, does your process differ in any way? What would you like all of your readers to know about this process, which may help them better understand how you arrive at your description and score?

     

     
    AJ: It does depend on context, as William has said. But assuming that I have been given more than 30 words, I would simply try to be as open and as sensitive to the wine as I can be (tasting is a sort of listening), then provide information about all qualities of the wine that the reader might look for, prize or enjoy. So: colour; aromatic character and finesse when smelled; flavour components; aromatic character and finesse when tasted; texture; elements of balance; changes or evolution while in the mouth; fugitive notes; and finish. (And swallow and digestion if possible). I would try to cover all that ground but in a wholly unsystematic way: I don’t like tasting grids and box-ticking. The score is always global — stepping back at the very end, and in the final analysis communicating my enthusiasm and judgement in that shorthand way, within the wine’s cultural context. 

    KD: Now a question for both of you: Where is the line between crafting a tasting note as a means of personally interpreting a wine’s sensory profile, versus crafting it to communicate that profile to others? Do you revise your tasting notes for publication or do they usually flow in their final form as you are tasting? Where do you draw that line personally?

     

     
    AJ: Your first duty is to the reader, so you must have the discipline to be coherent, intelligible and communicative in your notes. In fact when I am tasting wines at home for pure pleasure or without a final purpose in mind, I am very indulgent and personal and stream-of-consciousness in my crude or raw notes. Ditto, too, when travelling professionally, when time is often short and there is no chance at all to craft a comprehensive and informative note. But such notes always need extensive editing and reworking later. It’s easy to be self-indulgent in tasting notes but it’s always a bad idea. You need to self-edit all the time, and the more skilfully you do that, the better your notes will be. 

     

    WK: I agree entirely with Andrew regarding the duties incumbent upon the wine critic. And as I’ve said before, my aspiration is for my notes to convey as much information as possible, to as many people as possible: aside from any questions of professional ethics, or questions of inclusivity, that simply seems good business practice, after all! 

    My notes are all written in shorthand in a notebook, then typed up afterwards, leaving time for reflection and all-important contextualization while hopefully also retaining the immediacy of the moment of encounter. Writing as many notes as I do, however, means that those shorthand notes are generally rather sparse: a cue to trigger the memory, an essential gift in my line of work, rather than a substitute. Indeed, the attribute that best equips me for my particular line of work is that I possess a not-far-from photographic memory for wines I have tasted: I can remember exactly when and where I was the last time I tasted the 1998 Beaucastel, to pick an example at random, and how it tasted. That, combined with the aversion therapy of my day job, means that I don’t take tasting notes recreationally. Nor do I feel the impulse to score wines out of 100 when I’m not working, and it perplexes me that some amateurs do: little do they know!

    NAVIGATE THE DEBATE

     

    KD: In a mass-tasting setting, wines are often not given two very important “real world” attributes: time to evolve, and a meal to go with it. Some would say it is like basing a book review on the first chapter. Of course, a critic has physical limitations in terms of how much wine they can consume, and how much time they can spend with each wine to arrive at their conclusion, but it seems like a fair point. Andrew, do you find this problematic? Are a vast majority of wine reviews written in a vacuum?

     
    AJ: This is deeply problematic. You refer to the mealtime context, Kevin, and time and time again I have noticed (especially on panels in competitions) that tasters comprehensively fail to make the necessary adjustments to the way they are perceiving wines in order to take that factor on board. Unsurprisingly: it’s difficult. Wines are criticised for features (especially tannins) that would be positively advantageous at table, since a mouthful of protein or carbohydrate comprehensively changes the way wine is perceived and the way wine works in the mouth. Aromas and flavours, too, modulate as they interact with the aromas and flavours of food.

    Swallowing and digestion is very important, too. Let me give you an example here. Acidified wines can taste very exciting, since they inevitably seem concentrated and possess an intrinsic brightness of flavour which will contrast happily with their sweet, warm-climate fruit. But such wines are very difficult to swallow and to digest; the poorly incorporated acidity seems to burn the oesophagus and irritate the digestive system. They may ‘taste’ good, but they comprehensively fail at table and afterwards. 

    I always think that no wine can ever have a satisfactory tasting note until it has been drunk with food (assuming that it is a ‘table wine’) and digested. It’s only then that you know how good it is. Of course this would be completely impractical for a critic like William, and I know, too, that he is astute enough as a critic to be able to make adjustments of this sort. It is, though, an ever-present danger with the activity, and is another reason why personally I spend very little time reading tasting notes.

    Projections of ageing trajectories are an imperfect science, too, but I tend to assume that no one is paying any attention to these at all, since who on earth is able to buy so much wine that he/she need only ever broach a case “at full maturity?” Issuing drinking dates seems to me to be a pointless ritual. Once again, self-education and experiment are the way to go.

    KD: William, we certainly need to hear your perspective on mass tastings and their limitations, but I want to briefly touch upon something Andrew said, which is digestibility. Obviously, it would be impossible to swallow every sip of wine and then parse the effect they have on your system, but as a keen observer of wine attributes, does that factor into your assessment? Should the wine media spend more time talking about digestibility?

     

     
    WK: In fact, while it might seem impractical to swallow a sip of every wine tasted, there have been several wine critics who have attempted this approach, with sometimes disastrous personal consequences — and regrettably no discernable advantages as far as the reliability of their reviews have concerned! Ours can be a dangerous business.

    But I think, as Andrew says, professional tasters need to make adjustments. It’s important to consider each and every wine holistically, and not simply rank it by concentration or amplitude, a trap I think many fall into. At least bearing this issue in mind is already a very good start. To me, it’s just one dimension of retaining a genuine consumer’s perspective. I buy a lot of wine, and I drink wines I’ve rated highly on a regular basis; so I’m exposed to the consequences of my own mistakes, and I think that’s very healthy. I want to be the first person to be disappointed if I misread a young wine. This is the corrective mechanism, in my view, that transforms mere iteration into genuine experience. If I buy a wine that isn’t “digestible” (and I wish there were a better and more familiar English rendering for the much more natural French “digèste”), I will be disappointed and learn from the experience — just as I will be disappointed if it develops a brettanomyces bloom, or goût de souris, or shows its alcohol too conspicuously, or oxidizes, or whatever.

     

    KD: OK, let’s get back to the question of tasting large volumes of wine in a single setting. Do you agree with Andrew that it is problematic in terms of being divorced from most wine drinkers’ realities? If so, how have you assessed wine away from the table with the table in mind?

     
    WK: I certainly do agree. I’ve had the experience first hand of tasting over 100 wines a day, and I’ve not been happy with the work I’ve done in such circumstances. 

    The more one tastes, the more one has to resort to a very formulaic approach to parsing the wines in the glass; and the more one is susceptible to reduce complex beverages to a single metric of quality, falling into the trap that more must be better. So I have entirely eliminated what I call these “abattoir tastings” from my working life, and not a single wine I review from Champagne, Burgundy, and the other regions I cover is tasted in a mass setting of this sort. The vast majority of young wines I taste are tasted at the winery, and so I rarely taste more than 50 wines in the course of a long working day. Living in France, I have the luxury of being able to taste in the morning and write in the afternoon if I wish. The aspiration is that taking time and avoiding palate fatigue gives more reliable results. And I do believe that the fewer wines one tastes in a day, the better one can evaluate them.

    NAVIGATE THE DEBATE

     

    KD: One of the most debated topics I’ve seen surrounding tasting notes is which path serves a greater purpose: evocative description that conjures the feeling and mood of the wine, or technical description which provides a more standardized approach. One appeals to the reader’s emotions (but can easily stray into ridiculous terrain), while the other strives for utmost accuracy (but can be a bore to read). 

    Both of you, as critics, have had to follow critical and editorial guidelines in your career, but I am curious about your thinking on this. Let’s start with William: do you think evocative or even emotional language has its place in tasting notes? And if so, what is that place? What role does it play in your work?

     

     
    WK: Speaking for myself, I have few literary pretensions, and my job description these days is “critic” and not even “writer,” so I tend to try to confine myself to the material and the relatable. Evoking a wine’s aroma and structure using our very impoverished vocabulary for such matters is already sufficiently challenging, without attempting to evoke “my grandmother’s strawberry jam” — or any of the other highly personal cues that sometimes make their way into tasting notes of the more purpler variety — as well. Indeed, I have a cynical predisposition to consider such stuff mere fluff, intended simultaneously to convey sophisticated intensity of feeling while concealing an inability meaningfully to characterize a wine’s structure and style. The better the taster, in my view, the more clearly they can convey what they mean without recourse to the abstract or the personal. Now, there are people with the perceptual acuity, literary facility, and intellect to excel at conjuring feeling and mood in a tasting note — Andrew is one of them — but they are rare. And writing soulful tasting notes takes time, not something that’s in abundant supply for someone like me, who reviews some 5,000 wines every year.

     

    KD: It sounds to me like you are saying a good taster also has to be a good communicator, is that true?

     

     
    WK: I think that’s essential for a wine critic or wine writer, yes. It isn’t necessarily important for a consumer or a producer, and I have met producers who are unable to communicate very articulately about the wines they make, but couldn’t make such great wines without being excellent tasters. 

    I’d add that, for a critic, being a good communicator mustn’t come at the expense of tasting: I can think of some writers who, intoxicated by their own verbosity, seem to sometimes lose their focus on the wine in the glass.

    KD: Educational institutes have a natural affinity for standardizing wine description and confining it more to a technical tasting note. (When we consider the demands of presenting a global curriculum, perhaps that is understandable). Andrew, what is the proper context for applying technical description versus evocative description, in your opinion?

     
    AJ: If readers are going to relax and spend time with a (printed) text, and if you think the reader would appreciate evocation and it would shed extra light on the region, the vintage or the wine and thereby increase their drinking pleasure, then go for it. But try that in your MW tasting exam and you’re going to fail. 

    I think it must be difficult for a professional critic like William to know who his reader is, under what circumstances she or he is going to be reading William’s notes, and what she or he might want from them. But speaking personally (as an occasional reader of notes and as a wine consumer of very modest resources), I would always look for evocation and appreciate it when it is skilfully conveyed. I tend to remember those insights long after I have forgotten the actual notes themselves. There is definitely a place for both.

     

    KD: From my work educating American consumers on wine, I’ve found that analogies to fruits, flowers and other common sensory sensations are a big hang-up. In person, I can sense people growing intimidated because “they don’t get strawberry on that,” or they don’t remember what a violet smells like. These are all very fair points. Andrew: Do these types of associations help or hinder people’s understanding of wine?

     
    AJ: I think, like wine itself, that they are best enjoyed in moderation. Long lists of analogies are just gibberish, and in general I tend to prefer structural analogies, shapes, feelings and sensations to the fruit bowl and the flower vase. 

    But one or two analogies can help on occasion. I was recently describing two Rieslings and the fact that one of them had notes of yellow plum and mango whereas the other one was (more classically) apple and quince was helpful, I think, just to nuance the fruit tone for readers. But stop at that point!

    I would also suggest that the actual “descriptor” side of a tasting note only gets you so far, and any serious tasting note which is descriptor-only seems to me to be inadequate. 

    We also need context, some historical overview, some sense of temporality, some analogies to other regions, other growers or other vintages; some scholarship in tasting notes, if you like. Parker was very good at this — and one reason why I like and value William’s tasting notes so highly is that he is also very good at crafting dense, layered, information-rich notes of this sort. Such notes are truly rewarding and insightful, and a great asset to anyone seriously researching the category in question (as, for example, sommeliers often have to do and as “serious collectors” might wish to do).

    When critics take the performative aspect of their notes too seriously, the result becomes self-referential, self-congratulatory and generally onanistic. I find this a big turn-off.

    Incoherence is another issue — when notes have been written over-hastily, as is evidently the case even with very celebrated critics. The genre is wildly inconsistent.

     

    KD: William, what is your opinion on the myriad of association-based descriptors that we tend to use in tasting notes? A help? A hindrance? I know earlier you mentioned perfumerier’s and the accuracy their profession demands, as well as the objective truth of certain aromas — but would it be more helpful to readers to frame these notes with the context of “it reminds me of apple and quince” rather than “apple and quince,” simply to make the wine language more relatable?

     
    WK: As you’ve noted, I do believe that there is an objective truth to many descriptors, and that we are, at a chemical level, talking about identity rather than analogy. And I do think that, even if they’re subordinate to texture and structure in importance, they are noteworthy constituents of a wine’s particular identity. 

    One of my problems with descriptors as commonly employed, therefore, is that there’s a lack of rigor: too many tasting notes read like free association and are hard to relate to when one opens the bottle. So this is something I work on a lot. I’ve found that making wine of my own helps: when one is deciding which barrels to purchase, when to pick, when to rack, there is no room for “faking” it. 

    I also regret that a long list of aromas which segues into a similar list of “flavors” is sometimes presented to readers in lieu of any attempt to describe the structure of the wine. To me, this feels like an evasion of one’s responsibilities. I agree with Andrew, too, that economy is to be cultivated with regards to descriptors, especially when the wines being described are not in fact notably complex. 

    As for relatability, I think this is simply a convention of the genre, and like all specialist genres once one has adapted to the idiom one doesn’t think about it much. In my view, it suffices if the descriptors themselves aren’t too arcane or personal. 

    NAVIGATE THE DEBATE

    KD: Let’s shift gears and talk about the “headline” of a wine review: the score. William, I’ll ask the simple question: when it comes to critical reviews from wine professionals, do scores still matter? Are they on the wane in terms of importance, holding steady, or — with the advent of consumer reviews on apps and other digital platforms — are they somehow becoming even more important?

     
    WK: Scores certainly do still matter. Anyone who thinks otherwise simply doesn’t understand how the wine market works. Most wines are traded by people who have never tasted them, to consumers who haven’t tasted them: so notes and scores are understandably an essential lubricant to commerce, at every stage. Many importers will not import a wine that hasn’t been reviewed; and an unknown wine that receives a good review will soon find an importer. 

    Of course, there are certain wines that are beyond the reach of scores today — think of Coche-Dury or Château Lafleur, for example, whose tiny productions would sell out irrespective of their reviews. And there’s an even rarer category of producers who have attained that status without any meaningful contribution to their reputations from the press along the way: think of Jean-Yves Bizot, for example. But for the vast majority of producers, scores exercise a meaningful influence on sales.

    What has impressed and encouraged me in the last four years, since I joined The Wine Advocate, is that who writes the score matters, too. In the trade, there is sometimes a cynical assumption that the higher the number, the better — no matter who has awarded it. Some critics have built careers by tapping into that assumption. Now, I am naturally interested in the reception of my work, and my sense is that the cynics are mistaken, at least in the niche I operate in (Burgundy and Champagne): one earns a following over time, and the more extensive and trusting that following, the more impact one’s work has. I do feel for consumers when prices rise as a result of a critic’s scores; but as a critic, it is impossible to see this phenomenon as anything other than a validation. 

    Perhaps I’m naive, but I don’t feel especially threatened by consumer reviews on apps. That’s the luxury of writing about a very exclusive niche of the wine world. Very few consumers taste the wines I taste, and certainly not so broadly. And my sense is that the people who buy and drink Domaine de la Romanée-Conti, for example, are not about to start posting tasting notes on Vivino (for now, Vivino can’t even reliably decipher a Burgundy label). Anyone contemplating buying these sorts of wines wants an opinion informed by known experience and a known palate, and they need that opinion before the wine has sold out. So crowd-sourced reviews, when the wine has started to circulate on the market, are always going to be “too little, too late” when the wines I write about are concerned. 

    While we’re handling this subject, I also wanted to take the opportunity to discuss what scores — and in particular 100-point scores — mean. Of course, we hear a lot about the evils of scoring, whether it be their deforming influence on producers’ stylistic choices, or their inflationary impact on wine pricing. But I believe, and have seen first hand, that there are positives to scoring that are not sufficiently acknowledged. After all, wines are “graded” in an infinite variety of ways, and in Europe they’re often graded by long standing hierarchies. Critics’ scores, by offering an alternative ranking, disrupt such hierarchies, and I believe that’s healthy. 

    To take an example, a Champagne: Cédric Bouchard's 2008 Les Ursules. For me, giving that wine 100 points earlier this year — in addition to capturing my emotions on tasting the wine and how I feel it’s situated in the broader context of sparkling wine — was intended to convey a number of things. Mostly importantly, I hope it emphasizes that there are no glass ceilings limiting how Champagne is scored in The Wine Advocate: this is a Blanc de Noirs rather than a blend; from an unprestigious region that's at the bottom of the echelle des crus; made by a grower who started a new label and not a Grande Marque with a long history. If any producers were thinking, "we'll never get recognition for what we're doing, given who we are and where we make wine,” I hope this review dispels that notion. 

    And beyond this important statement, this particular score also affirms that I think Les Usules is as good as any of Cédric's wines (is the hierarchical mentality so ever-present in the wine world that we tend to look for "grands crus" even when there are none?) even if his smaller production cuvées, La Bolorée and Creux d'Enfer are more sought after. And it also expresses my conviction that his wines do age — but like still wines rather than like Champagnes. So there was a lot packed into that particular 100/100!

     

    KD: Andrew, have scores become inflated? I can see William’s point on making a specific statement with a 100-point score, but what about the surplus of 90-point scores? At times, it seems like a score in the 80s range is more rare. Is there a way to correct or recalibrate the system in any way?

     
    AJ: Scores have become inflated in general in recent years, though much depends on the critic in question (or the magazine or competition scoring schema). 

    Most wine producers hope for scores of 90 or above, and are disappointed if their best or most ambitious wines score less than that. 

    Ninety points is just a notch like any other, yet the fact that it is a round digit and gateway to the “heaven of excellence” represented by 91 to 100 has given 90 a colossal and undue symbolic weight.

    If for many wine regions “a good wine” must get 90 points or above, you are really working with a 10-point scale for quality. For certain wine categories and certain critics, that is now a reality, and it makes a mockery of what we call “the 100-point scale.” It’s a 10-point quality scale plus laggards.

    It’s almost as if the 11 points between 90 and 100 have now become brands in their own right, with critics claiming the right to award the brand — which then becomes associated with their own personal critical brand.

    It would be an excellent thing if every critic (and every wine producer) would accept the urgent necessity for recalibration, so that 80 points or over meant “good wine” and we then had at least 20 points with which to nuance quality. (Some critics get around this by using decimal places, but you then risk conveying a misleading sense of precision).

    We should also note that a universal scoring scale does not exist and cannot exist. Scores depend on the cultural context of the wine in question, as the Wine Advocate rubric printed on the cover of each issue always made clear (“The numerical rating given is a guide to what I think of the wine vis-à-vis its peer group”). This is little understood outside wine circles, alas, so should be stressed whenever possible.

    I would also point out that this relation to peer group means that many excellent and sometimes outstanding wines in the world’s largest fine-wine regions, and particularly those with internal hierarchies (like Burgundy) or classification strata (like Bordeaux), are doomed to be under-scored. Few critics are prepared to do what William has just outlined and break hierarchy or classification with scores. Critics tend to calibrate wines to the top scores in that region and vintage (100 points in a great vintage, 96 or 97 in a good one). Every wine must then fall into place behind those top scores, according to hierarchy. This dooms certain categories to scores in the high 80s at best — meaning consumers fail to take them seriously.  Why shouldn’t an outstanding Médoc cru bourgeois or Burgundy village wine receive 94 or 95 points? Such wines may be better than equivalent, highly ambitious varietals or blends in newer regions receiving such scores. They are, though, hamstrung by their position in the hierarchy.

    If we could work with 20 full points of quality nuance, it might be easier for outstanding low-hierarchy wines to receive their just desserts. This might still be 88 or 89 points! ... but if quality began at 80 points then 88 or 89 points would be recognised as a score to be proud of.  (It’s worth noting that this was always the original intent of Robert Parker in The Wine Advocate: “80-89 ... such a wine, particularly in the 85-89 range, is very very good; many of the wines that fall into this range often are great values as well.”)

     

    WK: If I might interject, I’d add that I agree very much with what I think Andrew is getting at there, which — if I may — is that score compression is much more of a problem than score “inflation.” While critics must bear some of the responsibility, so must consumers who eschew wines scored below 90/100. It’s also worth thinking about how exactly we evaluate technically correct but boring wines: the 100-point system after all, penalizes flaws, rather than soullessness. For me, uninteresting but sound wines are by far the hardest to know where to place on the scale.

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    KD: How important is it to tailor your language on wine to specific audiences? I am thinking of beginners vs. aficionados, trade vs. consumer, yes. But also different audience segments. William, can you speak to how important this is, and as a follow-up, have you ever had your editors urge you to reframe your language because the publication was hoping to broaden its appeal to a new audience of some kind?

     

    WK: Today, working for The Wine Advocate, I have the luxury of writing for a niche audience for whom no detail is too much. Ours is a relatively expensive subscription-only publication, which naturally selects only the most passionate and obsessive; and in addition to our civilian subscribers, many of our readers are indeed professionals. They have mastered, or are applying themselves to master, the idiom of the genre; so I don’t find myself on the receiving end of too many demands for clarification. 

    That being said, I do try to avoid using jargon or depending too heavily on numbers. I’d rather write that a wine is e.g. “muscular and youthfully chewy, built around rich, powdery tannins” than cite a number for its total polyphenol content, for example; or describe a wine as “hot and heady” than give its labelled alcohol content. Indeed, I think critics should be cautious when handling such data. In France, for example, total acidity (TA) is given as grams per liter of sulfuric acid (an artefact of how TA was traditionally measured, by titration), whereas elsewhere it’s expressed as grams per liter of tartaric acid. So an Anglophone critic who cites a French winemaker’s analyses is liable to inadvertently misinform his or her readers. 

    While I do, rather unusually, make wine myself, I tend to think that a critic’s job is different from an enologist’s: we’re here to describe wines, as meaningfully as possible, from a consumer’s perspective. Sometimes even recounting all the components of a blend feels like an evasion of that duty to describe what is actually in the glass. After all, the contribution of that 0.8 per cent Petit Verdot is lost on anyone who wasn’t present at the blending trials! Data, in my view, is no substitute for descriptive analysis. 

    So when I have written for less specialist publications, such as newspapers and lifestyle magazines, the difference for me has been one of degree rather than of kind. My descriptions of wines in such media are necessarily pared down, perhaps with some technical terms redacted, but the aspiration behind them remains the same. I would be concerned, indeed, if a non-specialist found even the most detailed work I do for The Wine Advocate entirely incomprehensible.

     
    KD: Andrew, what about “expanding the tent” for wine, particularly to younger, more diverse audiences? How important should it be for aspiring wine writers and critics to tailor their language on wine in a way that makes the scene more welcoming?

     

    AJ: I would just like to see more diversity and more creativity in the way we talk about wine, and also a more relaxed attitude to wine description. It is all a bit sacred at the moment, and the critics can sound like heavenly choristers.  

    I’d like to see punk wine writing, rap wine writing, and gonzo wine writing. People would laugh and mock and make fun of it, and we would, I’m sure, still learn more from the notes of William and his colleagues ... but the wine world would then begin to seem more diverse, more open, more normal, more fun. We need an equivalent of the ‘natural wine’ movement for wine writing, if you like, and we also need gatekeepers (those commissioning wine writing) to be open to other, more informal possibilities than they are at present.  

    Maybe this is already happening with young wine communicators on Instagram and TikTok — at least in those sincere cases where money isn’t changing hands and we aren’t falling for a hustle. I love taking a look at all that stuff, and sooner or later really talented people are going to come along from there and we will have a multiplicity of wine discourses. That’s happened with food and it will eventually happen with wine.

     
    KD: I ask this question about specific audiences because every language comes from a culturally dependent context. Even within English speaking nations, certain tasting-note terms may only resonate within certain nations and/or cultures (by way of an innocent example, not many Americans are familiar with cassis, particularly because it was not grown here until recently). 

    As wine becomes more and more globalized, how should wine critics, wine journalists and wine educators approach such culturally dependent references? Should they be stripped out of the conversation? Or should publications embrace their niche or geo-specific audiences and worry less about international appeal? Is a more specialized focus the future of wine media? Andrew: we will start with you.

     

    AJ: This is a very important question today, not only because wine is now very much a universal, international pleasure, but because we are also just beginning to realise how undiverse the wine world is, and how exclusive it can seem to outsiders.

    We all understand, I think, that specific fruit/plant analogies quickly bump up against cultural constraints; that is another reason not to go overboard with them. Shapes, textures, forms, feelings and sensations are more universal and hence a more useful repertoire to use analogically.

    The gendering of descriptors is now deeply problematic and best avoided, as are references to sexuality. (I doubt that many of today’s Advocate critics would use ‘balls-to-the-wall’ in a tasting note, though the origin of the phrase comes from aviation. I do, though, value irreverence or informality highly, and hope they would find other ways to be irreverent or informal. Tasting notes are too reverential at present. It is just wine, remember, not intensive-care medicine or disaster relief. And wine is fun, or should be).

    Beyond that, there is also the problem of the cultural embeddedness of all language. I am a white male in my sixties with tertiary education who has spent a lifetime working as an editor, journalist and writer; I can’t unmake those realities. I try to write sensitively and not crassly, but I am who I am. The way I write about wine may well not chime with the experience of those of other age groups, geographies, cultural milieux and with different educational backgrounds. We do need actors in wine communication with a greater variety of backgrounds, and a broadening of the language of wine is long overdue.

     
    KD: In the last several years, there has been an increased desire — both within the mainstream wine industry and outside of it — to evolve wine language away from many traditional norms. Andrew, you cited the one example I had in mind: gendered descriptions. 

    I’d like to get your opinion on this development, and any others you have both observed. What trends in wine language have you noticed, William, and are all of these developments positive? Are there any that give you pause?

     

    WK: I’ve already mentioned that I attempt to use language that is as meaningful and relatable as possible. I pay a lot of attention to a wine’s structure; and I aspire to write tasting notes that will resonate with anyone who has the wine in the glass, even if they disagree with my assessment of its quality. To that end, I’d rather describe a wine as “broad shouldered and muscular” than “masculine”: it’s more precise and less ambiguous, aside from any considerations of changing mores. 

    I think that approach is informed by having lived in three different countries, and travelling widely: I discuss wine with people from all sorts of different backgrounds and nationalities, with very varied frames of reference, in different languages. Ours at The Wine Advocate is international. So I could never, even if I wished to, indulge in describing wine in some sort of insular idiom intelligible only to people of the same gender, socioeconomic group, and nationality. It’s a question of whether one wishes to communicate or not. 

    To that end, I think it’s only natural that wine writing should be written in language that is as meaningful as possible to its contemporary audience — and that it should evolve as that audience changes and diversifies — and I welcome that rather than lamenting it. To me, gendered metaphors always seemed rather trite, in any case: falling back on a stereotype (e.g. “feminine Chambolle”) is a very poor substitute for analysis and description.

    Beyond changing with the times, I’m afraid I see more evolution in the media we use to communicate about wine than in the medium itself, our language. The vocabulary at our disposal remains rather limited and even constraining; English especially so, as French offers richer resources, especially when one wishes to discuss a wine’s texture and physical structure. If you don’t believe me, just try to explain to someone who has never experienced them what a wine writer might mean by “stringy tannins!” The challenge is to push the language to its limits, without overreaching into the arcane or the theatrical.

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    KD: Let’s finish by discussing the potential for corruption in wine criticism, and therefore, in tasting notes. I think it is safe to say that with the fragmentation of media, everyone is scrapping for their own piece of relevance, and that can lead to some strange bedfellows. 

    Andrew, what has happened to objectivity in wine criticism over the course of your career? Do you feel there are any steps that need to be taken immediately for the benefit of your readers and the wine industry as a whole?

     

    AJ: Wine criticism is not objective but subjective. At its best, as in the work of William, it is fair, sincere, sensitive, scholarly and insightful, and worthwhile for all those reasons. But William’s primary reviewing of young wines just coming to market is not based on blind tasting. Nor is that of most of his peers (and exceptions will be clearly flagged). In most cases, he knows and visits the producers whose wines he is reviewing, and has professional relationships with them. Such relationships are important to him for all sorts of reasons; indeed the readers of his work will benefit from these relationships, too, since further insights will accrue from them. This is not an issue for criticism alone — no wine writing is objective. All of it relies on the favour of access. All of it relies on relationships. Objectivity under these circumstances is not humanly possible.

    Reputable wine critics like William and his Advocate colleagues pay their own travel expenses and living expenses when travelling, which most wine writers do not do. But no wine critic on this earth would ever be able to pay for every sample to pass their lips and still carry out comprehensive and useful work. 

    It is important that readers understand this, and I think most do. Indeed I think most readers make assessments as to the ‘honesty’ of critical reviews when they read them; I certainly do this. It is quite easy to detect flannel and waffle, but I tend to assume when I come across it that it is because a particular critic is worried in some way about his or her assessments seeming to be out of kilter with those of their peers. I tend to value singular, spiky opinions highly for this reason.

    There is of course always the possibility for corruption: to be paid in some way for lavish scores for ambitious, ‘icon’ wines from up-and-coming regions, for example. The stakes are high enough for this to be a genuine concern, though I personally have no knowledge of such a case. Were such corruption to come to light, critical reputation would be gone in an instant, so one hopes the possibility is comprehensively dissuasive.

     
    KD: William, what is your perspective? In this hyper-competitive climate and with many wine prices — particularly those on your beat — soaring through the roof, how can critics and their publishers preserve their credibility yet maintain the access that allows them to do their job?

     

    WK: It’s a very important question. Personally, I feel that the world’s most expensive wines, many of which issue from the regions I write about, should be held to the highest standards by any wine critic deserving the name. And being fortunate enough to occupy one of the few comparatively well remunerated positions that exist in this small ecosystem, I think it’s incumbent upon me to do it. I also try to buy and consume the wines I write about to the best of my ability, so I don’t become a shill for producers or some sort of court jester for wealthy collectors. Being based in the region makes this more feasible than it would be in a market where prices are further removed from the sums charged by the producers themselves. 

    Of course, every producer loves independent wine criticism — until the moment they receive a bad review! But I have found that this need not be fatal to a working relationship with a producer; and I believe that, indeed, if it didn’t come with economic consequences, constructive critique of this sort would be actively sought out by producers where a relationship of mutual respect exists between producer and critic. 

    Now, this isn’t invariably the case, and I suspect that to the extent that there can be tensions between producers and the press, this arises when producers show a wine they know is substandard to a critic, expecting the usual fluff, and are disconcerted to be called out; or, on the other hand, when the critic is unfair or misreads a wine. A lot of critics give bad scores to wines that are reduced, for example. I can think of one who throws accusations of brettanomyces around in a very cavalier fashion that’s not backed up by laboratory tests (since I make wine in Burgundy, I have an account at a lab and can test anything I care to). One can’t get stuff like this wrong and expect to be invited back to taste next year. In fact, I think producers can be a lot more forgiving than I would be in their place. 

    Personally, my approach is to make it clear that I pull no punches, but I encourage producers not to show wines that have just been racked or filtered, for example: I live down the road, I can come back in a month. I’m also always willing to retaste a wine if the producer feels I’ve been unjust. In this regard, I remember an occasion, back when I was reviewing Washington State wines, when I published an especially damning review, for which I was castigated online: feeling remorse for what was indeed a strongly-worded critique, I wrote to the producer offering to revisit the wine in question. He replied, thanking me for the offer but admitting that he didn’t much care for the wine, either! 

    But being fair is very important, and there’s a learning curve. For example, I once praised a Bourgogne Blanc from a celebrated producer but questioned whether the wine merited a three-digit price tag. A mutual friend informed me that the producer was put out: not because of the question per se, but because I hadn’t posed it in my review of Coche-Dury’s Bourgogne Blanc, or Roumier’s Bourgogne Rouge etc. It struck me as a fair point. So I think one has to try to be judicious and avoid making throw-away remarks that could be perceived as sleights. 

    I’ve talked about the importance of retaining a consumer perspective already, but if one wants to avoid unnecessary conflict, it’s important to be able to relate to a producer perspective, too. Navigating these sorts of sensitivities effectively helps one to keep one’s powder dry for the important stuff.

    MORE GREAT DEBATE ARTICLES: 

    Kevin Day

    Kevin Day is an Italian Wine Scholar™ with Highest Honors, and the editor-in-chief of the popular online wine magazine Opening a Bottle. In 2019, he was shortlisted for the Louis Roederer International Wine Writer’s Award in the category of Emerging Wine Writer. He lives in Denver, Colorado.

    1 comment

    • Comment Link Mark Annett Thursday, 24 February 2022 15:35 posted by Mark Annett

      Excellent!!! I very much enjoyed the perspective of the two panelists. Because of the positions, they are able to give us a full picture regarding tasting notes, their value, and the potential shortcomings so we, as regular consumers, can hopefully make better informed choices.

      More of this type of webinar is greatly welcomed.

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