The other night, a client asked me how I approach tasting a wine. We were about to sit down to a dinner at Troquet and Chris Campbell, the wine director for the restaurant, had laid out what looked like a chess set worth of glasses for each diner. I’ve learned that the best way to keep track of wines at a dinner like this is to take semi-formal tasting notes.
There are several popular resources for tasting notes and each taster has his or her own way of doing things. Of course, the two most famous palates on the planet are Robert Parker and Michael Broadbent. Parker is famous, among many other things, for colorful notes and assigning a numeric score on a 100-point scale for the wines he tastes. Broadbent on the other hand, rumored to have a library of tasting notes estimated to contain nearly 100,000 unique notes, relies on a 5-star system to rate both wines and, more generally, vintages. Of course, there are variations on these themes throughout the wine industry, such as Wine Spectator’s scientific approach to tasting or Allen Meadows (aka the Burghound) and his wonderful prose. When people ask me who the best wine critic is, I tell them that critics are much like wine, you have to rely on your experiences with them before finding your favorite, someone whose tastes align with yours and whom you feel you can trust.
Until very recently, I eschewed the tasting note, preferring to rely on memory alone to be my guide. How naive I was. Much like childhood memories, soon tasting experiences began to melt into one another. For example, I know that both the 1990 and 1982 Latour were among the finest examples of Claret I’ve ever tasted, but what specifically sets them apart from one another (besides eight years and several hundred dollars)? I remember a stark contrast between the 1989 and 1990 La Chapelle, but which was redolent with fruit and spice and which was the earthy, smoked eye-opener? This is not to say that my memory is completely shot; I can trust myself enough to know that 1982 Pichon Lalande remains the single finest wine I have ever tasted, full of the darkest cherry notes and laced with cedar and whisps of menthol leading into a finish that went on for an eternity. But what happens if I’m lucky enough to try it again? How can I track its progress, and how can I track my own progress as a taster? The answer is obvious and it requires a small Moleskine notebook, a pen and the tiniest bit of discipline.
My most formal training in the art of tasting comes from the WSET, which champions their Systematic Approach to Tasting (SAT). A great intro to tasting, I personally find it a bit rigid, though very thorough as an analysis of a wine. Over time, my personal approach to the tasting process has evolved to the following:
- When presented with a wine, I typically check the color against a clean, preferably white surface to get a sense of its development.
- I swirl the wine to aerate, check the nose and repeat.
- Take a sip, aerate in my mouth, enjoy.
- Then I revisit steps 1-3 and take notes.
I prefer having a sense of the wine as a whole before taking physical notes. Generally, I am far less interested in identifying specific, esoteric flavors (I’ve never had ortolan, nor will I, so how or why should I be able to identify that in a wine?). More important to me is the harmony of the wine – does the fruit balance with the tannin and acid? Are there off-putting flavors? Where is the wine in its development? These are the elements I’m most interested in. At a dinner like this one, I’ll take five pages of notes or more.
Here are some recent examples, including some from the dinner in question:
2005 Vogue Chambolle Musigny 1er Cru: Nose is a perfect balance of earth and cherry; light on the palate, tons of sharp tannin. It’s a baby, would love to revisit this in 5-7 years.
1998 Pichon Lalande: Smoky, leathery, strong primary fruit, sweet spice and cigar box. Silk in the mouth, tannins already integrated. Amazing!
1970 Calon Segur: Classic Bordeaux features; lightly dances across the palate. Surprising, and simply outstanding. It’s right in my wheelhouse for mature Claret.
1988 Gaja Barbaresco: imagine smoked Burgundy; mature red fruit, beautifully mature, light on the palate with a touch of heat. Just dead on.
2002 Maya : Too young to drink now; great nose, dark and brooding, too tannic to fully appreciate the wine now, but there’s a beast in hiding. Talk to me in 2025.
The challenge that I’ve found with taking notes lies mostly in actually putting pen to paper and learning how to do it without completely checking out from dinner conversation. Ultimately, though, I feel it only makes me a more attentive taster. My approach to the tasting note, still a work in progress, is an amalgamation of all of my experiences. Do you approach a glass of wine with pen and paper, or do you rely on memory? Share your process in the comments.