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On Tasting
Do Tasting Notes Have any Value?
Friday, 22nd March, 2013  - David Farmer

I receive a small trickle of mail from customers commenting about the wines we sell and they also ask other questions. I have listened attentively to customers for many decades so I know pretty well the type of issues that are likely to be raised. Recently though I received this mail:

"What has me perplexed, as someone who has had long enough trying wines good and no so, and aware that what tickles the buds of one can sour the face of another, is that there are no tasting notes on your site. Or more usefully, tannins, acidity, nose, cellaring potential etc."

I have not been asked this before and as it so happens I have been thinking about the meaning of tasting notes for some time. Here is an extended version of my reply and I will return to this interesting topic...

Decades ago I came to the conclusion that tasting notes served no useful purpose. At best they mislead as much as they help. With that said there is a section on the Glug site called 'On Tasting', going back to 2004, which is full of detail about what we know about the accuracy of tasting and the multiple pitfalls. Currently the alarming evidence suggests that people are most happy with a wine when they pay a lot for it.

I have joked for years that what customers want is Grange for $10 but alas have formed the view that only a few would know it anyway. It's best they pay $600 and treat it as a special experience.

I have been writing catalogues and the like since 1976 so I have seen a lot of evidence as to what helps a customer make a choice about what to buy. Decades ago I began to see a tasting note as an easy cop-out and if you have 40 wines to write about, the descriptions very quickly turn to rubbish. My nightmare would be to write 100 notes about Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc from the same vintage. Even in the hands of the best copy-writer, they would all be meaningless.

Thus on the Glug site we might have 30 Barossa shiraz; and to think tasting notes, which by definition would have to be similar, could guide any customer is simply silly. The customer may think one note reads better than the other but I'm afraid this is not how they would see the wines on the tasting bench should they do the same tasting. What I write gives the customer the useful detail they need, as do the very long back label notes.

In coming to this view I was greatly influenced by the Burgundy notes of Clive Coates which I subscribed to for many years. I do not have his notes handy but they were very brief. What you believed in was not the notes but the man and his opinion as to the top producers.

Frankly it's no different with Glug. Buyers have to trust that David and Ben know what they are doing. If after a few purchases they disagree with Glug selections they will drift away and buy wine elsewhere.

I go to numerous sites and read lots of wine journals and quite frankly the wine notes constantly confirm my view that they should not bother.

Now consider your request. Two of the things you want can be measured, tannin and acid but do you really think you have the science which can make sense of them. Aroma is in the eye of the beholder and what a lot of BS people write and as for cellaring well that depends on how good your cellar is. In a cold cellar a cheap wine will keep and change but for the better-who knows. There are no cellaring times and you should know that. It is up to the buyer to monitor the stock by opening bottles. Anyone who says 'will cellar for 10 years' is just inventing a figure. And another thing, keep an eye on the price as we have wines over $20 which may well repay cellaring. Paying less than that and thinking they will be better with prolonged cellaring is not a good idea. Incidentally I prefer all wine much younger these days and most other people do as well.

Let me make my point with another illustration as recently a customer wished to know whether a chardonnay was oaked or un-oaked. I had mentioned it was a distress parcel from a small boutique and would have sold for $30 plus it was overworked. From this if you know wine; you know the wine has been in oak. But it is also the wrong question. If I said the wine was oaked or un-oaked does that help the buyer? At the Glug bargain prices what you believe in is my view that the wine is enjoyable for the price. Anyone that has developed a palate that says, I only drink un-oaked chardonnay has lost me. Does that mean they would never drink Montrachet? They ask a question that gets an answer which is no help. To repeat what they want to know is simply this; is it a good wine for the price?

Glug wines are mostly regional specific thus they come with a tasting note-the location. One good bottle of Barossa Shiraz tells you what any other will taste like. The warm to hot climate sets the major tastes. The weather alters each vintage but not by much. Thus what you are buying is Glug. And what a customer should ask is, are they any good at finding well priced, tasty wines?

When a wine is not to type I state that. I also say whether a wine is sweet as that type of information is needed.

Next time you open a wine, please write a tasting note, and keep this up for a few weeks and then tell me if they are of any value. I'll tell you now, even your own will have little meaning and none at all after 12 months. Perhaps notes by the greatest professional like Broadbent and Parker provide a record going forward but all the rest will end up in the junk file where they belong.

I also believe that the best of the U.K. wine merchants who have been dealing in Bordeaux for multiple decades write helpful notes when discussing the wines of a single vintage as they add nuances and reflections that may be of help. Remember though without the name of the wine and the price what use are even these notes. And never forget these writers have a vested interest in the outcome.

And that of course is the rub. When studies show us that a blindfolded person is uncertain if the wine is white, rose or red; or that when white wine which is coloured with a red dye it is described by professionals with words relating to red wines you must begin to wonder.

And here is a test I have done on myself. Take 12 wines of a similar type, e.g. cabernets from Coonawarra of recent vintages. Now let someone shuffle the wines around and see if you can match your tasting notes back to the wines.

I hope these thoughts are of help, if not you at least know a little more about my reasons for not writing tasting notes. What Glug does particularly well is sell good tasty wines at low prices, and tasting notes will not help in making buying decisions.

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