“Crisp”, “bright”, “flamboyant”, with “hints of charcoal” and “chocolatey overtones”. If that makes sense to you, you don’t need to read on. Wine descriptions can appear pretentious and confusing (with hints of condescension), but they do have real meaning, and there is a logic to them. If you’ve ever felt out of your depth at a wine tasting event, this article will teach you the ropes of how to come up with the notes of a true expert.
- Learn the vocabulary of a sommelier
Before you can concoct impressive wine tasting notes of your own, you need to learn the language. You’ll already know the basics from reading the sides of wine bottles (and the first line of this article), and it actually doesn’t get much more complicated than that.
Wine Folly’s Wine Descriptions Glossary details the meaning of the 40 most popular wine terms, including words and phrases like “earthy”, “jammy” and “chewy tannins”. Though some of these terms may appear to have nothing to do with wine at all (can it really be chewy?), all of them do have tangible meanings relating to tastes and textures.
To take a few examples, “minerally” means the wine tastes a bit like concrete; “unctuous” means it is oily; “toasty” means it tastes like burnt caramel. There are still some terms that don’t make too much sense, though. “Fleshy”, for example, can’t really suggest a wine tastes like flesh, and the meaning of “elegant” is quite vague. Still, learning all of these terms and knowing roughly when to deploy them will put you well on your way to sounding like a wine connoisseur.
- Do your homework on vineyards and vintage
The best wine tasting notes are informed not just by flavour, but by history. It’s important to keep a wine’s vintage and vineyard in mind when talking about it. This can inform all kinds of things, from whether the flavour and texture are typical, to whether it is likely to taste “oakey” from its aging in the barrel.
Tasting different types of wine as a kind of practice before the wine tasting event could help, but its use will be limited since the samples at a tasting are more likely to be fine wines, the kind which most people cannot afford to buy precariously by the bottle.
Wine valuation experts The London Wine Cellar have a list of fine wines by region, which should help you place whichever wine you are presented at the tasting. Exploring these different regions will help you develop your knowledge past “Champagne is from the Champagne region” and “Bordeaux comes from Bordeaux”.
It’s just as important to pay attention to a wine’s vintage, as well as its vineyard. Decanter’s article on how to understand vintage is a good place to start. In essence, “vintage” refers to a wine’s age. Unfortunately it’s not as simple as “old = good, new = bad”, as it is with, say, antiques. There are years that are considered “good vintage” in different regions, and years that are not. For the most part, the difference between great and awful years comes down to weather conditions.
To use the same example as Decanter, nationwide droughts made 1995 a terrible year for Australian wine, but the warm summer of 1998 made it a great vintage. If you’re drinking a 1995 vintage wine from Australia and it actually tastes good, you’ll know to mention in your notes that this plucky bottle defied the odds.
- Be confident with everything you say and do
No matter how well-prepared you are, your wine tasting notes won’t sound truly impressive unless you deliver them with gusto. If you’ve learned the right words, and read up on your history, your companions are likely to be impressed.
The Napa Valley Wine Academy advises a confident approach to wine tasting, both in what you say and what you try. Branching out and drinking unfamiliar bottles will broaden your knowledge of different wines, vineyards, and vintages. The more you drink fine wines, the more you will get to know them, and the better your tasting notes will be. As is the case with many things, confidence is key.