Do you love drinking wine but think you’ll never be good at describing it? If you read wine tasting notes from critics, you might find the master wordsmithing stirs you to run out and get the latest vintage. But to write them yourself—the thought leaves you feeling more than a bit out of your comfort zone.
The good news is that you can write memorable and perhaps more importantly, useful, wine tasting notes. All it takes is a bit of practice and having some basic knowledge of the common identifying traits. Let’s get started.
Understanding the Value of Tasting Notes
You might like the idea of writing up and posting notes on that fantastic vintage you uncorked the other night. You might also want to start your own dinner parties and swap notes on new bottles. These are excellent ways to immerse yourself in the nuances of wine. If you want to try them out, go for it!
However, you should always remember that wine tasting notes are best saved for your own tastes and interests. Everyone’s taste buds are unique. While your taste buds might detect similar compounds, textures, and sensations as someone else’s, you won’t have the same experience. After all, there’s more to tasting than simply what you taste. Together with your sense of smell and your mindful interpretation, you’ll create an experience exclusive to you. Good wine tasting notes will inspire you and bring forth the memory of that bottle—even when you didn't find favor with it.
Follow Your Instincts
When you start creating your initial tasting notes, don’t think too hard. Go with your instincts and first impressions. There’s no right or wrong answer here because everyone has a different, highly personalized interpretation. If you smell a hint of leather or clove, write it down. If you taste black cherry, mushroom, or sage, put that down too. Circle or star the most prominent aromas and flavors, and remember that you can always refine your notes later on.
Wine Tasting, Step by Step
To get ready, make sure you have your bottle of wine and wine glass at hand. You’ll also want a notepad and pen or your favorite electronic device for note taking. There are three main steps to writing wine tasting notes: look, smell, and taste.
1. Look (aka Appearance)
First you’ll want to pour yourself a glass of that wine and look at it from all angles. You’ll start by observing the hue of the wine, which is the actual color from the pigments which come from contact with the grape skins. Typically, most wines fall into a few categories.
Ruby (Pinot Noir, Cabernet Sauvignon)
Purple (Syrah, Malbec)
Garnet (Sangiovese, Barolo)
Tawny (aged reds, Tawny Port)
Straw (Vinho Verde, Moscato)
Yellow (Gruner Veltliner, Sauvignon Blanc)
Gold (Chardonnay, Chenin Blanc)
Amber (Sherry, Tokaji)
Brown (aged whites, Pedro Ximenez)
Rose wines (plus a few whites)
Copper (Provence Rose, Pinot Gris)
Salmon (White Zinfandel, Syrah Rose)
Pink (Grenache Rose, Tavel Rose)
Along with the hue, you’ll see gradations of color from pale to medium to deep. Try to be as specific as possible.
How translucent or opaque a wine is is what determines its color intensity. Can you see through the wine, or is it so dark and inky no light passes through? Typically, dark ruby and dark purple wines have the most opaque qualities due to their higher amounts of pigment and phenol compounds. Wines higher in tannins are also more opaque than those low in tannins.
Look at the wine in your glass. Is it clear or cloudy? Clear wine won’t have suspended particles whereas cloudy wine will. In most cases, this aspect relates to whether the wine has undergone filtering—akin to clear, filtered apple juice or cloudy, unfiltered (and delicious) apple cider. Most producers filter their wines, but some do not.
At the same time, cloudy wine sometimes indicates old wine or spoiled wine. If you see a dull color and smell vinegar, burnt marshmallow, or cabbage, don’t go any further with that wine.
2. Smell (aka Bouquet)
The primary aromas come from the grapes and the terroir. Typically, these aromas fall into three categories: floral, herbs, and fruits. You might detect blackcurrant and mint or apricot, eucalyptus, and violet. You won’t always have aromas from all three categories. Whatever you smell, take note.
Secondary aromas aren’t present until the fermentation process. Here, the conversion of sugars to alcohol brings out an array of aromas. This process is further enhanced with the tertiary aromas, explained next. For secondary aromas you might smell yogurt, butter, sourdough, aged cheeses, mushroom or gamey notes.
The third category comprises the tertiary aromas. These aromas come from the aging process. The type of vessel used for aging has a significant influence on the aroma. In oak, wine often takes on notes of vanilla, caramelized sugar, cinnamon, cloves, smoke, tobacco, cedar, dill, or chocolate. Wines aged in stainless steel tanks tend to have fresher, fruit-forward aromas.
It can help to get hold of a wine aroma wheel, which gives you visual assistance in identifying those aromas. In any of the three categories, try to list the most powerful aromas first and be as specific as possible about the aroma and its intensity.
3. Taste (aka Palate)
As you taste the wine, does your mouth dry out and leave the skin feeling tight? The higher the tannins, the drier your mouth will become. Lower tannins will make the wine more mellow.
Acidity is what you’re tasting when you perceive a wine as tart or sour. If your mouth puckers up, you’ll likely think about how it does the same when you bite into something sour like a lemon or lime. The higher the acidity, the higher the pH level and the more you’ll perceive tartness.
You can have some sweetness in an acidic wine—especially in a wine whose grapes came from a region with cooler nights or a shorter growing season. Sweetness simply indicates how much residual sugar remains after fermentation. How much sweetness do you taste? Little to no sugar means your mouth dries out a bit, while a lot of sugar leaves your mouth with an oily sensation.
Light-bodied wines are similar to thin-consistency liquids like water. Full-bodied wines are more similar to a rich coffee or hot chocolate—there’s more texture and substance to them.
Even though you made notes on the aroma, make sure you write down the flavors too. Usually, what you smell is similar to what you taste, but not always. Other compounds or properties can lead to muted or enhanced tastes.
You’re almost ready to wrap up your wine tasting notes, so it makes sense to finish with the finish. Does the finish fizzle out, leave a punch, or end perfectly satisfyingly? The finish is what you taste after the initial flavors mellow out.
Finalize Your Notes
Don’t forget to go through your notes. Do they make sense? You should also leave your lasting impression of the wine—would you drink it again? And if you're feeling particularly savvy, you might create your own rating system using stars or points.
If you fell in love with a bottle you sampled during a recent wine tasting, check out our online catalog. We have all the wines you love and then some! JJ Buckley Fine Wines can also assist with personalized consultancy services. Whatever your fine wine needs, we can’t wait to help.