I ended up in the booze trade by accident, and stayed because I found it congenial. Over the years my particular interest has shifted from topic to topic, region to region, but whatever my current obsession I've always been very keen on writing tasting notes. It's not the easiest habit to acquire, and the craft of writing good tasting notes isn't learned overnight. Indeed, after sixteen years I'm still trying to improve my tasting ability.
A good starting point for writing tasting notes is the Wine & Spirits Education Trust Systematic Approach to Tasting. It imposes a structure and vocabulary which is very helpful when one is just setting out on the tasting journey.
The Taste of Wine, by Émile Peynaud, whilst perhaps a little dated in places, remains the foundational text for tasters. It introduced me to many useful tasting exercises, and is beautifully written too.
Having read The Taste of Wine, it is useful to then read Classification and hierarchy in the discourse of wine: Émile Peynaud’s The Taste of Wine, by Nigel Bruce. This is an analysis of Peynaud's book from (I think) an anthropological point of view. Reading this probably won't make you a better taster, but it will certainly make you think more deeply about Peynaud.
Next, a couple of short pieces by Andrew Jefford, plus a slightly longer one from Bianca Bosker. These all address the perceived shortcomings in present day tasting notes, and suggest a few ways to improve your notes.
Lastly I must mention Gordon Shepherd's books Neurogastronomy and Neuroenology. Reading them has given me a much better understanding of the workings of the human sense of smell.
Some notes derived from The Taste of Wine, Emile Peynaud
All tasting can be classed as either:
- hedonic – purely for pleasure
- analytical – tasting done with some professional or commercial aim in mind
Peynaud divides analytical tasting into three types:
Descriptive tasting – studying, identifying, and listing all of one's sensory reactions to a drink, and explaining them as far as possible according to the raw materials and production methods of the drink. One important part of descriptive tasting is the use of a precise vocabulary, which is understood by other professional tasters.
Differentiation between & identification of samples – necessary for comparisons between eg different drink recipes, or when making a choice between two similar products. Often done 'blind', so as to minimise preconceptions. This type of analytical tasting often leads into:
Appraisal and quality ranking – assessing a product in terms of commercial quality, for example in choosing which of two rums to stock, or in tasting a range of one product type at a trade show
All analytical tasting is a form of comparison (even when only tasting one sample – in this case, one is comparing with memories of previous similar products), but none of the three types of analysis listed above includes personal preference. The key thing in becoming a good analytical taster is to set aside one's likes and dislikes, at least until after the analysis is done.
Tasting accurately is a skill which can only be acquired with regular practise, and all tasters will have good and bad tasting days. The following quote (about blind tasting) sums it up nicely
...all of us go through some periods that are better than others, during which we can be remarkably successful at blind tasting. I know of tasters who live by a reputation forged on two or three inspired guesses. I myself have experienced moments of glory when everything seemed obvious to me, and I have also drunk the cup of humility to the dregs when, unable to interpret any clue at all, I have ended up making enormous blunders. Blind tasting is one of the finest schools for teaching modesty