How to Describe and Rate Wines

By Ed McCarthy, Mary Ewing-Mulligan

When we first got excited about wine, we tried to share our enthusiasm with a friend who appeared to have some interest in the subject (well, he drank a glass now and then). Each time we served a wine, we’d talk about it in great detail. But he wasn’t interested. “I don’t want to talk about wine — I just want to drink it!” he proclaimed.

On the fundamental level where wine is just a generic beverage, it’s certainly possible to drink wine without talking about it. But if you’re the kind of person who likes to talk about food, or if you’ve been bitten by the wine bug, you know that it’s difficult (if not impossible) to enjoy wine without talking about it at least a little. Wine is a social pleasure that’s enhanced by sharing your opinions with others.

Ironically, the experience of a wine is highly personal. If you and three other people taste the same wine at the same time, each of you will have your own impression of that wine based on personal likes and dislikes, physiology, and experience. Maybe some day, if humans learn how to link their minds through Bluetooth, someone else will be able to experience your experience of a wine — but until then, your taste is singular. The only way you can share your impressions with others is through conversation.

The Challenge of Putting Taste to Words

Language is our main vehicle for communicating our entire experience of life. Our vocabulary of taste is undeveloped, however. When we were young, we were taught a visual vocabulary: what green is, and what yellow, gold, and orange are — and for that matter, what pine green is, or jungle green, olive green, forest green, and sea green (thanks, Crayola!). But no one ever taught us the precise difference in the words bitter, astringent, and tart. Yet to talk about wine taste, we use these words as if we all agree on what they mean. That’s one reason wine descriptions can sound like mumbo jumbo.

Another reason wine descriptions are challenging is that a wine’s taste is complicated. Wine is a complex beverage that gives us multiple taste sensations:

  • Aromatic sensations (all those flavors we perceive by smelling them in our mouths)
  • Basic taste sensations (sweetness, sourness, and bitterness)
  • Tactile sensations (the bite of astringency, for example, as well as the prickliness, roughness, smoothness, richness, or other textural impressions of a wine in our mouths)
  • Sensations on the holistic level, a synthesis of all the wine’s characteristics taken together

For example, say we just tasted an oaked Sauvignon Blanc from California. We may perceive the wine as intense in herbaceous and fruity, melonlike flavors with some smokiness (aromatic impressions), very slightly sweet, yet with firm acidity (basic taste impressions), smooth and rich (tactile impressions), a vibrant wine with personality to spare (holistic impression). That description risks sounding like some insufferable wine snob showing off, when it’s actually just a wine lover trying his best to report the taste data the wine is sending him.

You’ve probably gotten many a laugh from wine descriptions you’ve read. At face value, they sound preposterous: Unctuous, with butter and vanilla flavors that coat the sides of your mouth. Supple and smooth, showing some fatness in the mouth, and a long finish. (Wait! They forgot to say wet and “liquidy.”) Imperfect medium that language is, however, it’s the only way we have of communicating the taste of wine.

Reading wine descriptions (or tasting notes, as they’re often called) in wine newsletters or magazines can be as difficult as writing them. We must admit that our eyes often glaze over when we try to read tasting notes. And we’re not alone. The late Frank Prial, long-time wine columnist of The New York Times, once wrote that “a stranger’s tasting notes, to me anyway, are about as meaningful as a Beijing bus schedule.”

When It’s Your Turn to Speak

Describing your experience or impression of a wine involves two steps: First, you have to form the impression; second, you have to communicate it.

When you drink wine with friends purely for enjoyment and appreciation — over dinner, for example — simple impressions and silly comments are perfectly appropriate. If a wine strikes you as exotic, full and voluptuous, why not say that it’s like Kim Kardashian? If a wine seems tight and unyielding, go ahead and call it Ebenezer Scrooge. Everyone will know exactly what you mean.

In other circumstances, though, such as when you’re attending a wine-tasting event, you probably want to form more considered impressions of each wine in order to participate in the discussion and gain the most from the event. To form a considered impression, you need to taste thoughtfully. The guidelines in the following sections will help.

Organizing your thoughts

The language you use to describe a wine starts with your own thoughts as you taste the wine. Thus, the process of tasting a wine and the process of describing it are intertwined.

Although wine tasting involves examining wine visually and smelling it as well as tasting it, those first two steps are a breeze compared to the third. When the wine is in your mouth, the multiple taste sensations — flavors, texture, body, sweetness or dryness, acidity, tannin, balance, length — occur practically all at once. In order to make sense of the information you receive from the wine, you have to impose some order on those impressions.

One way of organizing the impressions a wine sends you is to classify those impressions according to the nature of the “taste”:

  • The wine’s aromatics (all the flavors you smell in your mouth)
  • The wine’s structure (its alcohol/sweetness/acid/tannin makeup, that is, its basic tastes — the wine’s bricks and mortar, so to speak)
  • The wine’s texture (the tactile data, how the wine feels in your mouth; texture is a function of the wine’s structural components — a high acid, dry, low-alcohol white wine may feel thin or sharp, for example, whereas a high-alcohol red wine with moderate tannin may feel soft and silky)

Another way of organizing the impressions a wine sends you is by the sequence of your impressions. The words that tasters use to describe the sequence are

  • Attack: The first impression of the wine, which may involve sweetness, dryness, richness or thinness of texture, or even fruitiness (although most of the wine’s flavors register a few moments later).
  • Evolution: The development of the wine in your mouth. You can think of this stage in two parts:
    • The mid-palate impression, a phase when you tend to notice the wine’s acidity, perhaps get a first impression of its tannin (in red wines), and notice its flavors and their intensity
    • The rear-palate impression, which involves persistence that the wine’s flavors have (or don’t have) across the length of your mouth, the amount and nature of the wine’s tannins, and any indication of a burning sensation from overly high alcohol
  • Finish or aftertaste: Flavors or impressions that register after the wine has been spat or swallowed. Both the duration of the aftertaste and its nature are noteworthy. (A long finish is commendable, for example, and a bitter one is not.) A suggestion of concentrated fruit character on the finish often can indicate that a wine is age-worthy.

Describing a wine

Some people have a special ability to remember tastes. But other people need to take notes in order to remember what wine they tasted, and what they thought of it.

If you have the slightest difficulty remembering wine names, jot down the names of wines you try and like, or take a picture of the label; doing so will enable you to find and enjoy those wines — or similar wines — again. It’s a good idea to write comments about the wines, too. Even if you’re one of those lucky few who can remember everything you taste, we recommend that you write tasting notes now and then because the exercise of taking notes helps discipline your tasting methods.

When we take notes on wines, we automatically write the letters

  • C (for color and appearance in general)
  • N (for nose)
  • T (for taste, or mouth impressions)

We put one below the other, under the name of each wine on our tasting sheet, leaving space to record our impressions.

When we taste, we take each wine as it comes: If a wine is very aromatic, we write lots of things next to N, but if the aroma is understated, we can just write subtle or even not much. When the wine is in our mouths, we approach it sequentially, noting its attack and evolution; we hold the wine long enough to note its balance and texture, too. Then (having spat), we sometimes taste the wine again to determine what else it may be saying. At that point, we could arrive at a summary description of the wine, like a huge wine packed with fruitiness that’s ready to drink now, or a lean, austere wine that will taste better with food than alone. Our tasting notes are a combination of fragmented observation — high acid, very crisp — and summary description.

At first, your own notes will be brief. Just a few comments, like soft fruity or tannic austere are fine to remind you later what the wine was like. And as an evaluation of overall quality, there’s absolutely nothing wrong with yummy!

Just keep in mind that the taste of a wine is more than just aromas and flavors. Instead of searching for ever more fruit or flower descriptors, move on to consider the dryness or sweetness, the body, or the texture. Tese characteristics are more important in pairing wine with food than the wine’s actual flavors are.

Sometimes, if a wine is really a great wine, tasters stumble into the most controversial realm of wine description: poetry. We never try to come up with picturesque metaphorical descriptions for wines, but sometimes a wine just puts the words in our mouths. One memorable wine in our early days of tasting was a 1970 Brunello di Montalcino that we described as a rainbow in the mouth, its flavors so perfectly blended that each one was barely perceptible individually. A friend of ours described a glass of great but too-young Vintage Port as “like rubbing a cat in the wrong direction.”

If a wine inspires you to such fanciful description, by all means go with it. The experience of that wine will become memorable through the personal words you use to name it. When you do lapse into metaphor over a wine, though, don’t expect others to necessarily understand what you mean.

Beware of anyone who is moved to poetry over every wine, however. The vast majority of wines are prosaic, and their descriptions should be, too.

In the end, the experience of wine is so personal that the best any of us can do is to try to describe the experience to others. Your descriptions will be meaningful to people who share your approach and your language, especially if they’re tasting the wine along with you. But someone else picking up your notes could find them incomprehensible. Likewise, you’ll find some wine descriptions you read incomprehensible. Such is the nature of the exercise.

Rating Wine Quality

When a wine critic writes a tasting note, he usually accompanies it with a point score, which is a judgment of the wine’s quality on a scale of 20 or 100. You see these numbers plastered all over the shelves in your wine shop, in wine advertisements, and in wine blogs.

Because words are such a difficult medium for describing wine, the popularity of number ratings is almost universal. Many wine lovers don’t bother to read the descriptions in a critic’s wine reviews — they just run out to buy the wines with the highest scores. (Hey, they’re the best wines, right?) Wines that receive high scores from the best-known critics sell out almost overnight as the result of the demand generated by their scores.

Numbers do provide convenient shorthand for communicating a critic’s opinion of a wine’s quality. But number ratings are problematic, for several of reasons:

  • The sheer precision of a score suggests that the score is objective, when in fact it represents either the subjective opinion of an individual critic or the combined subjective opinions of a panel of critics.
  • Different critics can apply the same scale differently. For example, some may assign 95 points only to wines that are truly great compared to all wines of all types, while others could assign the same score to a wine that’s great among wines of its own type.
  • The score probably reflects an evaluation of a wine under different circumstances than those in which you’ll taste it. Most critics rate wines by tasting them without food, for example, while most wine drinkers drink wine with food. Also, the wine glass the critic uses can be different from what you use, and even this detail can seriously affect the way the wine presents itself.
  • Number scores tell you absolutely nothing about how the wine tastes.

This last point, for us, is the most important. You may hate a wine that’s rated highly — and not only that, but you may end up feeling like a hopeless fool who can’t recognize quality when it’s staring him in the face. Save your money and your pride by deciding what kinds of wine you like and then trying to figure out from the words whether a particular wine is your style — regardless of the number rating.

Despite the pitfalls of number ratings, you might be inclined to score wines yourself — and we encourage you to do that. Numbers can be meaningful to the person assigning them. Here are some basic steps to follow:

1. To start, decide which scale you’ll use.

We suggest a scale with 100 as the highest score, because it’s more intuitive than a scale ending at 20, which some British writers use. (Most 100-point scales are actually only 50-point scales, with 50 points, not 0, representing the poorest conceivable quality. And in practice, they are 20-point scales, because few wines score below 80.)

2. After deciding your scale, create several groupings of points, and write down the quality level that each group represents.

It can be something like this:

  • 95–100: Absolutely outstanding; one of the finest wines ever
  • 90–94: Exceptional quality; excellent wine
  • 85–89: Very good quality
  • 80–84: Above-average quality; good
  • 75–79: Average commercial quality (a “C” student)
  • 70–74: Below average quality
  • Below 70: Poor quality

Then assign a number to a wine after you have tasted it thoughtfully. At first, you could give each wine a range rather than a precise score, such as 80 to 84 (good) or 85 to 89 (very good). As you gain experience in tasting wine and rating wine quality, you become more opinionated and your scores will naturally become more precise.

Just remember that like every other critic, you have your own taste preferences that inevitably influence your scores, no matter how objective you try to be. Don’t fall into the trap of thinking that all your wine friends should agree with you.