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What Are Tasting Notes and What Do They Mean?
Part of the reason wine might seem unapproachable to some people is the vocabulary used in many critical reviews can be flat-out silly. What does it mean to have a "tight" wine? How am I supposed to know if this Cabernet is "reduced" or not? And who are you calling "fleshy"?
But let's first take a step back and discuss "tasting notes" in general, and then move forward from there. As a baseline, a tasting note from a review or publication is designed to provide insights on what characteristics a wine has from a professional. Pretty straightforward, right? Well, it's not that simple... of course. One man's trash is another man's treasure, as the adage goes, so opinions might vary vastly on the quality of any particular wine depending on who is doing the reviewing. So who should you decide to follow and base your buying decision on? Well, there's really only one way to find that out and that's to taste wines, and compare your own thoughts with what any particular reviewer might have written. Chances are after comparing your notes of a few different wines with those of established critics, you'll be able to decipher who your tastes line up most with - and you can even pick ones for certain regions/styles! You might like Jeb Dunnuck for Napa but not for Rhone, or Antonio Galloni for Italy but not for Napa... the world is your oyster, kid, do it however you want!
And here's an even bigger noodle-buster: critical acclaim does not make a wine "better". Let's say that again: CRITICAL. ACCLAIM. DOES. NOT. MAKE. A. WINE. "BETTER". This is an indisputable fact. There may be wines that are made in a more technically proficient way and that "fits the molds" more, but the fact is this: whatever you like is the "better" wine, regardless of whether it scored 110 Points from Luca Gardini (how?) or 35 Points from Keith the neighborhood "wine dude" who always offers his unsolicited opinions. What you like is OK, whatever it is and don't let anyone tell you otherwise.
Now, back to the vocabulary lesson. Over time wine writers and wine nerds have adapted a vernacular specific to the industry, and many terms seem confusing to those not in the know. So, if you ever come across a word or phrase you don't understand, look it up, or ask whoever is using the term directly (then look it up afterwards and be sure they're using it properly!), "when you say this seems 'focused' what do you mean by that?" There should be no hesitation in their answer: "I mean that this wine's characteristics are very, very apparent and not hidden or muddled at all. You can really tell the nose on this wine is verbena, a little petrol and wet stone, and the palate is white peach, lemon zest with great acidity and minerality.
So the takeaway here is this: 1). Wine tasting notes and terms are quasi-fancy, but they really should not be intimidating... it's basically shorthand for insiders to communicate to one another; and 2). You should never be afraid to ask or research a term - the wine community should be happy to share their insights and knowledge (as long as you're not stealing their allocations); and 3). Despite what any critic (or neighbor) might say about any wine - or whichever words and terms they might use to describe that wine - CRITICAL. ACCLAIM. DOES. NOT. MAKE. A. WINE. "BETTER".