Notes on the WSET Diploma, Weeks 7 & 8: Three bottles of Burgundy

Posted By Chris Kaplonski on Dec 11, 2015

Apologies for not posting last week. I got caught up in the end of term admin, final lectures, and making sure my students were sorted before the break. As a result, I’m going to condense the last two weeks of the WSET Diploma into one post.

The last two weeks were mostly about starting Unit 3, and specifically, France. We’ve covered Alsace, Loire, Burgundy, Bordeaux, and Southwest France. That included a lot of tasting – 22 wines in Week 7 (including a few fortified ones in the morning) and almost as many in Week 8. What struck me most – besides getting to taste some outstanding wines – was the tasting notes themselves. I’m going to focus on that here, through three bottles of Burgundy we tasted in Week 7.

The idea of this part of the tasting was to look at how the different ‘levels’ of Burgundy differ. The first wine was a regular Burgundy, the second a Premier Cru, and the last, a Grand Cru. The last one was possibly the nicest wine I’ve ever tasted. (You’d sort of hope that for a Grand Cru Burgundy.)

What struck me, and not for the first time, was the inadequacy of the tasting notes. Before I expand on this, it is worth remarking that this is one of the first issues that got me thinking about wine as a serious research topic in the first place: the disconnect between how people encounter wine, and certain sorts of tasting notes. I’m still intrigued by the translation required between descriptive registers, and quite how this is accomplished. There can be at times a world of difference between a WSET SAT (Systematic Approach to Tasting) note and the sort you might see on a wine merchant’s shelf, or on-line. The gap isn’t quite unbridgeable, but it does seem at times rather large.

The three bottles of Burgundy make my point. The first we ranked as ‘very good,’ and the latter two as ‘outstanding’. But it was really only once one had to write justifications for the evaluation that much difference came in. There were some differences on the nose and palate, but structurally, all three wines sounded the same: dry, medium body, medium alcohol, medium-minus tannins, high acidity, and so forth. The differences showed up in thinking about how well-integrated and balanced components were, or the complexity of flavour.

This was the point of the exercise – to show how different wines that were structurally similar could be. But I also saw a different, and presumably unintended, outcome: how (almost) misleading and uninformative tasting notes can be. This isn’t a new debate. Blogs and writers regularly discuss tasting notes and if they have a point. See as just example, Jamie Goode’s ‘Tasting notes are really bad, aren’t they?’

I can also see the point of analytic tasting notes. If you are evaluating dozens of wines at a time for a supermarket chain, or even for a restaurant, it surely must help to have consistent, structured tasting notes that will allow you to slot wines into categories. And, of course, there’s nothing to stop you from expanding on the basic structure of the tasting note we are learning in the Diploma. Indeed, we are encouraged to do so, but ultimately, on the backbone of a core analytic process.

As an anthropologist, I’m fascinated by the gap I’ve mentioned – between the ‘medium-plus body, high acidity, low alcohol’ type analytical tasting notes and the more evocative descriptions elsewhere, and reactions we have when drinking wine. A useful exercise we’ve done is to try and identify a wine from just someone else’s tasting notes. It can be done, but it is often harder than people may think. One can bridge the gap, translate a peculiar language into one our senses would recognise.

And yet… and yet…. As a wine drinker and lover, I find the analytic tasting notes not so much intriguing as soulless. Writing them takes away some of the enjoyment of wine for me, and that’s disappointing. (I shall aim to rectify this over Christmas by drinking and enjoying, but not writing notes about some nice wines.)

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