In pursuit of translating wine’s enigmatic characteristics into relatable tasting notes, the Master of Wine Sarah Heller has found a new way—through the language of art

Despite their importance to my industry, wine tasting notes have always struck me as a little odd. Ranging in style from the terse English note (“average at best,” “very fine wine, a very fine wine indeed”) to the maximalist American (paragraphs of description after improbably specific description) to the idiosyncratic (heavily reliant on simile, metaphor, and pop culture references), notes often leave me unconvinced that language is necessarily our best tool for telling people what an unfamiliar wine is actually like.

Furthermore, in our increasingly decentralised world, we can no longer rely on shared cultural touchstones (“what on earth,” I have been asked all too frequently, “is a plum pudding?”). My project, which I’ve called Visual Tasting Notes, was at first just an attempt to reconcile this issue. As I tell all wine students, learning to write about wine is difficult because scents naturally trigger memories—smell and memory being neighbours in our brains’ primitive limbic system—but language resides further out in the esoteric frontal cortex. If we could impressionistically capture the raw neural flutterings triggered when we smell, say, the heady musk of our grandmother’s perfume or the dewy lushness of our childhood garden, maybe we’d have a better shot at communicating.

Having completed a degree in painting, I’ve always been inclined to think visually. The concept of depicting wine is hardly new, but much of what I’d seen—illustrations of wine flavours or photographs of fruit clumps stuffed into wineglasses or strewn around bottles—always struck me as simply visual translations of verbal notes. They seemed too literal, as if the experience of a wine could be recreated by tipping a glassful of fruit and nuts into a blender.

To my mind, shape is a concatenation of the acid and tannin structure, the body and the aromatic intensity as they’re experienced in time, going from top to bottom

My starting point for every note is an outline that defines the wine’s basic “shape.” To my mind, shape is a concatenation of the acid and tannin structure, the body and the aromatic intensity as they’re experienced in time, going from top to bottom. Beyond that, each image is as expansive or minimalist, subtle or flamboyant as the wine demands. Collage, which mimicks the brain’s tendency to collect sensory fragments and a favourite of mine from my art student days, feels like the perfect medium. Digital collage is even better because it turns the entire world into a resource. If I need a particular shape I haven’t been able to hunt down in the wild, I can paint, draw or sculpt it, then photograph it.

The project so far has been an exciting trip back into the world of art and a thrilling merging of my earlier life with my current one. The response has been fascinating, with Chinese collectors and curators especially intrigued by something they see as a very natural combination. Interestingly, the second most interested group has been Australians, who’ve applauded the embrace of individual experience over technical analysis. Hopefully, as we show them in more and more venues, the cumulative feedback will help build something that truly resonates.

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