Wine Flavors Explained: Learn How to Identify Them

Picture the scene. You’re at a restaurant and the Maitre D’ shimmies over. He asks you to choose the wine. Of course, you agree – you’re not one to turn down a challenge. But, as you scan the list of Sauvignons and Syrahs, a panic suddenly grips you – should you choose a citrus or floral-based white? A blue-berried red? Something with tobacco overtones? And actually, what is the difference?

It might be one thing to know your Burgundy and Bordeaux, but when it comes to wine flavors you need to walk the talk. You need to know that there are primary, secondary and tertiary flavors, red wine flavors, white wine flavors and that a Californian Pinot Noir does not necessarily have the same flavor as a New Zealand one. Basically, if you don’t want to look very silly in front of that hovering Maitre D’, you need to read our wine flavors guide.

Wine Flavours: What Are They Actually?

Ok, so when critics such as James Suckling and Robert Parker talk about wines having “liquorice roots or green apple top notes” what does that mean? How can Pinot Noir taste like mushrooms, or Chardonnay be considered as “buttery”? 

Basically, while many factors are at play, it all really comes down to one thing: stereoisomers. If you can’t remember your school chemistry lessons, let us enlighten you: stereoisomers are different configurations of the same chemical compound. As the wine ferments, chemical compounds shared by other ingredients begin to show. Ergo, the fermenting grapes might share the same chemical balance as leather (such as in Tempranillo) or honey or ginger (found in Riesling). These aromas are part of the structure of the wine. Wine contains hundreds of these different chemical amalgames, which are known to scientists as esters – naturally occurring organic acids, pyrazines – green pepper flavor, terpenes – which account for the floral and fragrant tones, thiols – fruity and earthy flavors and lactones, which is also found naturally in apples, oranges, grapefruits and clementine peel. Recognizing them will give you the answer to how to taste wine like a pro.

Whether the wine has fermented in oak or stainless steel will as well have a huge effect on its taste. Oak adds flavors like spice, caramel, vanilla, toast or cedar. New oak vs. old oak is also a factor: pre-used barrels add body and the oak taste so revered in Cabernet Sauvignon and Pinot Noir. New oak changes the tannin structure of red wines, ultimately making it stronger and more complex. Stainless steel vats have their worth too: fermenting in metal ensures that the wine held within is kept tasting fresh and provides a more “fruit forward” flavor, while also offering better control of the product, allowing oenologists to make changes if needed.  Finally, there are the conditions of that all important terroir to consider; it is gravelly, how is the irrigation, have pesticides been used? Again, many factors are at play to make up your favorite bottle of vino. 

One thing is certain however, wine flavours are not absorbed through the soil, so even if there is a green apple orchard right next door, this will not affect the taste. The only taste that can be absorbed through the grape skin is smoke (known as a “smoke taint” in the industry), and that is not a good thing. Keep away. 

Interested? Then let’s dig a little deeper.

Fruit, Flower, Herbal and Spicy Wine Flavors

When thinking of wine taste descriptions, sommeliers often refer to the flavor as the “bouquet”. Bouquets make us think of flowers, so this is a relatively easy one – think of  lavender, violet, rose, geranium, lily and and you’ll more or less have covered all the bases of white wine and rosés. Specifically sweet white wines such as Muscat and Riesling can also have hints of cherry blossom. On the dark side, Classic Nebbiolo has notes of a rose and ripe berry, while Cabernet Sauvignon will tickle your tastebuds with its floral and fruity, rich cassis and blackberry flavors. Some Pinot Noirs – traditionally not a floral wine (see below) – can have the smell of a rose garden hovering above its minerality. 

Finding herb flavors can be more delicate and it is said that even seasoned sommeliers go to garden centers to train their palette for this. Look for one or more of the three main flavors: vegetative, spicy, and oaked. 

Vegative flavors can be found in Cabernet Franc (think butternut squash), while Syrah, Malbec, and Zinfandel err on the side of spices such as clove and thyme. Cabernet Sauvignon famously has baking spices associated with it including cinnamon and star anise (in addition to the fruity flavor). The only herbal oak taste is dill, found primarily in Rioja, but vinification in oak barrels means that this taste is not uncommon across the board. 

Earthy Flavors

Think of that forest floor taste that you get when eating beetroot and you’ve more or less got how to identify the earthy flavor that is found in many red wines. Old world red wine regions such as Burgundy have a higher propensity for this taste as they don’t get as much sunlight thus the grapes don’t accumulate as much sugar. This is why a French Pinot Noir can taste so very different from a Californian one. Other grapes to consider when looking for this particular red wine flavor are Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Merlot, Nebbiolo, Sangiovese, Tempranillo and Mencía. Syrah too is known for its earthy undertones, but has a more complex breakdown with plum, cocoa and erm … bacon fat (yes, really), all being part of its makeup. 

Now that you know all this, it’s time to understand the typical flavours of the different types of wine.

White Wine Flavors

Think of a chilled white wine and sunny days spring to mind. White wines are for entertaining – picnics and parties, beaches and barbeques. It’s no surprise that the world’s greatest celebration wine – Champagne – is white. White wines are all about fun and frivolity, although that is not to say that there are not some excellent investment worthy heavyweights out there (Château d’Yquem, we are looking at you). 

Tree Fruits White Wine Flavors

If you think tree flavours means leaves and bark, then think again. Wine taste descriptions are very specific, so when critics say tree flavors in white wine, they actually mean tree fruit flavors. You’ll find two main flavors in white wines: tree fruits and citrus fruits.

Tree fruit tastes are broken down into the following: Apricot – found in Viognier, peach – favoured by Eastern European wines and also common in Riesling, pear – found in Italian whites, particularly those from the Piedmont. Pineapple is also common in white fermented wines, such as Chardonnay. 

Citrus Fruits White Wine Flavors

Citrus fruits taste include lemon – think of acidified whites such as Pinot Grigio, lime – Sauvignon Blanc and Australian Riesling, and orange which you would find in sweet italian wines as well as fortified whites such as white Marsala. Sauvignon Blanc is also well known for its grapefruit pith taste. The younger the wine, the more lemony it quill taste, as whites age they will veer towards pineapple.

If you want more on this subject, an excellent white wine flavors chart can be viewed here.

Red Wine Flavours

Red wine flavors are dominated by their tannin. This magic polyphenol is the key to age worthy wine, and is responsible for turning an astringent, young teenager into a smooth, mellow adult. Tannins give structure and complexity to red wines, rather like the framework of a building or the skeletons in our bodies. Having said that, red wines fall into two taste categories: red fruits and berries and blue fruits and berries.

Red Fruits & Berries Red Wine Flavors

These wines tend to be soft and supple in taste. Think of fruits and berries with bright red skin and you’ll get the idea: red plums, cherries, strawberries, cranberries, raspberries, red currants, even dragon fruit and goji berries in some cases. Wines that favor these tastes are: Pinot Noir (in young Pinots you’ll notice a strong raspberry flavor, which mellows as it gets older), Grenache (Beaujolais), Merlot, Nebbiolo and Sangiovese. Red Rioja is known for its strawberry undertones.

Blue Fruits & Berries Red Wine Flavors

Blue fruits and berries are common markers for red wine flavors, and basically wines that fall into this category can be boiled down to two dominant flavors: blackberry and black currant. Black plum, black cherry, prune, fig, and even jam all satellite around these leading tastes, but the blackberry / blackcurrant character is the one that sommeliers and critics look for. Wines made from Cabernet Sauvignon, Malbec, Tempranillo and Syrah (known as Shiraz in the New World) will all lean towards a blue fruit flavor.

Now that you are familiar with wine flavors you can continue educating yourself on wine with our full dictionary on wine tasting

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