How to Taste the Flavors in Wine

Flavors of wine

It happens every time. No exception. In every wine tasting I have conducted there is always one or more participants who remark that they aren’t able the taste the flavors in a wine. I’ll say “This Albariño has lemon and grapefruit…” and someone will speak up to admit he doesn’t think he can taste what is supposed to be in the wine. And then there’s always the one who cracks, “I taste grapes.” Great.

Just like you don’t walk into your first grade math class and expect to be able to calculate derivatives of inverse trigonometric functions, you don’t start to identify the flavors in wine the first time you try. It takes time, and practice, to thoughtfully connect flavors you have experienced throughout your life with what is in your glass. 

One of the biggest myths in wine tasting is that a wine “is” something; that everyone should be tasting the exact same thing. That’s not true. What we taste in wine is based on reference points in our past, and each of us has a completely unique set of taste and smell landmarks. Heck, even the professional tasters don’t agree on exactly what a wine tastes like. Take this 2011 Marchesi Barolo for example. If you read the five different professional tasting notes, I’m not sure you would think they are all describing the same wine (click on the wine name to see the tasting notes). One says blueberry, one blackberry, one dark cherry, and all pull out different other flavor nuances beyond the primary fruit. Suffice to say, the tasting notes should give you a sense of the wine, not define the exact flavors you should be tasting. You may or may not taste the exact same things as anyone else.

So how do you figure out what it is you are tasting in a wine?

The best place to start is by identifying broad categories of flavor. Although it certainly isn’t perfect, I like the way that the Wine & Spirits Education Trust organizes its approach to tasting wine by broad categories of aromas / flavors for wines. You can use these broader categories to start to think about what flavors are in your glass and as you get comfortable with these broader strokes, start then to be mores specific in your references. In other words, start with just identifying “citrus fruit” if it is present in a white wine and as you get comfortable at that level then start thinking about whether that citrus is lemon, lime, or grapefruit.

Although the full wine tasting process for some can get quite complex, keeping it simple is best at the beginning, so start with these three basic steps.

  • Step one is to make sure you fully smell the wine before tasting it. We all know that our tongue only tastes the basics like sweet, sour, salt and bitter; the details in what we taste come from nose. So, be sure to warm up what you are gong to taste with a good inhale or two through the nose.
  • Step two is to take the wine in and fully coat your mouth. Some chew wine, some swirl in in their mouths, others swish back and forth, but the goal is to get the wine to coat all parts of your tongue and mouth so you hit all flavor receptors in addition to the areas that identify viscosity, acid, tannin and alcohol.
  • Step three is to stop and think about what you are tasting. For most who say they can’t taste the flavors in a wine, this is what is missing. So many of us drink but don’t take the time to stop and think about what is in our mouth or what lingers after swallowing. When you are thinking about what flavors are in the wine ask yourself where you might have tasted this before or what this taste reminds you of.

Below are some of the categories of flavors inspired by the WSET Level 3 approach to tasting wine that would be a really good starting points to try to identify the broader categories of flavors. As you read through the list think about the difference in taste characteristics for each broad category (citrus fruit vs tropical fruit) and how those might taste in wines you have had in the past. Again, the goal is first to just identify the broad categories (“I taste red fruit with spice”), not necessarily the details behind the categories or from where the flavors originated.

  • Florals: Primarily found in the smell, do you smell anything that reminds you of flowers, either fresh cut or, if the wine is older, potpourri?
  • Green fruit: Do you taste anything that reminds you of crisper green fruit like apples?
  • Citrus fruit: Do you detect the citrus feel that you recall from lemon, lime or grapefruit?
  • Stone fruit: Is there riper orchard type of fruit that you might experience with peaches, apricot or nectarines?
  • Tropical fruit: Does the flavor make you think of richer tropical fruits like mango, papaya or pineapple?
  • Red fruit: Are you tasting the kind fruit that would come from red fruits like cranberry, strawberry, or cherry?
  • Dark fruit: Does the wine taste more like richer dark fruits like blackberry, blueberry or dark plums?
  • Herbaceous: Are there notes of green bell pepper or grass or herbal characteristics like mint, thyme or dill?
  • Spice: Do you detect spices like black pepper, cloves, or nutmeg?
  • Yeast: Are you sensing a bready, doughy or biscuit taste in the wine?
  • Butter: Are you picking up a creamy, buttery characteristic?
  • Oak: Is there a woody characteristic in the wine like oak, cedar or smoke?
As you go through this process, remember there are no right or wrong answers, only what you smell, taste and perceive. With time and practice, you will be able to more freely and thoughtfully connect the flavors you have experienced throughout your life with what it is in your glass.

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