Wine 101 - Understanding Flavors And Aromas

One thing that can be the most intimidating about being around experienced wine drinkers is when they start talking about the flavors and aromas they are experiencing as they swirl, sniff, and drink their wine. When I first started really getting into wine and going to more and more tastings these were the guys I’d try to steer clear of. I was just starting to understand what it meant for the wine to be "oaky" and they were talking about the spice in the nose and the leather and tobacco in the finish. When they’d look at me and ask, are you getting the green pepper, I’d just smile and nod and then look at my friend and roll my eyes. We’ve all be there. But as time goes on and you start tasting lots of different types of wine (and there really is no better way to learn than to do lots of side by side tastings) you will start to pick up more of these flavors and they will help you to begin to identify the style, age, and region of the different types of wine. In my first 101 article – "Quick Terms to Increase Your Tasting Enjoyment" I discuss the meanings of words such as sweetness, acidity, structure, body, alcohol, and fruitiness. Please feel free to refer back to "Quick Terms" if you need a refresher.

Beginning tasters often feel that they "cannot smell anything" or can't think of a way to describe the aroma of wine. I know this was certainly a problem for me for quiet some time. Fortunately, it is very easy to train our noses and brains to connect and quickly link terms with aromas. The fastest way is to make physical standards to illustrate important and major notes in wine aroma. Here are some quick basics for matching flavors/aromas to different varietals:

Syrah or Shiraz - Aromas and flavors of wild black-fruit (such as blackcurrant), with overtones of black pepper spice and roasting meat. The abundance of fruit sensations is often complemented by warm alcohol and gripping tannins. Toffee notes if present come not from the fruit but from the wine having rested in oak barrels. Hearty and spicy are terms you will often hear associated with Syrah.

Merlot – Often considered an introductory wine for beginners because of it’s softer tannins. You know how strong or soft tannins are by the dry, bitter feeling you get on the sides of your tongue. It is sort of like the feeling you get when you drink strong tea. Black cherry and herbal flavors are typical.

Cabernet – Rich currant qualities of Cabernet Sauvignon wine can change to that of pencil box. Bell pepper is also a flavor you will often hear associated with Cabernet. Vanilla notes if present come not from the fruit but from the oak treatment.

Pinot Noir - Very unlike Cabernet Sauvignon. The structure is delicate and fresh. The tannins are very soft; this is related to the low level of polyphenols (tannins from the grape skins). The aromatics are very fruity (cherry, strawberry, plum), often with notes of tea-leaf, damp earth, or worn leather.

Zinfandel - Often has a zesty flavor with berry and pepper.

Chardonnay - Often wider-bodied (and more velvety) than other types of dry whites, with rich citrus (lemon, grapefruit) flavors. Fermenting in new oak barrels adds a buttery tone (vanilla, toast, coconut, toffee). Tasting a USD Californian Chardonnay should give citrus fruit flavors, hints of melon, vanilla, some toasty character and some creaminess. French Burgundies can taste very different, however we will not go into that quiet yet.

Riesling - Riesling wines are much lighter than Chardonnay wines. The aromas generally include fresh apples. The Riesling variety expresses itself very differently depending on the district and the winemaking. Rieslings should taste fresh. If they do, then they might also prove tastier and tastier as they age. An aroma often associated with Riesling is Petrol. You will also hear green apple, apricot, peach, and pear a lot.

Sauvignon Blanc – Also lighter than Chardonnay - Sauvignon Blanc normally shows a herbal character suggesting bell pepper or freshly mown grass. The dominating flavors range from sour green fruits of apple, pear and gooseberry through to tropical fruits of melon, mango and blackcurrant. Quality unoaked Sauvignon Blancs will display smoky qualities; they require bright aromas and a strong acid finish; they are best grown in cool climates.

Try this quick tip, if you who can’t get out and do lots of tastings. Train your senses by putting tiny samples of green pepper, apple, lemon, melon, toast, raspberry in baby food or other small jars. Label the bottoms of the jars with the different wines the aromas are associated with. Try to play the matching game and make associations between the different wines and the smells that tend to go with them. Soon you will start to associate these different aromas and flavors with the different styles of wine you will begin to feel more confident throwing them out in wine discussions and comparing notes with friends. Also know that wine tasting can be a tricky subject and that flavors and aromas are subjective. What one person thinks smells like raspberry, another may say smells like bell pepper. You will rarely be wrong with your association. Have fun with it! I can’t think of a better topic to practice, so start training now and pour yourself a glass. CHEERS!

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About The Author, Jennifer De Jong
Jennifer de Jong is a long time wine drinker, enjoyer of wine, and non-wine-snob. She is the founder of a snob free zone for learning all aspects of wine culture. From how to pronounce difficult wine names to free wine reviews and ratings. We provide free wine tutorials to help the every man and women learn more about every aspect of wine.