Identifying Wine Flavors and Where they Come From
Back in the day, when I was working in tasting rooms, our consulting winemaker would write all the tasting notes for our wines. And he was a pretty funny and very descriptive writer. We had one wine, a Pinot Noir out of Russian River Valley that had the tasting note "gun powder". And let me tell you, absolutely everyone who read that tasting note laughed, looked at me, and then their smile kind of faded slightly and they asked "well...that's not really in there right?"
And look, I've found that one of the things people find most intimidating about wine is the tasting notes. That feeling that everyone else around you is speaking a language that you don't know, or that you're gonna look silly saying that you taste grapes while your friend is rattling off fruits you've never even heard of. Plus, its confusing to understand where those notes of strawberry, or tobacco, or vanilla are even coming from because you're pretty sure wine is only made from grapes...right?
So no, there isn't actually any chocolate or strawberry in your wine. They don't roast meats over the barrel to get that gamey flavor and if you're allergic to nuts, you're not at risk if there are almonds in the tasting notes. We'll break down where some of these flavors come from and a few tips and tricks so you can feel more confident about picking them out yourself.
Where do the flavors in wine come from?
Wine is made from grapes, nothing else. So in essence, it's very simple. But it goes through a few different chemical processes that help to produce the specific flavors that we pick out in wine. This can get a little complicated and involves a lot of different chemical compounds, that honestly you don't need to know about to understand the flavors in wine. To keep it simple we are going to break it down into three different categories: primary flavors, secondary flavors and tertiary flavors.
Primary Flavors in Wine
The primary flavors in wine come from the grape itself. These tend to the be most easily recognizable flavors because they are fruit, flower, and herb flavors. In general, fruit flavors in red wine are red fruit and black fruit flavors while white wines have flavors of tree fruits and citrus fruits.
Which of these flavors appear in the wine is dependent on a lot of different factors from the grape variety to terroir to when the grapes were harvested and how ripe they were at the time.
All of these flavors, the notes of blackberry or honeysuckle or thyme come from aroma compounds that are naturally occurring in the grapes. These aroma compounds maybe similar or even the same as the aroma compounds in those actual foods that create the tastes and smells that we're familiar with.
Secondary Flavors in Wine
Secondary flavors in wine are the tasting notes like cream, bread, mushroom, or butter. These flavors come out as a result of the fermentation and winemaking process. Things like primary fermentation, malolactic fermentation, and carbonic fermentation are all choices that winemaker can make that will affect the flavors of the wine.
The process of fermentation is yeast converting the natural grape sugars in the wine into alcohol and CO2. However, winemakers can opt to use native yeasts, the yeasts that are naturally occurring in the vineyard, the winery, just in the air ( think natural wines). Or they can use commercial yeasts. And different strains of commercial yeasts are made to bring out certain flavors in the wine.
Malolactic fermentation is a secondary fermentation that pretty much all red wines and many white wines go though. Essentially it converts the natural malic acid in wine (think green apple) into lactic acid (think cream). Actually, think butter. This is the process that turns gives Chardonnay that buttery texture. In fact, the compound diacetyl is a byproduct of this fermentation process and diacetyl is what they use to give margarin that "I can't believe it's not butter flavor."
Tertiary Flavors in Wine
And finally, tertiary flavors in wine come from the aging process. This means both barrel aging and bottle aging. Interestingly, as some of these tertiary flavors develop the primary flavors fade.
Let's start with the barrel. Oak aging in particular adds a lot of flavor to the wine, depending on the type of the wood used to make the barrel and the level of toast (how charred the inside of the barrel is) this can add flavors of vanilla, cinnamon, clove, toast, caramel and smoke.
And then there is the wines aging, in both bulk aging (i.e. barrel, tanks, clay amphora) and in bottle. As wines age overtime their flavors mature, this is where you get flavors like tobacco, nuttiness, dried fruits, licorice and leather.
How do I pick out Tasting Notes in Wine?
Well, now you know where the flavors come from, but how exactly do you pick them out of the wines you're tasting now? How do you go from thinking it tastes a whole lot like, well wine, to being that (slightly pretentious) person who is rattling off tasting notes with confidence? We have a few tips and tricks for you.
First things first, don't worry too much about getting the tasting notes "right". Wine is subjective. It's not math and there is no right answer. Those slightly pretentious people rattling off the tasting notes, they're not getting it "right", they're just being confident and taking a stab at.
You should also know that our brains can have multiple responses to the same aroma compound. The aroma compound that produces the lychee note in Gewurztraminer can also smell like roses, it just depends on the person or even the situation in which you are tasting the wine. You can also get different flavors and aromas depending on the intensity of the aroma compounds. For example your sauvignon blanc might smell pleasantly herbal if there's only a low level of a certain compound present. But if there is a lot, it smells like cat pee. All of which is to say, there is no one "right" answer.
And secondly, the only way to become a better, more confident taster is to practice. Try different styles and varieties of wine, learn what the standard tasting notes in wine are and see if you can notice them. Try that weird looking fruit you've seen at the store. Yep, that means your homework is here is to taste more wine.
Moral of the story is don't let those funny, descriptive winemakers get you down. If you get different tasting notes than what other people around you are tasting or what is written on the paper, it does not mean you've somehow gotten the wine wrong. It simply means that you have a different perception of the wine. Your brain is interpreting different aroma compounds ways very specific to you and you're using your own language to describe what you are sensing, which is inherently subjective. And let me tell you, some of those notes people come up with are pretty wild. I never even told those slightly amused tasting room customers that we already had to edit out some of his tasting notes that described one of the wines as having a poopy diaper quality. And weirdly, he meant it in a good way.
If you're looking for more wine tasting tips you can check out our mini course all about how build your confidence and taste like a pro!