How to Identify Wine Flavors and Describe your Palate Like a Pro
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How to Identify Wine Flavors and Describe your Palate Like a Pro

It was Robert Louis Stevenson who coined the phrase “wine is bottled poetry” and if you read some of the modern tasters’ wine notes, you’d be inclined to think you need an English Literature degree just to qualify writing your own.

In fact, one of the most alienating and intimidating aspects about any wine tasting can often be detecting the aromas and flavors of the wines and having to describe them in an accurate fashion thereafter.

Aside from the overly flowery language too often adopted by budding enthusiasts and professionals alike, it always begs the question, ‘how do they get to taste and smell such bizarrely sounding notes in the first place?’

Salami, cat’s pee, wet Labrador, or one of my favorites from a recent tasting; cello resin can bemuse the best of us and positively befuddle anyone who hasn’t had the pleasure, privilege or proximity to any of the above.

So, why do certain wines taste a particular way and how can we fathom this wine lingo and further develop our own notes?

Firstly, it is worth stating that there are several different factors that help decide what a specific wine will taste like once bottled. Once you have a basic understanding of these and pair it with a handy “cheat sheet” - in the form of an aroma wheel or your very own version- everything becomes a lot easier and your creative license can also come out to play.


Grape Variety + Region

Have you ever listened to a conversation where one person has declared positive hate for chardonnay but a long-lasting love for Chablis in the same sentence? Despite both wines being exactly the same grape, it is not an uncommon claim, and due in part to the changing characteristics of the grape according to where in the world it is planted.

A handy tip when identifying wine flavors, therefore, is to look at where the grapes are grown. To put it simply; cool climate vs warm climate can tell us a lot about the type of fruit or vegetal notes we should be smelling and tasting.

Cool climate vs warm climate can tell us a lot about the type of fruit or vegetal notes we should be smelling and tasting.

Cue the aroma wheel and take Chardonnay as an example. We know as a wine it is white and fruity, which immediately sends us towards a specific section of the wheel. Working out what those fruits may be, however, will depend a lot on the climate of the region.

Warm Climate

Warm climate wines (think Australian or Californian Chardonnay) will tend to have more tropical and exotic stone fruit aromas and qualities. On the aroma wheel we could opt for passion fruit, peach and perhaps pineapple as primary aromas. They will no doubt include some citrus elements too, and grapefruit, lemon or lime are available to choose from.

Cool Climate

A cool climate white on the other hand - let’s take Chablis - (Chardonnay, grown in Burgundy) would no doubt have more pome and citrus fruit, like green apple and lemons. Chablis, in turn, is also known for its limestone soils which add texture and minerality to its wines and on this we could also look at the corresponding part of the chart and opt for flint or wet stone flavors to our tasting note too.

 It is often helpful to think of the fruits and vegetables grown locally in the region as a way of narrowing down your nose and taste buds.

Vinification Technique

It is not just fruits that we can detect from wine though. In fact, wine aromas can come from three distinct parts of the winemaking process, and are labelled accordingly as; primary, secondary and tertiary.

How to Identify Wine Flavors and Describe your Palate Like a Pro

Primary Aromas

Primary aromas originate in the vineyard from the grape variety itself and belong (but are not limited to) the fruit and floral smells one can note. The Muscat family of grapes is a great example of this with its distinguishing “grapey” aroma. The aroma wheel includes these in the fruit and vegetal section of its circle.

Secondary Aromas

Secondary aromas are derived from the winemaking process, both fermentation and vinification. Smells that arise during fermentation and from the transformation of the grape.

Banana notes in Beaujolais grape Gamay, due to Carbonic Maceration, or notes of brioche on a white that has been left on its lees, as well as butter or hazelnut notes for wines that undergo malo-lactic fermentation are all classic examples.

Tertiary Aromas

Tertiary aromas are therefore those that come from the ageing of the wine, both in the barrel and bottle. Coconut, clove, dried fig, quince, mushroom, caramel, coffee and chocolate aromas can all be counted among these. On the aroma wheel they are helpfully divided into flavors from maturation in oak, and aged wine, providing a plethora of flavors and smells to contemplate for your notes.

If you know your wine has been aged (checking the vintage is a good indication) head to this part of the aroma wheel for some handy adjectives to aid in defining its flavor.

The classification of these tastes and aromas may intertwine, but it is certainly a good starting point to understanding the personality of your wine and the methods it may have undergone that will surely influence its ultimate taste.

Personal Experience Feel and Flavour

Thus far, we have touched on where the flavors of a wine might come from and where to look for them on the aroma wheel. This next section concerns the interpretation of those flavors and is where the creative license of any wine taster comes to the fore.

An attractive aspect of wine tasting is the knowledge that in terms of descriptors, (and so long as you have a basic understanding of your wine and its provenance) you can be pretty free to be as creative as you please.

Just as every person’s life experience is unique, so then will be their interpretation of the wine.

Every bottle of wine is curated to bring an experience to its drinker, and wine producers aim to generate an ethereal flavor journey for your nose and taste buds that you’ll want to make over and over again. Just as every person’s life experience is unique, so then will be their interpretation of the wine.

The aroma wheel is there to guide and find common aromatic themes, and if my New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc takes me back to lazy Saturdays on a cedar-lined beach, but the same bottle whisks you back to a white table-clothed fish restaurant in London, that is absolutely O.K.

The feeling the wine gives us and the memory it evokes may be different (and hence explain some of the more wild tasting notes), but the characteristics of citrus fruit, and fresh herbs, for example, should resonate with both.  

Occasion / Temperature / Food Pairing

What you choose to eat with your wine can also help or hinder your tasting notes and which sections of the aroma wheel you decide to focus on. Particularly when tasting (and more so as a beginner), making sure you have the right food with your bottle is pretty fundamental to the enjoyable outcome of your glass. Notorious “food wines” (red Bordeaux, a lot of Italian reds to name but a couple) are higher in acidity and need something with protein/fat content to cut through the acid and soften their taste. If not the flavors you experience will be cut short.

Smell, Taste, Repeat

The only way to get better at identifying flavors and improving your taste is by practice. Taste and smell as much as you can both in terms of wine, food, herbs, spices, flowers, woods and leathers. You may look strange smelling the objects around you, but couple it with as much sensible wine tasting as possible and your olfactory memory will improve leaps and bounds and your tasting notes will be as inspired as the best of them.


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