Get to grips with the some of the more obscure tasting notes used by wine experts, with graphics from the Decanter design team. This week we decode 'grass' and 'raisin'...
How to understand tasting notes:
It might seem natural enough to find flavours of raisin in your wine, given that they’re really just dried out grapes. Indeed some wines are made from desiccated grapes, like Amarone wines from Valpolicella (where grapes are dried for 100 days or more), or sweet wines such as passito or vin santo styles. In these examples grapes are simply air dried by being laid out on racks in well-ventilated spaces, or hung from the rafters.
The taste of raisins is defined by the concentration of fruit flavours and sugars left over after most of the water is removed. This explains why styles made by lowering the water content of grapes prior to pressing can later express raisiny notes in the glass. Sweet wines made using the onset of botrytis cinerea (aka noble rot) are part of this category too, as the fungus pierces the skins of the berries, lowering water content whilst retaining sugar levels. This includes wines like Sauternes from Bordeaux and Tokaji from Hungary.
Some sweet sherries are made from dried grapes too, namely those that use Pedro Ximénez or Moscatel grapes that have been left in the sun for several days. These berries make naturally sweet sherries that don’t require artificial sweetening after maturation, and they often have raisin in their tasting notes.
In the wine lexicon, raisin belongs in the dried fruit category alongside tasting notes like dates, sultanas, dried figs and prunes. It’s not unusual to find dried fruit flavours alongside cooked or stewed ones, because the process of cooking can also concentrate sugars and flavours in a similar way to drying.
Bear in mind that wines can display dried fruit flavours even if they aren’t made from dried out grapes, because some intense, earthy or complex fruit flavours can seem raisin-like. For example, you may find raisin notes in Syrah wines from the Crozes-Hermitage or Saint-Joseph appellations in northern Rhône.
Sources: sherrynotes.com | Decanter.com
You may have seen this tasting term on the back of your bottle of Sauvignon Blanc, and wondered how on earth your wine could taste like turf. When it comes to dry white wines, grassy is often used in a positive sense. It describes the pleasant herbal freshness they can exhibit on the nose and palate, reminiscent of fresh mown grass.
Grassy white wines typically come from maritime or cooler climes, such as Albariño wines from Rías Baixas in northwestern Spain and Sauvignon Blanc from Marlborough in New Zealand. It can also turn up in some Sémillon-Sauvignon Blanc blends from the Graves appellation in Bordeaux.
It’s not unusual for single varietal Sauvignon Blancs from the Loire Valley to have hints of freshly cut grass too, although these wines generally have layers of citrus and floral notes tied in.
Whilst their Kiwi counterparts often integrate grassy notes with tropical fruit flavours and aromas.
Grassy notes in red wines can be part of a herbaceous bouquet that may indicate under-ripeness. This can be particularly noticeable for Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon wines, especially from cooler climate regions, and also with the Carmenère variety.
The science: grassiness in wines is thought to come from volatile chemical compounds called aldehydes, which are released from the surface of the wine and picked up as aromas by your nose, or the retronasal passage at the back of your mouth. They are formed as a byproduct of fermentation or alcohol oxidation.
Sources: Wine: Flavour Chemistry by Ronald J. Clarke, Jokie Bakker | Decanter.com
Green apples are generally thought to be more tart and less sweet than their red or yellow counterparts. To test this, try biting into a granny smith followed by a gala or golden delicious apple. You should notice your mouth water more with the green apple, as you produce more saliva in response to the higher acid content. Specifically, malic acid which is derived from the latin word for apple, ‘malum’.
Wine also contains malic acid, which can give the impression of green apple flavours and aromas in your glass. Wines that are high in malic acid have more pronounced green apple notes, these include cool climate dry whites such as Chablis wines, as well as Riesling and Grüner Veltliner from Germany or Austria. In these wines, green apple might be found alongside other green fruits with a similar flavour profile, such as gooseberry or pear, as well as mineral or metallic notes.
The effect of malic acid is not always desirable, particularly in some red wines and Chardonnays. It can be processed using malolactic fermentation, when bacteria break down the tart malic acid into lactic acid — the same substance that’s found in dairy products. This might be used in Chardonnay wines to bring out more buttery flavours and give a more rounded creamy mouthfeel.
Sources: The Persistent Observer’s Guide to Wine: How to Enjoy the Best and Skip the Rest by J. P. Bary | Decanter.com
You might be familiar with the sight of a festive cinnamon stick bobbing in your mulled wine, but for other wines it does not feature directly. However, some wines can give the impression of cinnamon in their flavours and aromas. This is because cinnamon contains aromatic compounds called esters, one of which — ethyl cinnamate — can also be found in wine.
Quantities of ethyl cinnamate can find their way into wines during fermentation or ageing processes. The ‘ethyl’ part refers to the ethanol found in the wine which becomes an ester, compounded with cinnamic acid — the same that’s in the essential oil of cinnamon. Bottle ageing white wines is an example of how ethyl cinnamate might be produced, along with other sweet spicy notes like ginger and nutmeg.
For red wines with cinnamon notes, look to rich Italian reds such as those made from Nebbiolo or Barbera varietals as well as Amarone, a wine made using partially dried grapes to give it more concentrated flavours.
Other reds could include certain smoky Riojas or earthy Oregon Pinot Noirs, aged in American oak. The spicy characteristics of some tawny Port wines can lend themselves to cinnamon notes too, such as Graham’s, 20 Year Old Tawny NV.
Sources: Understanding Wine Chemistry by Andrew L. Waterhouse, Gavin L. Sacks, David W. Jeffery, Decanter.com
‘Apricot’ in a tasting note is in the spectrum of other stone fruits, such as peach, indicating a certain ripeness in the grapes, and used to describe white wines – although not as ripe as in hot climate wines, where the fruit descriptors become tropical, like pineapple and mango.
In Decanter’s How to read wine tasting notes, it says apricot ‘denotes warm, summery ripeness.’
Apricot is often associated with the grape Viognier, along with peach and blossom, found the in Rhône and increasingly in the New World like California and Australia. Richer Albariño, from North West Spain, is another fine white which regularly gets described with an apricot nose.
Apricot is also an aroma often found in sweet wines; either as the fresh fruit, or dried apricot, which is sweeter and more intense.
It can be found in sweet wines like Sauternes and Tokaji, and fortified wines, like in Tawny Port, along with other dried fruits.
Dried apricot is not restricted to sweeter wines only, and is found in dry wines too, like Domaine de la Taille aux Loups, Les Dix Arpents 2014.
See: Disznókő, Tokaji Aszú 5 Puttonyos 2006 | Zull, Weinviertel, Grüner Veltliner Klassik, 2016 | Château Coutet, Barsac, Bordeaux, France 2011 | Château Lamothe, Sauternes, 2eme Cru Classé, 2013
Ever caught the whiff of bananas when opening, sniffing or drinking wine? If you have, it could be for the following scientific reasons — please note there are almost certainly no actual bananas involved.
One possible cause is the winemaking process carbonic maceration, commonly used in the production of Beaujolais wines, made from the Gamay grape. In this process, the grapes are sealed in a vessel filled with carbon dioxide prior to regular fermentation, which gives Beaujolais wines their distinctive juicy or subtly tropical flavours.
The chemical compound behind banana’s aroma is mainly isoamyl acetate, an ester that’s also found in pears and bubblegum — another signature Beaujolais scent. It can occur in red or white wines as a natural by-product of carbonic maceration, or from the yeasts in regular fermentation. Interestingly, the same compound is released by the honey bees from their sting to alert fellow bees to danger.
Banana’s flavour profile is among the tropical fruits — notes like pineapple, passionfruit and lychees. Aside from Beaujolais, you can look for it in South African Pinotage. Or from aromatic white wines, especially those fermented at cooler temperatures, including Albariños like Martin Codax 2011 or Coto Redondo, Liñar de Vides 2011 both from the Spanish region of Rías Biaxas in Galicia.
In other white wines, ripe banana notes are associated with richer fruit flavours and sweet blossom aromas. Such as Haridimos Hatzidakis, Assyrtiko, Santorini 2012 or aged whites like Colonnara, Cuprese, Verdicchio dei Castelli di Jesi 1991.
As a tasting note, cassis refers to ripe and concentrated blackcurrant flavours or aromas. It’s often used to describe rich and full-bodied red wines, such as mature Bordeaux wines, or those made from earthy southern Italian varieties such as Nero d’Avola, Aglianico and Primitivo.
The blackcurrant flavour profile belongs to a broader ‘black fruit’ category. Within that category, it’s more aligned with the tartness of blueberries, and not with the sweetness of dark plum and blackberry flavours.
The term can cover different forms of intense blackcurrant fruit flavours, from a large helping of blackcurrant jam, to a handful of the fresh berries.
The tasting term is not to be confused with the wine region of Cassis in Provence, which is renowned for rosé wines that generally express red fruit rather than black fruit notes, and white wines of a mineral and citrus character.
To fully comprehend the flavour, why not try the blackcurrant liqueur crème de cassis. This also goes well in a ‘Kir Royale’ cocktail — made by pouring a small measure into a flute and topping up with Champagne.
Cherries have a distinctive fruit character, often replicated artificially for confectionery and liqueurs. When it comes to wine tasting notes, it’s important to distinguish between different cherry forms and flavours. For starters, there are both sweet and sour cherries — think of the difference between maraschino and morello cherries.
Red cherries are seen as part of the red fruit flavour profile, and black cherries are included in the black fruit category. In both of these, cherries might be seen as not so sweet or tart as the berries, yet more concentrated than fleshy plums, for example.
In Decanter’s How to read wine tasting notes, the general character of cherry is defined as, ‘firm, vibrant fruit with a touch of acidity and none of the sweetness of, say, blackcurrants’.
Wines that can carry notes of tart cherries include northern Italian reds, such Piedmont’s Barolo and Barbaresco wines made from the Nebbiolo grape. Red cherry notes can be found in some Tuscan Sangiovese wines from Brunello di Montalcino and Chianti.
SEE: Giovanni Rosso, Barolo, La Serra, Piedmont, Italy, 2010 | Pio Cesare, Barbaresco, Piedmont 2013 | Bottega, Il Vino dei Poeti, Brunello di Montalcino 2010 | Monteraponi, Chianti Classico, Tuscany 2014
Young Pinot Noir wines can encompass a range of cherry flavours from red to black, particularly those of New Zealand, where some of the best examples combine cherry with hints of jam or strawberry to offset earthy notes.
Perhaps the wine most associated with cherries is Beaujolais, a red wine made from the Gamay grape. Cherry notes in these wines are usually the product of carbonic maceration, a process in which whole grapes are sealed in a vessel filled with carbon dioxide prior to regular fermentation. This helps to preserve the naturally juicy and fruity character of Gamay.
SEE: Domaine Georges Descombes, Morgon, Beaujolais 2015 | Domaine de la Voûte des Crozes, Côte de Brouilly, Beaujolais 2015
As a tasting note, citrus is defined by high acidity and fresh fruit flavour; characteristics that can be found in many white wines.
Although wine may not reach the acidity level of, say, lemonade, it can have a strong acidic structure that recalls sharpness of fresh lemon, lime or grapefruit on the nose and palate.
It may also be found alongside notes like ‘mineral’ or ‘steely’, because certain high acidity wines can feel almost hard-edged in the mouth, lacking in sweet fruit flavours. Accompanying notes of more sour fruits, like green apples or pears, are relatively common.
In wine, citrus is categorised as a primary aroma, because it relates to the flavour of the grapes themselves as opposed to winemaking or ageing processes.
SEE: Uvaggio, Vermentino, Lodi, California 2013 | Beronia, Verdejo, Rueda, Spain 2016 | Eidosela, Albariño, Rias Baixas, Galicia, 2011 | Cloudy Bay, Sauvignon Blanc, Marlborough, New Zealand 2016 | Domaine Guyot, Les Loges, Pouilly-Fumé, Loire 2015
Note: citrus can sometimes be detected as citrus peel or zest, which might suggest a more pithy and intensely aromatic character than citrus juices. This is because the pungent odour of citrus fruits comes from the chemical compound limonene, which is located in the peel.
First things first, it’s important not to confuse the flavour profile of coconuts with nuts. Coconuts are not nuts, they are drupes (stone fruits). Their distinctive flavour and aroma is distinct from either fruits or nuts, and can be found in products like coconut milk or oil, as well as the desiccated coconut you might have eaten in a Bounty bar.
In wine, coconut generally manifests itself on the nose as a kind of dulled sweetness, which doesn’t pique the senses in the same way as sweet fruit or honey flavours. Instead it is more heavily aromatic, which is why it’s categorised among the ‘kernals’ such as almond, coffee and chocolate.
Notes of coconut can come from esters, which are the chemical compounds behind many aromas. Specifically lactones, which are responsible for the peculiar sweet aromas associated with coconuts. Beverley Blanning MW goes one step further in her exploration of oak aromas: ‘beta-methyl-gamma-octa-lactone – that’s coconut aroma to you and me’.
Coconut is one of the key aromas that distinguishes oaked wines, and it’s usually counted as a tertiary aroma because it’s related to the ageing process. Oak flavours can come from contact with wood chips, staves or barrels. Coconut is strongly evoked by American oak, along with vanilla notes.
Wines with coconut notes can include oaky red Riojas with some years behind them, like La Rioja Alta, 904 Gran Reserva 2007 and Bodegas Muriel, Reserva 2008. As well as big Cabernet-dominated Australian reds like Wolf Blass’ Black Label wines, aged for many months in American Oak.
A ‘cooked wine’ can be considered a fault. It can refer to a bottle that has been exposed to extreme heat. This can occur during shipping and is evident to the consumer as the cork can protrude and the wine quality will be greatly diminished.
However, when a person refers to ‘cooked fruit’ when tasting, this means that the grapes have had too much hang-time on the vine or too much sun exposure and are in fact overripe or even sunburned. This leads to a wine that has lower total acidity, which will make it taste less fresh; it will usually have jammy characters. This jamminess can be coupled with a higher level of alcohol, which can create a flabby mouthfeel.
The term jammy is usually applied to red wines low in acidity but high in alcohol, such as Californian Zinfandel or Australian Shiraz. It describes ripened or cooked fruit, in which the pungency and sweetness is intensified compared to fresh fruit flavours.
Jammy is associated with red fruits like strawberries and raspberries, as well as darker fruits such as blackcurrants and blackberries — essentially fruits you can imagine making into jam.
As a fault, it can express poor growing conditions in which the vines are overexposed to heat and sunlight. This causes the grapes to ripen too quickly, and the resultant wines can develop a cloying jamminess with a flabby mouthfeel.
Wine writer Robert Haynes-Peterson notes that Pinot Noir wines are most at risk, as these thin-skinned grapes are ‘intolerant of high temperatures which results in jammy, rather than fruit-driven, wines’. Read more
However, some people see jamminess as adding an enjoyably complex and concentrated fruitiness to wines; Matetic’s EQ Syrah from the San Antonio Valley was praised by Decanter’s James Button for its ‘multi-layered jammy and savoury elements’.
Although there are many different types of melon – watermelon, canteloupes, crenshaw, hami to name a few – when talking about melon flavours in wine, we’re generally talking about those associated with the honeydew melon.
Do not confuse this with the French grape that makes Muscadet wines, Melon de Bourgogne, which actually has very little to do with melon fruit.
In the wine tasting lexicon, Melon is found among other tropical fruits like pineapple, lychee and mango. The flavour profile of ripe melon is generally fruity, refreshing and sweet, although its sugar content is not normally as high as that of pineapple.
Rosé wines can be a good place to look for melon flavours and aromas.
This is particularly true for wines from Provence, like Domaine Gavoty 2013, as well as some ‘provençal-style’ Californian rosés, such as Picayune Cellars, Rosé, Mendocino County 2016 or Arnot-Roberts, Clear Lake Rosé, Lake County 2016.
Melon can also be evoked by rosé Champagnes, made from varying ratios of Pinot Noir, Pinot Meunier and Chardonnay. Including De Castelnau, Rosé Champagne NV, where fruity melon is balanced by floral beeswax notes.
Elsewhere, you might also find melon notes in full-bodied white wines from warm climates, such as Chardonnay from Californian regions like Napa Valley and Sonoma County. As well as in some Italian white wines like premium Pinot Grigio, or fruit-forward Prosecco wines.
SEE: Truchard, Chardonnay, Carneros, Napa Valley, California 2014 | Ronco del Gelso, Sot lis Rivis, Isonzo 2012 | Masottina Extra Dry, Rive di Ogliano, Conegliano-Valdobbiadene Prosecco Superiore 2010
As you’re probably aware pineapple is a tropical fruit, with sweet and juicy pungent flesh. It’s this sweet pungency that’s reflected in some wine aromas, though no actual pineapple is present. There is such a thing as wine made from pineapples instead of grapes, but we won’t get into that here.
As a tasting note, pineapple is aligned with other sweet-smelling exotic fruits like melon, banana, guava, mango and passionfruit. Its flavour profile is sweeter than the citrus fruits, but it has a freshness that distinguishes it from stone fruits, such as apricots and peaches.
You can find pineapple notes ripe white wines, such as a Riesling like Tongue in Groove Waipara Valley, New Zealand 2013. Or you might find it in more traditional late-harvest examples, especially from cool regions like Mosel in Germany. It’s generally ascribed to the influences of Botrytis Cinerea, or Noble Rot.
As a thin-skinned grape, Riesling is particularly susceptible to Noble Rot — a fungus that pierces the skin of grapes and lowers the water content, whilst maintaining sugar levels. Botrytis is able to invoke fruity notes because of chemical compounds like fureanol, which is also found in very ripe pineapples. Look for its pineapple influence in sweet wines from Sauternes too, such as Château Suduiraut 2013.
Some oaky and ripe New World Chardonnays may also exude aromas of pineapple, as they tend to have a more exotic fruit profile, along with hints of sweet spices and a higher alcohol content. Typical examples are Californian Chardonnays, such as Fess Parker, Ashley’s Chardonnay, Santa Barbara 2014 and Y Rousseau, Milady Chardonnay, Napa Valley 2012.
Strawberry falls into the red fruit flavour category, along with notes like raspberry, cherry and jam. It can be experienced as an flavour, but is most commonly identified as a wine aroma. It’s created by the fragrant organic compound called ethly methylphenylglycidate, also known as an ester.
Strawberry notes can usually be found in light reds such as Californian Zinfandel wines, and New Zealand Pinot Noirs. As well as among the complex aromas of more tannic wines made from the Sangiovese and Nebbiolo varietals.
Strawberry aromas are also expressed by rosé wines, such as Domaine Delaporte’s rosé from Sancerre and Famille Negrel’s La Petite Reine rosé from Bandol. Or even in sparkling rosé wines, such as The Wine Society’s Champagne Rosé and Exton Park’s Pinot Meunier.
The nature of the strawberry aroma can range from an attractive berry freshness, to an unpleasant cloying fruitiness. For example, sommelier Laure Patry praises Erath Vineyards’ Oregon Pinot Noir 2012 for its ‘bright and fresh with ripe strawberry aromas’. But it can be distasteful if over-pronounced, in these instances it might be paired with words like ‘cooked’ or ‘stewed’.
Benjamin Lewin MW claims the ‘strawberry notes of Pinot Noir’ are ‘released or created by yeast during fermentation’, and he argues that different strains of yeasts can be used to enhance certain aspects of a wine’s flavour profile. Read more
Herb & Spice
Asparagus as a tasting note in wine can be divisive; some love the savoury complexity it brings, while others recoil from what can seem a funky vegetal tang. It’s commonly found in descriptions of grassy white wines such as young unoaked Sauvignon Blancs, particularly those from New Zealand’s regions like Marlborough or Awatere Valley. Here it’s often accompanied by typical Sauvignon Blanc notes like green apple, gooseberry, pea or blackcurrant leaf (that’s code for cat’s urine).
Other unoaked whites which might have notes of asparagus include Albariño wines from Spain’s Rías Baixas region, such as Laureatus, Val do Salnés 2014. It’s also in the more unusual Vale da Capucha, Fossil, Lisboa 2012 made with a blend of local Portuguese grape varieties.
Asparagus is related to descriptors like vegetal or herbaceous, as well as more specific flavours of fennel or green bell pepper. All convey a sense of savoury bitterness that, in well-made wines, is saved from acridity by a freshness that’s almost sweet.
Scientifically, the distinctive scent of asparagus is generally attributed to odour compounds called pyrazines, which are also a cause of grassy and green bell pepper flavours and aromas. Asparagus is said to be evoked by 3-isopropyl-2-methoxypyrazine, to be precise.
Look out for distinctions within the asparagus category. For example, imagine snapping a lightly steamed asparagus stem, and the fresh, clean aromas that curl up your nose from the vapour.
Compare this to stewed or off-flavours coming from canned asparagus, which can be caused by mercaptans, aka sulphur compounds (see ‘Rubber’ below). There’s also white asparagus, which is usually considered to taste milder and more delicate than its chlorophyll-driven green cousin. All versions can add their own nuances, which can make for an all-round more interesting and appealing wine if counter-balanced correctly.
SEE: Brancott Estate, Awatere Valley, Terroir Series Sauvignon 2016 | Cloudy Bay, Sauvignon Blanc, Marlborough, New Zealand, 2016
Although tea might seem worlds apart from wine, it can teach us a lot about wine-tasting and is a useful tasting note. The link between the two is tannin, which is a polyphenol found in plant tissue, including grape skins, seeds, oak barrels — and tea leaves.
You can learn to distinguish how tannic a wine is by conducting a quick experiment using tea: put a black tea bag in hot water for a minute or two and taste the infusion. Then repeat, but this time allow the bag to steep for twice as long, and compare the effect on the taste. The second tea should taste more astringent, drying out your mouth and tasting almost unpleasantly bitter.
Some wines will create a similar effect on your palate, either with smooth and integrated tannins (more like the first tea), or with coarse and harsh tannins (like the second tea).
When a wine has a tasting note of black tea, this generally means it is enjoyably tannic. This can be true of the bold, characterful wines made from thick-skinned Nebbiolo, Sangiovese and Cabernet Sauvignon grapes. But, just as some people must have milk with their tea, some may find this flavour too strong and may prefer a milder, less tannic wine — perhaps a Pinot Noir or Merlot.
SEE: Brovia, Ca’ Mia, Barolo 2009 | Kanonkop, Cabernet Sauvignon, Stellenbosch 2005 | Il Mandorlo, Il Rotone, Chianti Classico Riserva, Tuscany 2009
Another aspect of tea tasting notes is identified by DecanterChina.com’s editor Sylvia Wu:
‘Tea-like aromas can be found in aged red wines, alongside scents of earth, dried-leaves and forest floor. These tertiary aromas add complexity to the original fresh fruit aromas (primary aromas), making the wine more layered and multi-dimensional.’
From aromatherapy oils to car air fresheners, cedar wood is prized for its rich and woody aromatic qualities. In wines, it’s a desirable scent that often indicates the use of oak in the production of red wines.
Most commonly, in full-bodied Cabernet Sauvignon single varietal and blended wines, such as those of Napa Valley or Bordeaux — particularly the Left Bank appellations. For example Château Léoville-Barton, St-Julien, 2ème Cru Classé 1990, as cited in Decanter.com’s How to read wine tasting notes, or Château Haut-Bailly, Pessec-Léognan 1998, as mentioned in The seven key aromas of aged Bordeaux.
As it’s related to the use of oak in post-fermentation winemaking, cedar is classified as a secondary aroma. Within this category, it signifies a fresher and more savoury aroma than notes like vanilla or butterscotch, and expresses a resinous and slightly spicy character aligned with sandalwood and cloves.
Its falls among the subtler secondary aromas, therefore it might be harder to detect in the strongly aromatic oaks; such as American oak, where coconut and vanilla fragrances can dominate.
Cedar is also incorporated in the ‘cigar box’ tasting note, which describes the combination of the aromas of rolled tobacco leaves with boxes made of cedar wood, traditionally used for storing cigars.
Coffee is one of four key aromas that can help you to understand the difference between an oaked and un-oaked white wine, says Decanter’s Jane Anson. The others are vanilla, coconuts and cloves, incidentally. Coffee aromas can be formed over the ageing process in young wines fresh from the barrel, which is why you so often find a hint of smoky cappuccino in vintage Champagne.
Of course, there’s no actual coffee in your wine. It’s actually a chemical compound that you can smell. An organic compound called furfurylthiol is known to give off a smoky, coffee aroma, which emanates from oak barrel toasting.
Elderflower is a classic feature of English summer drinking, whether it be infused into cordials or even fermented to become elderflower wine. But what about elderflower aromas from wines made out of grapes?
It belongs to the floral wine flavour category, in which it could be positioned as less pungently sweet than rose or violet, but not as intense and herby as geranium. It’s also tied up with the tasting term ‘hedgerow’ (see below), where it’s listed as an example of a wildflower aroma, along with notes like gooseberry, blackberry, bramble and nettle.
In this way, elderflower expresses a delicate integration between herbaceous and floral aromas, such as might be found in dry cool climate white wines, like Sauvignon Blanc from the Loire’s Sancerre appellation or Marlborough in New Zealand.
It’s often aligned with another signature Sauvignon Blanc note, ‘blackcurrant leaf’ – which can be read as code for the smell of cat’s urine, although elderflower is usually softer and less acrid. If these notes are too pronounced, it could suggest the grapes were harvested before they were allowed to fully ripen.
You can also look for elderflower notes in wines made from the Bacchus grape, a Riesling-Silvaner and Müller-Thurgau hybrid. Bacchus wines are sometimes likened to Sauvignon Blanc for their herbaceous character and high acidity.
A notable example is Winbirri’s Bacchus 2015 from Norfolk, which rose to fame as a Platinum Best in Show winner at the Decanter World Wine Awards earlier this year. Judges said the wine had a ‘complex, oily nose with spice, elderflower and citrus’.
Source: Geoff Adams, Wines of the World | Decanter.com
Normally associated with Australian wines (particularly Cabernet Sauvignon and Shiraz), eucalypt, mint, and camphor aromas can be found in other wines too, including Argentinian Cabernet Franc. This is due to the compound 1,8-cineole, also known as eucalyptol.
Studies have shown that vineyards with a closer proximity to eucalyptus trees have a higher incidence of the chemical in the wine, and therefore a stronger note of eucalypt. Eucalpytol is transmitted through the air onto grape skins, which are then fermented into wine, giving the distinct character.
In cooking, some people avoid these peppers in favour of their sweeter red and yellow counterparts. But in wine, the sharply savoury aroma of a freshly-sliced green bell pepper makes it a useful tasting reference.
Sommelier Laura Ortiz explains the science: ‘When we smell green pepper in Cabernet Sauvignon, we are recognising the pyrazine, 3-isobutyl-2-methoxy piracina. A name we seldom remember, but it is impossible to forget the aroma of green pepper.’ Read the full article: Wine, in the nose.
The term green pepper can be used positively, as with some Cabernet Sauvignons from California and Chile, where it can be enjoyed as a counter-balance to the black fruit flavours like cassis. However, in those of Bordeaux a green character is less desirable, as it often taken to be a sign of under-ripeness, along with vegetal or leafy notes.
In white wines: new world Sauvignon Blancs, such as those of New Zealand and South Africa, commonly display vegetal notes like green pepper. Some people enjoy this green herbaceous character, while others prefer the more mineral examples from Sancerre or Pouilly Fumé.
Note: You may see it being alluded to under the bracket of capsicum, which simply refers to the pepper plant genus. Also, it’s not be confused with terms like ‘ground green pepper’ or ‘green peppercorns’, which refer to the peppercorn spice and not the bell pepper.
Hay can be experienced as a dried herbaceous or vegetative aroma in wine, in the same category as notes like straw, tobacco and tea. It’s usually expressed by non-fruit forward white wines, where it’s found alongside herbs and sweet floral aromas like honey or blossom.
- SEE: Kurtatsch Cortaccia, Hofstatt Pinot Bianco, Alto Adige 2014 | Albert Boxler, Brand Grand Cru Riesling, Alsace 2014
Hay can be a secondary aroma associated with yeast influences from wines rested sur lie, ‘on the lees’, or those that have undergone bâtonnage, ‘lees-stirring’. This is commonly associated with Champagnes, like Alfred Gratien, Cuvée Paradis Brut 2006.
Notes of hay can also be an indication of maturity, thus qualifying as a tertiary aroma too. Look for it in oak-aged Chardonnays, such as Bouchard Père & Fils, Corton, Corton-Charlemagne Grand Cru, Burgundy 1955, where notes of hay are integrated with other tertiary aromas like lanolin, oatmeal and mushroom.
But be warned, when the processes of fermentation go awry the smell of mouldy hay can be a sign of microbial spoilage or brettanomyces contamination, leading to a wine that smells more like dank silage or a manure-laden farmyard.
With dank or mouldy notes it becomes a question of balance; aromas like damp hay, wet wool or ‘sweaty saddle’ may seem unpleasant to the imagination — but in wine sometimes even the most unlikely aromas can be powerfully alluring if counterbalanced correctly. Take a look at David & Nadia, Chenin blanc, Swartland, 2015, which displays ‘sweaty notes to the nose of hay and damp wool’, but this is tempered by the fruit concentration to create a ‘classy wine’.
Hedgerow refers to the shrubs, and occasionally trees, are used as natural roadside boundaries between fields. Dry white wines, such as Sancerre, often have these aromas – predominantly herbaceous, grassy and nettle-like – but they can also encompass the wild fruits and berries that grow on them too.
Examples may include elderflower, gooseberry, or even raspberries, brambles and blackberries. Hedgerow as a descriptor in a tasting note, therefore, will often denote this fresh, green integration of fruit and plant.
As a tasting note, honeysuckle is an aroma often ascribed to sweet white wines from the Sauternes and Barsac appellations in Bordeaux. This is because honeysuckle flowers exude intense honey-floral aromas associated with these wines.
They are produced using the onset of noble rot (botrytis cinerea) — a fungus that pierces the grape’s skin and accelerates the evaporation of water, drying out the berries whilst maintaining sugar levels. Noble rot can give wines a distinctively nuanced sweetness, with aromas ranging from rich butterscotch to the heady honey-floral notes of honeysuckle. See Chateau Lafaurie-Peyraguey 2012 or Château Climens 2012.
Aside from sweet wines, it’s also a typical expression of oaked Chardonnay from the Côte de Beaune appellation in Burgundy. Here, it can be found alongside other nutty and floral notes, such as Louis Latour, Meursault 1998, as seen in Decanter’s how to read wine tasting notes guide. Or amongst the complex candied aromas of Pierre-Yves Colin-Morey, Puligny-Montrachet 2015,from our Top-scoring Burgundy whites 2015.
Lavender is a highly aromatic plant; it produces lots of nectar from which bees can make high quality honey, and the plant itself is becoming more popular in cooking.
As well as being grouped with other floral aromas, like rose, it can be linked with herbaceous ones, like eucalyptus.
Aromas of lavender are found in red wines – commonly in red wines from Provence, where lavender fields are in abundance, which may be what contributes this aroma to the wines.
The compounds that are behind the cause of the lavender scent are cis-rose oxide, linalool, nerol, geraniol, according to WineFolly.
Cis-rose oxide, nerol and geraniol are also contribute to rose aromas – which can also be found in Pinot Noir, Sangiovese and Nebbiolo (see ‘rose’ below).
SEE: Forrest, Pinot Noir, Marlborough 2013 | Innocent Bystander, Giant Steps, Applejack Vineyard, Yarra Valley 2012 | Domaine du Vieux Télégraphe, “La Crau” 2010
This aroma does not come from leaves of the vine but is a flavour compound found in the skin of the grape: methoxypyrazine. This herbaceous character, which can be typical of cooler-climate Cabernet Sauvignon and is present in many Sauvignon Blancs, can be associated with a lack of ripeness. However, it can also give extra complexity to the wine if it is not too overt. Leafiness can evolve into a cigar box character when the wine is aged, but if the wine is too leafy to begin with then it may never reach its full potential as the tannins will also be unripe.
As a wine descriptor, liquorice refers to the sweet, yet slightly bitter and medicinal flavours and aromas associated with the chewy black confection made from the Glycyrrhiza glabra plant root extract.
Although this is not actually present in the wines themselves, its likeness is often perceived in red wines, such as Syrah blends from Rhône, and is usually integrated with black fruit flavours. Or in the spiciness of wines made from the Nebbiolo grape, such as Barolo and Barbaresco wines from northwest Italy, where it is often expressed in harmony with violet and rose aromas.
Liquorice is part of the same flavour group as star anise and fennel, as they share chemical flavour compounds such as anethole, which is found widely in essential oils, and is responsible for their distinctive scent and taste.
It is a useful term to use to describe a particular tart and penetrating sweetness, differing from that related to sugar. Like liquorice itself, wines with this flavour or aroma can be divisive depending on personal taste; for some it recalls childhood treats, for others it causes nose-wrinkling.
Mint, or menthol aromas can be common in varieties such as Cabernet Sauvignon grown in cooler climates like Bordeaux, Chile and Coonawarra in South Australia, but can also be found in other varieties such as Aragonez and Alicante Bouschet.
A mint aroma differs from a eucalypt note, which normally comes from contamination by nearby eucalypt trees. It has recently been discovered that mintiness in wine is caused by the compound piperitone, which is also found naturally in mint plants.
Even for smokers, the thought of tobacco in your wine is probably not very appealing. However, the term tobacco is used in a positive sense when it comes to describing wine. This is because it’s meant to conjure the fragrance of fresh tobacco, rather than the more acrid smell of cigarette smoke.
The aroma of freshly cut or cured tobacco leaves is often described as enjoyably woody, with a maple sweetness and violet floral notes. It’s considered so pleasant by some it’s even infused into men’s fragrances.
Tobacco is experienced as an aroma, rather than as taste. More specifically, it’s classified as a tertiary aroma, as it’s considered to be a sign of maturity. It’s generally an indicator that a red wine has been bottle-aged, along with notes like leather and wet leaves.
Typically, tobacco notes are found in mature full-bodied red wines, such as Cabernet Sauvignons from a range of regions, including those of California, Australia, South Africa and South America. It can also be detected in some aged Riojas and Amarone wines from Northern Italy.
In wines such as mature reds from Bordeaux, the tobacco aroma can develop into what is termed ‘cigar box’. This note combines the tobacco scent of cigars with that of cedar wood, giving the effect of a freshly opened box of Havanas.
As with many floral notes in wine, rose is sweet on the nose but more bitter and austere on the palate. In this way it’s comparable to notes of violet and magnolia, stopping short of the slight acridity of lily or geranium.
You may find the flower referred to directly or as ‘rose petal’, as well in the form ‘rose water’ — which suggests it smells more like musky perfume, or tastes a bit like Turkish Delight.
The science behind rose’s flavour profile comes down to 3 key chemical compounds: rose oxide, β-damascenone and β-ionone.
Usually it’s the rose oxide element that makes it comparable with the smell of some Gewürtztraminer wines. They’re known for their highly aromatic qualities and signature lychee notes — a fruit which carries the same rose oxide compound.
β-ionone is also behind the aroma of violets, so it makes sense that violet-scented wines can sometimes harbour rose hints too — such as red wines made in Piedmont from the thick-skinned Nebbiolo grape. You can also look for rose notes in young Pinot Noir wines, particularly those made in Australia and New Zealand.
SEE: Henschke, The Rose Grower Nebbiolo, Eden Valley, Australia 2013 | Giovanni Rosso, Serra, Barolo, Piedmont, Italy 2012 | Pegasus Bay, Pinot Noir, Waipara, New Zealand 2013 | Deviation Road, Pinot Noir, Adelaide Hills, Australia 2012
Note: Rose as a tasting note has little to do with rosé wines, which are named after their pinkish colour rather than for a floral character (see Spanish rosado and Italian rosato equivalents).
Rubber is one of those tasting notes that can be difficult to imagine in a wine, but once smelt it’s unmistakable. You can find it in the aromas of certain Syrah wines from the northern Rhône, where it can appear alongside earthy, gamey or tar notes.
Or it can be found among petrol aromas associated with dry Riesling wines, particularly those from cooler climes such as Germany’s Rheingau region.
SEE: Delas, Francois de Tournon, Saint Joseph, Rhône 2010 | Maison Guyot, Le Millepertuis, Crozes-Hermitage, Rhône 2010 | Weingut Knoll, Riesling Kabinett, Pfaffenberg, Niederösterreich 2013
Burnt rubber on the other hand, can point to the presence of mercaptans, which are volatile sulphur compounds. But how does sulphur get into your wine? The truth is grapes themselves already contain sulphur, and sulphur compounds can be generated through reductive reactions involved in winemaking, such as yeast fermentation or malolactic fermentation. Mercaptans are not harmful, but they can become a fault if too concentrated — decanting the wine first can help to lessen their effect.
Volatile sulphur compounds have become a hot topic in winemaking in recent years. They have proved a particular source of controversy in some wines, notably in relation to burnt rubber aromas in some South African Pinotage and Cabernet wines. Today, growers increasingly try to avoid this, aiming for more fruit forward wines.
In the tasting note lexicon, rubber belongs to the mineral flavour profile, which includes anything ranging from earth to tar, and steel to wet wool. The best way to learn to recognise these notes in wine is to experience them in their physical forms, such as smelling a rubber eraser or car tires on a hot day (burnt rubber) — try to embed these aromas in your sensory memory.
Vanilla is one of the most frequent tasting notes applied to wines, and it belongs to the sweet spice category. It can be found in red or white wines, usually as an aroma instead of a taste. Vanilla notes are usually generated during the ageing process of wine in oak barrels, typically American oak as opposed to French oak, and younger barrels rather than older. In this sense it is identified as a tertiary aroma, as it is produced by wine ageing.
Decanter’s Sarah Jane Evans MW explains the science: ‘Vanilla, or vanillin, is an aldehyde that is a component of the oak. It is more marked in US oak’. Read more
The way a barrel is toasted can also bring out vanilla in wines, as William Kelley notes, ‘lighter toast levels bring aromas of vanilla and fresh wood to the fore’.
When describing wine, vegetal can be used in a negative or positive sense — as with most tasting notes it’s a question of balance. If the vegetal character is too overbearing, it can become an unpleasant indicator that the wine is too ‘green’, meaning the grapes used were unable to ripen properly before being harvested.
Or alternatively, as with fruity notes, it can appear as unattractively over-developed or stewed. Such as one Chianti Classico Riserva described by Michael Palij MW as ‘vegetal with sweat, cabbage’.
Vegetal notes can also be associated with the term ‘stalky’, when wines have had too much stem contact. This can happen during a winemaking process such as whole bunch fermentation, where the stems are not removed before the fruit goes into the fermentation vat. Decanter’s Jane Anson discusses its use in her article Whole bunch winemaking shakes up Bordeaux. She says that in the past the prevailing opinion has been: ‘Merlot, Cabernet Franc and Cabernet Sauvignon have too much vegetal/green flavour in their varietal DNA (specifically a molecule known as pyrazine) to withstand the use of stems that can lead to bitterness in the final wine.’ However, recently several high profile winemakers have begun to see potential in the process.
The divided nature of the vegetal flavour can be seen by comparing the styles of Sauvignon Blancs from New Zealand and the Loire. ‘No self-respecting Loire grower would deliberately aim for vegetal characters; on the other hand many New Zealand growers do precisely that,’ explains Decanter’s Stephen Brook.
At its best, vegetal can be enjoyed as a sign of herbaceous complexity; alongside gamey and earthy notes in mature Pinot Noirs, or in the asparagus quality of some Sauvignon Blancs.
As a tasting note, violet is generally picked up as an aroma in wine, but it can be a flavour too — as anyone with a penchant for Parma Violet sweets will know. Violet commonly displays a musky sweetness on the nose, but tastes a touch more bitter and austere on the palate. In this way, it can be aligned with other bittersweet and perfumed floral notes such as bergamot, rose, geranium and lavender. Just like perfume, it’s a matter of preference whether you find violet flavours and aromas off-putting or appealing in wines.
The distinctive scent and flavour comes from two chemical compounds: α-ionone and β-ionone, which are also used in the confectionary and perfumery products derived from violets.
It’s crops up in a broad range of full-bodied tannic red wine styles with high acidity, usually made from thick-skinned grapes. Such as Italian wines like Barolo and Barbaresco made from the Nebbiolo varietal, where violet can be found alongside notes of fennel, liquorice and tar.
It’s also abundant in Bordeaux blends, and it’s commonly referred to in the latest Decanter’s en primeur tastings. Most notably, in Pomerol’s high scorers Château La Conseillante 2016 and Château La Fleur-Pétrus 2016, where violet is coupled with dark fruit notes like black cherry, blackberry and bilberry.
Biscuit/biscuity descriptors are most often associated with aged Champagne, where the process of yeast autolysis and time enable a rich, digestive biscuit-like character to develop. It can also be found in oak-aged Chardonnay, where it can be a development of the caramelised butterscotch aromas that comes from the wood.
The butter-rich brioche bun is the staple of many a French breakfast table, perfect with apricot jam and a grand café noir. For anyone who hasn’t experienced its
simple delights, the brioche is essentially a yeast bread enriched with butter and eggs, sometimes with more sweetness if made with cream and sugar.
As a tasting note, brioche has three main components: rounded butter and yeast flavours, piqued by pastry sweetness. It’s categorised alongside other non-fruity sweet notes like honey or vanilla, and it’s commonly accompanied by adjectives like buttery, creamy, toasty and yeasty.
‘Warm brioche’ is also a term used, though it has relation a wine’s temperature. It refers to the heightened aromas of a heated pastry.
A yeasty brioche effect can be brought about by sur lie; ’resting’ the wine on its dead yeast cells known as lees, or bâtonnage (stirring the lees). During prolonged contact with the lees, autolysis occurs — when the yeast cells are broken down by enzymes, releasing macromolecules that impart biscuit, toast or brioche flavours. These processes are mostly associated with sparkling wines, including those of Champagne, Cava and the United Kingdom.
You can also find this in some aged Chardonnay or Sémillon wines.
SEE: Recaredo, Turó d’en Mota, Cava, Mainland Spain, Spain, 2002 | Krug, Grande Cuvée, Champagne, France NV | Wiston Estate, Blanc de Blancs, East Sussex, Brut 2010
SEE: Vasse Felix, Heytesbury, Margaret River, 2011 |Tempus Two, Copper Zenith Semillon, Hunter Valley 2007
Bubblegum is a unique aroma that is found in wines that have undergone carbonic or semi-carbonic maceration. Whole bunches are placed into a sealed fermentation vessel. CO2 is added either artificially (carbonic), or occurs naturally via aerobic fermentation (semi-carbonic). Once the CO2 is added, enzymes begin consuming the available sugars in an anaerobic fermentation process. This process will only produce about three degrees of alcohol, so it must always be followed with a normal yeast fermentation. Although it produces little alcohol it has a marked effect on the aroma and taste of the wine.
In these processes, esters such as ethyl cinnamate are produced in higher quantities than normal, lending flavours such as raspberry, strawberry, bubblegum and even candy floss. The low level of contact between skin and juice means that little tannin is extracted, so wines that undergo this process (most famous being Beaujolais Nouveau) can be drunk soon after fermentation.
The bubblegum flavour can also indicate an excessive use of potassium sorbate – a chemical that is used at the end of fermentation to prevent the yeast from multiplying further.
Buttery flavours or aromas are normally associated with white wines, and can be produced during malolactic fermentation or oak barrel-ageing. These wines are typically Chardonnays from California, Australia and Burgundy.
The effect of a buttery scent or taste can be produced by a chemical compound called diacetyl — it’s also added to artificial butter products and margarines. Diecetyl can also change the mouthfeel of wines, giving them a smoother and more rounded texture, as might be associated with butter.
In winemaking it occurs as a natural byproduct of malolactic fermentation; the process by which bacteria converts malic acid into lactic acid — the same substance that is found in dairy products like butter.
Alternatively, buttery flavours and aromas can be produced during the process of barrel-ageing wines in new oak. A good example is an oaked Chardonnay like Louis Latour’s Meursault 1998, which can be found in Decanter’s how to read wine tasting notes guide. In these tasting notes ‘new wood’ flavours of vanilla appear alongside butter, both are secondary aromas that indicate at least some of the wine has been aged in new American oak.
In some instances, bâtonnage (stirring the lees) can produce butter-like flavours: the macromolecules imparted by the dead yeast cells create a smoother mouthfeel and richer yeasty flavours, which can be reminiscent of butter on the nose and palate.
The idea of caramel being swirled through your wine might be pretty sickly, but if it features subtly as a tasting note it can bring a luxuriantly developed sweetness to the nose and palate.
Don’t be mistaken, no actual caramel has been magically formed in the bottle. The caramel-like effect is sometimes created by the vines being intentionally infected with botrytis cinerea, aka noble rot — a form of fungus that dries out the grapes, concentrating sugar levels. This practice is commonly used in the production of dessert wines, such as those of the Sauternes and Barsac appellations, or Trockenbeerenauslese wines from Germany or Austria.
Botrytis can also alter the mouthfeel of a wine, as it digests sugar and acids and excretes glycerol in its place. So the developed sweetness and silky mouthfeel can lead to an sensorial impression of smooth caramel.
Lastly, this clever noble rot injects an enzyme called laccase, which is responsible for oxidising the wine, producing flavours ranging from apricot and almond to toffee and caramel. It can also induce deep golden hues, so the wine appears caramel coloured, too. Look for it in other oxidised wine styles, such as in tawny Port or Palo Cortado Sherry.
Another way to create caramel flavours is by the use of oak, because it can appear as a secondary aroma from oak-ageing, along with butterscotch and vanilla. This can particularly be detected in Chardonnays aged in American oak, rather than French oak.
The term chalky is usually applied to white wines with high acidity from cool climate terroirs with stony soils, and falls into the mineral category along with notes of flint and slate. Including Chardonnay wines from Chablis and Sauvignon Blanc from Sancerre.
Our ability to perceive these mineral flavours in wine has caused some disagreement between scientists and wine experts, but it is nevertheless widely used at tastings. (If you are struggling, try to imagine licking a piece of chalky rock.)
Sarah Jane Evans MW relates the term chalky to mouthfeel when talking about wines with minerality, describing them as having ‘a taste as if of licking wet stones and often a chalky texture to match’. Read more
This can relate to the astringency of tannins, as the mouth-drying effect can recall the powdery or grainy feeling of chalk. For example a tannic red wine with a drying and lingering finish may be noted for its ‘chalky tannins’.
Chocolate is quite a common flavour and aroma in full-bodied reds from warmer climates, such as southern French Merlot, Montepulciano d’Abruzzo and Barossa Valley Shiraz. It can be identified in several different guises – milk chocolate, dark chocolate and even cocoa powder. The latter can sometimes be associated with ripe, sweet tannins, providing a descriptor of texture as well as flavour. Barrels that have been heavily toasted, either using an open flame or in an oven, can also lend chocolatey flavours to a wine.
After a traditional-method sparkling wine is disgorged, the liqueur d’expédition is added to create the final dosage. This addition of sugary liquid is used to balance the high acidity levels. With the correct addition, the dosage can accentuate the body of the wine and also give a certain roundness. Too much or too little can lead to a wine that is flabby or one that is too tart.
In recent years there has been a trend towards zero dosage, but it can be difficult to create a balanced wine unless conditions are right. So what do the names on the bottle actually mean in regards to dosage? Brut Nature (0-3g/l of sugar), Extra Brut (0-6g/l), Brut (0-12g/l), Extra-Sec (12-17g/l), Sec (17-32g/l), Demi-Sec (32-50g/l), Doux (50+g/l).
Earthy is a versatile tasting note that can encompass a range of wine flavour profiles; from dry and dusty aromas to tertiary aromas such as wet forest floor, or even farmyard manure odours. Earthy can be seen as belonging to the same flavour profile as notes like wet wool, mineral and tar aromas; all are naturally occurring substances. But they have little in common with fruit, vegetal or floral notes.
If subtle, and well integrated, then earthy can be considered a welcome addition to a wine’s aroma, particularly for more full-bodied reds. These include Italian wines made from the Sangiovese grape, like those from Brunello di Montalcino, and more rustic southern Italian varieties like Primitivo and Aglianico.
If earthy notes veer more towards a farmyard smell, this could be due to Brettanomyces, a wine-altering strain of yeast. Some wine lovers enjoy its effects at low levels, but its presence causes debate.
Earthy notes could also be attributed to the chemical compound geosmin, which occurs naturally in grapes. The name directly translates to ‘earth smell’ in greek.
This same compound is released into the air by newly turned over soil, or a garden after rainfall. In wine, high levels of geosmin generally indicate a fault. Look out for when earthy smells eclipse expected fruit aromas, or tend more towards the smell of wet cardboard — you could have yourself a corked wine.
This term is derived from the French phrase ‘goût de pierre à fusil’, which literally means tasting of flint stone. Flint, flinty or even gunflint are terms used to describe the minerality note that is found in dry, austere white wines, notably Chablis and Sancerre.
If you want to experience what flint smells like, next time you are walking in the South Downs, pick up two pieces of chalk and rub them together. If this isn’t an option, think of wet pebbles.
The main defining factors of honey are its sweetness and its viscosity. Therefore as a tasting note it’s often applied to dessert wines, which are more syrupy in taste and density than other wines.
As honey is made from floral nectar, it has rich and heady aromatic properties that make it a suitable descriptor for late harvest wines. These can include wines made from grapes left to dry out on the vine, or developed by the onset of noble rot (botrytis cinerea) — giving the wines a concentrated aroma and a taste that’s reminiscent of honey.
It’s often found alongside stone fruit and dried fruit notes, most notable in sweet wines from Sauternes. Other examples include Tokaji wines from Hungary, and German Rieslings belonging to the Auslese, Spätlese, Beerenauslese and Trockenbeerenauslese classifications.
Honey is also aligned with complex notes like tobacco and hay as a sign of a wine’s maturity, for honey has a multilayered sweetness that incorporates fructose and floral flavours. Additionally, aged sweet white wines can recall honey in their appearance, as their hues darken over time. Like honey, dessert wines such as Sauternes or Tokaji wines can range from the palest yellow to tawny bronze, depending on the vintage.
As a tasting note, it’s generally understood that the wine contains no actual honey. However, there is evidence that honey was originally used by the Romans to fortify wines, in a process that later came to be known as chaptalisation, when sugar is added to the grapes prior to fermentation. It’s also not to be confused with ‘honey wine’, which is actually mead and is made from fermented honey instead of grapes.
Associated with Syrah, particularly from the northern Rhône, as well as Sangiovese in Tuscany, iodine or blood-like notes are derived from the grape or the terroir rather than the addition of the element itself. Some say iodine aromas are increased if vines are planted closer to the sea as well.
It should be mentioned that when fruit has succumbed to excess rot, the resulting wine may also have iodine or phenol aromas, and in this case it is considered a fault.
Graphite is a common descriptor, especially for fine red wines, signifying notes of pencil lead or a lead-like minerality. Some claim the aromas and flavours come from the wine’s contact with wood during oak maturation. However, others, especially producers in Bierzo and Priorat in Spain, believe that terroir contributes these characters – thus their slate soils provide a graphite taste to the wine. If you are unsure what graphite smells like, try sharpening an HB pencil.
An aroma often found in red wines that have been aged in oak. Either a secondary or a tertiary aroma, it is associated with the winemaker’s influence and a wine’s ageing process rather than a grape’s varietal characteristic or primary aroma.
It is often used as a descriptor in conjunction with vanilla, toast and cedar, which are all associated with the use of oak in red wines. It can also be a savoury characteristic indicative of a wine softening and ageing, losing some of its primary fruit and gaining complexity and depth.
Grilled or raw meat aromas can be found in muscular reds such as northern Rhône Syrah, Toro and Bordeaux. Game is a slightly lighter, more fragrant character that can be found in wines with red fruit characteristics, such as Pinot Noir, Barbaresco, Rioja and Pinotage. It is reminiscent of hung pheasants and ‘farmyard’ aromas, Both meat and game aromas can be amplified over time, so are usually found in more mature bottles of wine, and are considered to be positive (and occasionally defining) characteristics of a particular wine style.
In some cases these characteristics are caused by Brettanomyces, a wild yeast that can easily infect winemaking equipment, particularly the rough interior surface of wooden barrels. In small doses it produces meaty flavours that can benefit the complexity of a wine, although higher levels can can easily spoil the wine with impressions of cheese, rubber and sweat!
This common description can be used to describe both red and white wines, although it is more common with whites. It is a positive attribute that can be associated with the acidity of the wine, but also the aroma; for example slate, gun flint or wet stones.
The use and meaning of minerality is hotly debated and there is no chemical evidence that shows a mineral aroma or flavour is related to a specific mineral or nutrient in the soil or in wine. Therefore, while we use mineral or minerality often as a descriptor it is still quite a mystery as to what causes this sensation.
An oxidative style of winemaking is a controlled process of exposing the wine to oxygen. It enhances flavours deemed desirable – such as nuts or dried fruits – and increases complexity in the wine. The opposing method is a reductive style of winemaking where the amount of oxygen exposure is limited to preserve the wine’s fresh fruit characters. Most wines lie between these two styles, achieving a good balance, but some winemakers prefer a more marked oxidative or reductive style.
Petrol notes in wine are caused by a chemical, trimethyl-dihydronaphthalene (TDN), whose precursors are naturally found in the juice and skins of the Riesling grape.
Generally, aged Rieslings can have a petrol aroma as the precursors in the wine combine over time to form TDN. When this note is found in young wines, it is considered by some, notably Rhône and Australian producer Michel Chapoutier, to be a fault due to over-pressing during harvest.
Imbibing silk might be hard to imagine, and not particularly tempting, but it is certainly a desirable quality in wine.
It is experienced in the mouthfeel of the wine; as you roll it around your palate you get a sense of density and texture. A wine described as silky should feel smooth and luscious in your mouth, with sufficient body to make you aware of its texture, yet elevated enough to avoid being flabby.
In red wines, the term silky is commonly applied to tannins. ‘Silky tannins’ is often a term of praise used for well-aged reds such those of Bordeaux, or a Sangiovese like the Decanter wine legend Biondi Santi, Tenuta il Greppo 1975.
Tannins give red wines structure and texture, and in the ageing process they can evolve from feeling coarse to having a silky quality, as they become more integrated in the wine.
In a similar way, structure can be added to white and sparkling wines by resting them on the lees (dead yeast cells), a process known as sur lie. If macromolecules, imparted by the lees, become well-integrated with the wine they can create a silky feel. A similar effect can be achieved by bâtonnage (stirring the lees).
As a term describing a tannic or yeasty mouthfeel, silky feels more polished than a ‘velvety’ wine, but perhaps not as weighty as a ‘creamy’ wine.
It can also manifest itself in white wines with high levels of glycerin, such as Albariño from Rias Baixas or Vinho Verde. As well as Viognier wines, which are often described as having an oily texture, and this can create a silky sensation in the mouth.
Smoky notes generally come from oak. Normally the intensity of smoky aromas and flavours in a wine will be determined by the toast of the oak (how charred it was), how many times the barrel has been used and how long the wine spends in the barrel. If the wine is put into a new barrel that has had a heavy toast then the likelihood of having smoky notes will increase. This can be desirable if the wine has the structure to handle the oak.
Sometimes heavy toasting and too many new barrels can lead to an overtly smoky wine, which may integrate with time, but can be difficult to assess when the wine is young. Smoke taint can also happen, when forest fires occur between veraison (when the grapes ripen) and harvest time. This has been a problem for winemakers in Canada’s Okanagan Valley, California and throughout Australia.
Steely is a term commonly used to promote fashionable dry white wines, but what does it mean in the mouth? It describes a metallic flavour and a firm mouthfeel. Generally these wines are low in alcohol, high in acidity, with distinguished minerality. In this way it’s aligned with notes like flint and graphite.
Examples include cool climate wines, like Rieslings from Germany, Alsace, Austria or Eden Valley in Australia.
There is some crossover between metallic and mineral wines, and opinion is divided about whether these flavours are derived directly from the soil, or whether it’s simply an effect created by clean and neutral wines; absent of sweetness or strong fruit flavours, but with a solid acidic structure. In the same vein as mineral wines, steely wines often express floral, green apple or citrus flavours and aromas, rather than sweet fruity notes.
As with tannins in red wines, it’s acidity that changes the mouthfeel of white wines. Steely wines can feel almost hard-edged in the mouth; something that’s usually desirable, rather than a flabby wine, and it should bode well for the ageing potential of the wine too.
Tar may seem an unlikely substance to be evoked by wine, but as with notes of tobacco and petrol it can be an unusual source of pleasure. If expressed in harmony with the other flavours and aromas of the wine, tar can add a pungent edge, the kind to make your nostrils dilate.
It is usually used as a savoury descriptor of red wines; Barolo wines from Piedmont are most commonly ascribed a tar-like quality. They are made from the thick-skinned Nebbiolo grape, and usually have high acidity with no shortage of tannins. Nebbiolo’s bouquet encompasses violet, smoke and rose-like perfumes, with flavours that include truffle, fennel, liquorice and, most famously, tar.
However, as with other distinctive tasting notes, if you have an intense dislike for the smell of asphalt it can be too distracting, and detract from your appreciation of other aromas and flavours in the wine.
Not your typical aroma or tasting note, but it is used to describe this almost sweet, intriguing plastic quality. It may be a sign of reduction, where in the winemaking, lack of oxygen creates a growth of chemical compounds called mercaptans.
These can be extremely unpleasant, creating notes of rotten eggs, cabbage or struck matches. However, if a balance is achieved in this reductive technique, desirable notes can be created, such as quince, smokiness, peardrop or even vinyl.
Candle wax or beeswax aromas can be common in aged white wines for a number of reasons. Ethyl acetates, a contributor to honey and wax aromas, can be created by yeast during fermentation (common in Pinot Blanc and Chardonnay). However, they can also come from bottle ageing, as is common in older Rieslings; this is due to the breakdown of other components in the wine to create ethyl acetates.
Wax aromas are, however, different from the petrol aromas often found in aged Rieslings – these are caused by another natural and very potent compound, TDN, which can be detected at concentrations of micrograms per litre.
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Is an indented bottom desirable - in your wine bottle?
An American friend sent me a copy of Bianca Bosker’s July 29th New Yorker article entitled ‘Is There a Better…