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 'cedar' and 'steely'...

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tasting notes decoded

 

Cedar

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.

 

 

 

 

tasting notes decoded

Steely

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.

SEE: Malat, Riesling Classic, Kremstal 2015 | Ernst Loosen, Villa Wolf Dry Riesling, Pfalz, Germany 2014 | McWilliam Family, Zeppelin, Eden Valley, 2014 

It’s also associated with Austria’s most widely planted grape variety, Grüner Veltliner, and is often considered a trademark of fine Chardonnay wines from Chablis.

SEE: Steininger, Grand Grü Grüner Veltliner Reserve, Kamptal 2015 | Jean-Marc Brocard, Butteaux, Chablis 1er Cru 2014 | Simonnet-Febvre, Chablis 2014

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.

 

 

 


Fruity

 

 

tasting notes decoded

Cassis

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.

tasting notes decoded

Cooked Fruit

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.

 

 

 

 

tasting notes decoded

Jammy

The term jammy is usually applied to red wines low in acidity but high in alcohol, such as Californian Zinfandel or Australian ShirazIt 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’.

tasting notes decoded

Strawberry

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

tasting notes decoded

Coffee

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.

 

 

 

 

 

tasting notes decoded

Eucalypt/Eucalyptus

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.

 

 

 

 

 

tasting notes deocded

Green Pepper

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.

 

 

 

 

tasting notes decoded

Hedgerow

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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Honeysuckle

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’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.

 

 

 

 

 

tasting notes decoded

Leafy

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.

 

 

 

 

tasting notes decoded

 

Liquorice

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.

 

 

tasting notes decoded

Minty

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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

tasting notes decoded

Tobacco

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.


tasting notes decoded

Vanilla

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

Reds from Rioja are a common example, such as Faustino’s Gran Reserva 2001, praised for its ‘sweet, vanilla notes of American oak’ — as are oak-aged Chardonnay wines from California and Australia.

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’.

 

 

 

tasting notes decoded

Vegetal

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.


Other

 

tasting notes decoded

Biscuit

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.

 

 

 

 

 

tasting notes decoded

Bubblegum

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.

 

 

 

 

tasting notes decoded

Buttery

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.

 

 

 

tasting notes decoded

Chalky

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’.

 

 

 

tasting notes decoded

Chocolate

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.

 

 

 

tasting notes decoded

Dosage

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).

 

 

 

 

tasting notes decoded

Flint

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.

 

 

 

 

 

Tasting notes decodedHoney

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.

 

 

tasting notes decoded

Iodine

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.

 

 

 

 

 

tasting notes decoded

Graphite

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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

tasting notes decoded

Leather

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.

 

 

 

tasting notes decoded

Meat

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!

 

 

 

tasting notes decoded

Mineral

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.

 

 

 

 

 

tasting notes decoded

Oxidative

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.

 

 

 

tasting notes decoded

Petrol

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.

 

 

 

 

Tasting notes decodedSilky

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.

 

 

 

 

tasting notes decoded

Smoky

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.

tasting notes decodedTar

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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

tasting notes decoded

Vinyl

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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

tasting notes decoded

 

Wax

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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