Get to grips with the some of the more obscure tasting notes used by wine experts, with graphics from the Decanter design team...

How to understand tasting notes:

Make sure you know your waxy from your eucalyptus wines…

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.

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

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.

Balance

We see this word repeatedly, and at times, use it instinctively in our notes. Whether we say the palate has a nice balance, or balanced flavours, the word is describing the wine’s harmony of crucial elements. These are the levels of sweetness, acidity, tannin, alcohol, body, flavours and flavour intensity.

When none of these components is too overpowering, the wine is said to be balanced. It is highly coveted, and also tells us much about a wine’s drinking life.

tasting notes decoded

Do you really know the meaning behind ‘petrol‘ and ‘leather‘…?

understand tasting notes

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.

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.

understand tasting notes

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.

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.

understand tasting notes

Don’t get caught out at tastings – know your ‘flinty‘ from your ‘vinyl‘ wines…

How to talk about wine

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.

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.

How to talk about wine

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.

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.

Find more tasting notes decoded every month in Decanter magazine. Subscribe to Decanter here. 

Got a tasting note you don’t understand? Send it in to editor@decanter.com.

More learning: