The benefits of learning how to taste wine are both immediate and tangible. Being able to interpret appearance, smell and taste in the glass, and recognising the characteristics of the small number of grape varieties which lie behind most wine labels not only enhances enjoyment, but boosts wine confidence, two excellent reasons for learning the ropes. Anybody with working faculties and the will to succeed can do it, and, with a little practice, achieve a good standard of wine appreciation.
This guide aims to set out the general principles of tasting and understanding wine.
In response to member feedback, the guide also includes useful information about how to serve wine, how to spot common faults, some thoughts on food and wine matching and useful wine terms.
Factors which influence the taste of wine
The single most influential factor affecting the taste of wine is the grape variety or varieties from which it is made. It is impossible to put a definitive figure on the number of varieties of wine grape in the world – Italy alone boasts more than 1,000. However, the majority of the wines imported into the UK, where, ironically, we grow some of the more obscure ones, comes down to a surprisingly small number. Get to know these and you are well on the way to a good understanding of what's in the bottle. In the New World, and parts of the Old such as Alsace, you'll usually find the name of the grape on the label, but in most of France and Spain, the name of the region takes precedence. It helps to know that Chablis and white Burgundy, for instance, are both made from chardonnay. In our Lists, we include as much information as we can about the varieties from which these wines are made.
Each variety has its own distinct character and part of the fun of getting to know them is choosing a word which precisely describes the smell and taste of a particular grape. Although personal impressions vary enormously, a number of common responses are recorded by tasters, for instance pear-drops or gooseberries for sauvignon blanc, or blackcurrant for cabernet sauvignon. Our Grape Varieties includes the most widely-used of these.
Vineyards and Vinification
Climate, altitude and soil composition all have a part to play in determining flavour. A few extra degrees of warmth can introduce more exotic, tropical flavours. Altitude promotes higher acidity, which also affects taste. There can be significant flavour differences between the same variety grown in different parts of the same country, especially if a number of different latitudes is involved. Vines cooled by sea breezes ripen more slowly and evenly than those on hot, insulated, inland vineyards. All these factors have a profound effect on flavour.
The concept of terroir is important to grasp, as it is central to an ongoing debate as to how much of the distinctive character of a wine stems from the specific environment in which it grows. Its literal meaning is 'soil' and in broad terms, the word refers to a regional, or even a particular vineyard character which 'sings' in the wine, and represents the combined effects of soil and other factors such as climate and exposure. More specifically, some tasters swear they can taste, for example, slate in a glass of Mosel, or flint in Chablis. There is no conclusive scientific evidence as yet to support the notion that a patch of earth could make its presence so acutely felt in the glass, but there is general agreement that certain vineyard sites do have tangible characteristics which it is possible to spot despite vintage variations.
On the other side of the debate, the shrinking world and the 'flying winemaker' have made it possible to produce wine in a particular style, irrespective of its origins. Some branded wines, for which consistency is very important, rely on the increasing ability of technology, including special yeasts and fermentation techniques, to create uniformity of flavour despite the vagaries of vintage or even variety. In many evolving wine regions, expertise from abroad improves and raises the profile of local wines, but in others serves purely to create international appeal.
The vanilla aromas, and toasty flavours which are present in wine which has been fermented and/or aged in a barrel are instantly recognisable. The mighty oak has always been associated with wine production from quercus suber, the bark of which is used to manufacture cork, to the many species of coopering oak which fall into two groups: European or American. Within these broad categories are several regions of production, each with its following, and each different, as befits a natural product. To complicate matters further, the inside of a barrel is finished by firing, on a range of lightly toasted to charred, all with their own effects on the wine which will be stored in them. Two more things to consider are the age of the barrel, the intensity of which decreases with time, and its size. Very large barrels influence texture more than taste so that wines fermented or aged in them may display more subtle effects of oak, such as a creaminess of taste, or roundness of texture.
The investment of a producer in wood can be enormous, as in the case of premium wines, including the top châteaux of Bordeaux, which use only new wood. At the other extreme, the use of wood chips to flavour everyday wines provides a quick and inexpensive fix, at around 5% of the cost of a new barrel. The winemaker's decision is not, however, based only on price. Some grape varieties are better suited to oak than others, and vintage characteristics also have a part to play, as does wine style. The differences between a gently oxidised tawny port, aged entirely in cask, and a deeper-coloured, fruity vintage Port, aged in bottle, are striking.
If oak provides an enormous range of options for the winemaker, for the wine drinker it is very much a matter of personal choice. With practice, it becomes easier to separate these different elements, and to evaluate the degree of oak which is acceptable to your own palate.
Tannin and Acidity
It's important to recognise the presence of tannin in wine, which gives a clue both to the wine's potential longevity and, in some cases, to the grape variety from which it is made. Found in the skins, stems and pips of grapes, as well as in wooden barrels, tannin is a vital preserving ingredient which must, nonetheless, be handled intelligently to keep it in balance with the other elements which make a fine bottle.
Some grapes are low in tannin, others improbably rich. For example, the tannat of south-western France has extremely thick skin and five pips per grape, rather than the more usual three. There is much that the winemaker can do to minimise the effects of excessive tannin, including ensuring that the grapes are fully ripe before picking, removing stems and even pips before fermentation. For wines intended to be drunk young, micro-oxygenation techniques may be used to coax tannin and pigment molecules in the grape skins to form the long, delicate chains conducive to softer wines, a process which would normally take a long maturation period.
Whether a wine is to be aged for many years, or enjoyed in its youth – for a briskly tannic young red can be exceptionally good with certain rich foods – the important thing is that any tannin present should not overpower the fruit. Green, unripe tannins taste unpleasant in a young wine and rarely improve with age. Ripe, well-managed tannins, on the other hand, often evoke tasting terms like 'silky' or 'harmonious'.
Just as some grapes are more tannic than others, the level of natural acidity in grapes varies considerably, not only from variety to variety, but from region to region. The presence of acidity is what turns alcoholic fruit juice into a refreshing glass of wine but the key word, again, is balance. The shrieking sharpness of unripe grapes is hard to tame, while a wine lacking in acidity is at best flabby and at worst, unpleasant. Good acidity, which helps inhibit the effects of harmful bacteria, among other things, makes a wine taste racy, fresh, and even mouthwatering.
As wine gets older, it changes dramatically in taste. Harsh tannins polymerise and soften, brash acidity and raw alcohol interact to form compounds called esters, and primary fruit flavours evolve into complex bouquets. When mature fruit and alcohol are in balance, the wine can be said to have reached a platform of drinkability, which may last for a number of years. At the end of this period, the wine is at the end of its useful life, and should be drunk up before it begins to taste dried out, or spirity.
There are often strict laws governing the ageing of wines before they are released. A gran reserva Rioja, for example, must be aged for a minimum of two years in cask and three years in bottle before it is released for sale. Once these legal requirements have been met, the question of when to drink it is less straightforward. Our aim at The Society is to release a wine in which the different elements have, in our view, reached a degree of balance and harmony which makes it universally palatable for a period of time. We base the calculation of a drinking window on information from suppliers and our buyers' many years of experience and regular tasting. Our drinking dates tend to be conservative, taking into account the many diverse storage options used by members, from temperature-controlled cellars to cupboards under the stairs.
Taste being subjective, some palates respond more warmly to youthful charm than mellow (or potentially crusty!) old age. French wine drinkers, for example, are known to enjoy their Bordeaux in the bloom of youth, while we British tend to favour the other extreme of the Claret life cycle. On the other hand, very mature Champagne, although loved by some, is not to everyone's taste. It's not a question of right or wrong, but of making informed decisions about when to uncork a wine bought, for example en primeur, or whether paying a premium for an older bottle is worth it to you.
Comparative tasting is an exercise which may be done in solitary splendour or, more sociably, with friends.
The single most important piece of kit needed for a wine tasting is, without doubt, the human nose, which is capable of picking up an impressive range of different sensations. If its feedback is to be believed, it's best not to confuse it by wearing strong perfume or aftershave, tasting in a freshly painted or aggressively bleached environment, or smoking, especially pipes or cigars.
Next, the tongue. This magnificent organ is able to detect four basic sensations: bitter, sweet, salt and sour, and acid. Along with the inside of the cheeks, it can pick up the mouth-puckering sensation of tannin in red wines.
Thirdly, the eye can tell you a lot about wine – its possible age, for instance, to which the colour is often a clue, or a potential fault. For example, only sparkling wines should have bubbles in them and a very dark-looking white wine which is not Sherry or very old Sauternes, Burgundy or Rioja is almost certainly out of condition.
A rudimentary wine vocabulary can help find the words to describe what you are tasting. Until your own is fully developed, read through the tips and see if your impressions match those described. But if they don't, write down what you can taste in a way which is meaningful to you.
You will also require the following accessories, all of which are stocked by The Society.
Use a different glass for each wine. The tulip-shaped variety, like The Society's Tasting Glass, is perfect as the wider bowl helps aromas evolve, while the narrower top retains them for inspection. Ensure that each glass is free from detergent residue by rinsing thoroughly until any taint has disappeared. Try to avoid detergent altogether when washing wine glasses; many a wine has been killed by a tainted glass.
The Society's Screwpull and Foil Cutter make short work of opening the bottles.
A large jug or bowl with optional funnel.
A spittoon is an invaluable aid to prolonging sobriety. Use it for unwanted dregs, too.
A white tablecloth or napkins.
It's much easier to see the true colour of wine by holding the glass up against a plain white background. If all else fails, use a sheet of paper. Good lighting is important too, and daylight is best of all.
Don't stint on this one. Use to rinse mouth and glasses between tastings, and to keep hydrated.
Pen and paper to record your impressions.
Dry biscuits or plain bread
A water biscuit or a cube of bread between tastings helps cleanse the palate, and keep your strength up. Cheese, which can also mask flavour, is best avoided until after the tasting. The old wine-trade tip 'buy on an apple, sell on cheese' is a good one.
An ideal tasting temperature is not necessarily the right one for serving, although the principles are broadly similar: it is important not to overchill white wines, which masks flavours (and faults), or to allow reds to get so warm that there is any danger of evaporation. Aim for not more than 10° for lighter whites, 11-15° for more full-bodied whites. Medium reds should not be served above 16°, while fuller reds are best between 16° and 19°.
Remember that all wines quickly warm up with aeration, central heating, and the presence of enthusiastic humanity. Restore order, if necessary with a thermal jacket like the Rapid Ice, or an ice-bucket, both of which are faster than a domestic fridge.
Order of Service
The tastings kit guide is designed in a modular way, so that each pair can be tasted in isolation. If the whole selection is to be tasted in the same session, we recommend that you follow the order suggested, which starts with a pair of aromatic whites and ends with a full, mature red. In general terms, good rules to follow are white before red, dry before sweet, young before old and light before full bodied.
How to taste
A good look at a glass of wine is revealing. It betrays a number of faults which may be present, and can offer clues about the age of the wine, as well as its provenance and even in some cases, the probable grape variety from which it is made. Viscous 'tears' or 'legs' which cling to the side of the glass once it has been tilted slightly are useful clues to the wine's alcoholic strength.
- White wines range from pale to gold, encompassing pale straw, green-gold (often a sign of acidity, and typical of young riesling), mid-gold or even in the case of some dessert wines, old gold. White wines deepen in colour as they age, so the colour can tell you something about maturity.
- Reds, on the other hand, become lighter with age. The first signs of maturation are visible at the rim of the wine, so always tilt the glass to see how the colour changes. Certain varieties produce more deeply-coloured wines than others. Cabernet sauvignon and syrah or shiraz, for example, tend to make deep, dark wines, while pinot noir produces lighter-coloured reds. A really mature red often has a tawny appearance.
- Rosé wines, depending on their grape varieties and method of production, can range from the palest onion-skin or oeil de perdrix (partridge eye) to almost blue.
- In sparkling wines, look for the mousse, or column of bubbles rising from the core of the glass. Small, agile bubbles indicate good quality, whereas large, coarse ones, similar to those found in fizzy water, suggest that carbon dioxide has been added, rather than produced by the process of secondary fermentation which creates the best fizz.
- Hold the glass by the stem. Nursing the bowl with warm hands increases the temperature of the wine, a useful tip to remember if a wine has been served too cold.
- Now, keep the glass vertical, and looking from above, note clarity, limpidity, brightness and depth of colour. This is the time to check for visible faults, such as abnormally dark colour, unexpected bubbles, and foreign bodies or solids.
- Next, tilt the glass at an angle of about 45º and look at the wine again, this time noting any difference in colour between the core and the rim of the wine. Is it pronounced? Is the colour intense throughout? Try to put the colour itself into words.
- Finally, look for 'tears' or 'legs' clinging to the side of the glass. Are they absent, moderate or pronounced?
- Record your impressions.
Sniff, swirl, inhale
- We may call it wine tasting, but the nose takes centre stage, for smell is an infinitely more sensitive and complex sense than taste. While the taste buds efficiently separate sweet from bitter, and sour from salty, the 10 million or so receptor cells which make up the olfactory organ, high in the nasal cavity, are stimulated by sensations which can't be tasted. In wine terms, these could include pungency, mustiness or rot, as well as the more pleasurable aromas of oak, spice and grape fragrance.
- An initial 'nosing' or sniffing of the wine establishes its cleanliness and good health. Corkiness, oxidation or bacterial spoilage see Common Wine Faults will be readily detected at this stage. New oak will be apparent, and some of the more communicative grape varieties will announce themselves.
- Seasoned tasters swirl the wine in the glass for a very good reason. This agitation releases volatile compounds in the wine, which intensifies the 'nose', also known as the 'bouquet', and enables more information to come through. Primary fruit aromas give way to subtler, more complex notes of spice, flowers and other elements such as cedar (common in cabernet sauvignon, for example) or leather (a regular find in syrah-based wines). Whether animal, vegetable or mineral, all aromas have something to impart, and because the nose is closely linked to the brain, these sensations are automatically stored for future reference.
- Don't swirl the wine in the glass just yet. First, take a good sniff to check for cleanliness, intensity, clues to the grape variety and signs of oak.
- Next, swirl the wine in the glass and sniff immediately as it settles. Compare the difference in the wine now. Are there any aromas which were not previously apparent?
- Now try to pinpoint what you can smell. Apart from fruit aromas, can you identify other smells? If you can smell spices, for instance, try to work out what they are aniseed, cloves, ginger, pepper, nutmeg, and so on. With practice, you will be able to identify an increasing number of grape varieties from specific aromas. For now, check the glossary and see if you agree.
- Consider the intensity of the aromas present, but don't try to find something that may not be there. A youthful wine, which still has to evolve, may well be 'dumb' on the nose, in which case describe it as such. Try it again later when it has had more air contact. Decanting also helps, notably in the case of white wines which haven't much to say.
- Jot down your impressions.
- Although the nose is generally reckoned to do most of the detective work in evaluating a glass of wine, there are two important things it can't do. One is to register sweetness, acidity, bitterness and saltiness. This is the job of the taste buds, which also announce the presence of tannin and alcohol. The other is to measure the length of the wine – how long the feel and taste of it remain on the palate after swallowing or spitting – and to evaluate its finish.
- Different parts of the tongue register different tastes. The sides spot sourness, or acidity, while the back detects bitterness. The very central tip is receptive to sweetness and on either side of it are the salt detectors which might be woken up by a zesty Manzanilla, or Fino Sherry. The gums and cheeks are alert to tannin, and the back of the throat is adept at spotting the burning sensation of excessive alcohol. All the more reason to work the wine all around the mouth to ensure it comes into contact with all these receptors, enabling them to tell the full story.
- To pinpoint the effects of tannin before embarking on wine tasting, let a pot of tea stew for an hour or so. Flush a small portion around your mouth and note the puckeringly dry, bitter sensation it creates. It makes for a pretty unpleasant cuppa, but in wine it can often be a good sign. Tannin comes from grape skins, pips and stalks, as well as from wooden barrels. It is essential to the long-term welfare and ageing potential of red wine.
- Take a small sip, work the wine around your mouth and hold briefly to consider the overall dimensions and balance of the wine. Does any one element stand out? Or do all the components of the wine seem to be singing in harmony?
- Now retaste more thoroughly, ensuring you take in plenty of air, and don't be afraid to slurp and swoosh audibly if it helps. Try to pinpoint flavours and consider texture, particularly in reds, and the way in which the wine holds up in the mouth.
- Now let your tongue do the talking. If the wine is sweet, is it balanced or cloying? Are there any saline elements? Are they pleasant and refreshing or out of kilter? Is any acidity apparent? If so, is it fresh, pleasantly piquant or plain sharp? Is there any underlying bitterness? Some wines have a natural bitterness you'll get to know with practice. Valpolicella, for example, has a distinctive sour-cherry character. However, an unpleasantly woody bitterness is generally speaking the sign of a badly-made wine. Is there tannin present? If so, is it in balance, or is it overwhelming the other elements? Is it stronger on the finish? Can you taste alcohol? In a perfectly balanced wine, even one which is high in alcohol, the only clue is a subtle warmth. A burning Armagnac-like spiritiness of the kind considered acceptable in very old Port, is, in any other case, a sign of poor equilibrium.
- Finally, after swallowing or spitting, consider how the wine 'finishes'. is it short and insipid, clean and crisp and workmanlike or long, complex and multilayered? How long does the aftertaste last? Many budding tasters find it useful to count it out it in seconds, though a stopwatch is perhaps an accessory too far.
- Add your tasting impressions to the notes in place about the appearance and smell of the wine.
And, for the record...
A great deal has been written about the taste of wine, some of it helpful, some less so. The key is to record your own impressions, using terminology which means something to you. Looking for elusive flavours experienced by others is not the way to develop that essential personal shorthand which will come to the rescue again and again when tasting something unfamiliar.
Even so, there are many universally accepted descriptors for the grape varieties behind most of the wine we drink these days. This glossary makes a good starting point, if only to provide something to disagree with.
There is no set length for a tasting note, which could be 20 words or 100. What is important is to ensure that your comments can be read and understood at a later stage. Be detailed but disciplined, avoid gushing, stick to the facts and make sure your writing is legible – a practical point, often overlooked towards the end of a long line of bottles! Keep your notes in a file, or store them on a computer, for later reference.
Wine and Food Matching
Choosing the right bottle for a meal is not something to be taken too seriously, for there are few disastrous food and wine combinations. Breaking bread is, after all, about relaxation and good company, and neither preciousness and stress makes for good digestion. Most ingredients interact with wine, most of them acceptably, some less so, and one or two so brilliantly that they absolutely demand to be tried together – reason enough, surely, to give the notion of matching some thought.
Click here for more food and wine matching advice.
A balancing act
There are two common-sense principles worth noting. The first is parity, important when it comes to weight and acidity. You would no more bludgeon a delicate piece of turbot with a big shiraz, any more than you would sentence a subtle Chablis to an oxtail casserole. But it's worth knowing that very acid food, matched with a wine of low acidity, strips the wine of flavour, which explains why a young Champagne really is a good partner for well-vinegared fish and chips. So, try to match weight for weight, acid for acid.
The second part of the balancing act is compensation, based on the idea that opposites attract. Salty foods like cheese go well with sweeter wines to soothe the saline attack. Oily or fatty items respond to a bracing wine with good acidity. Bitter ingredients like endives or garlic should be smothered by wines of richness and concentration.
From tastebud terrors to perfect partners
A few ingredients really should come with a wine-lover's warning. Chocolate is a notorious wine wrecker, while eggs can coat the palate in a way that can strip the accompanying glassful of flavour. The sharp, pungent, sticky character of oranges and the hard, green edge of sprouts and cabbage compromise flavour, too. Tomatoes, whether acid and unripe or sweet and jammy, dominate wine, as do certain herbs, spices and condiments – notably chilli,garlic and vinegar. These are the ingredients in any recipe which should call the shots when it comes to choosing the best wine match.
Good matches for these tricky ingredients are often discovered quite by chance. Here are some of the best, along with one or two inspired combinations gleaned over the years from tastings, suggested by our growers and discovered by members:
- Fresh asparagus and dry muscat
An inspired match of lean, green vegetable with fragrant, sweet-smelling but bone-dry wine. Choose from Alsace, the Languedoc or southern Italy.
- Chilli and demi-sec Vouvray
Countering heat with sweetness really works, although a vindaloo is best washed down with beer.
- Eggs and riesling
Any form of egg custard – from onion quiche to crème caramel – responds to Alsace or German riesling, dry or dessert-grade as required.
- Tomatoes and Alsace gewurztraminer
Fruity Italian reds had the monopoly here until one of our Alsace growers made this excellent suggestion. A drier wine is best for preference.
Stir-fried greens and grenache
We've yet to find a better shock-absorber for cabbage than a generous grenache from Spain, Australia or southern France.
- Caramelised oranges and fortified muscat
Savoury dishes 'à l'orange' are unforgiving, but orange puddings are delicious with warm, spirity muscat from the Rhône, Australia or Samos.
- Tarte au chocolat and Banyuls (or Maury)
The dark, treacly grenache-based liqueur wines of the Roussillon are the best of the chocolate soldiers, though Malmsey Madeira is pretty good too.
A word about cheese
Though most of us automatically reach for the red when the cheeseboard arrives, it's worth noting that white wine is a good match, too. This is not surprising since cheese can be fairly sharp, as well as fatty and in both cases is best partnered with a wine of comparable acidity. Young, fruity reds work on the same basis. The following combinations work very well.
- Goat's Milk Cheese and Sancerre
A brilliant match, particularly if the cheese in question is a crottin de Chavignol, Sancerre's own speciality. These two are perfectly balanced in acidity and piquancy, and the match works even better if the cheese is grilled.
- Munster and Gewürztraminer
Another regional partnership, in which the rich, generous, spicy character of the wine absorbs the assertiveness of the Alsace cheese.
- Gruyère and Vin Jaune
The concentrated, creamy nuttiness of an extra-aged Gruyère combined with the lemony, slightly oxidised character of a traditional white from the Jura – Château-Chalon for example - is a revelation. The principles of this Alpine match also work equally well for a good British Cheddar and Fino Sherry.
- Roquefort and Monbazillac or Sauternes
Whatever else you do in life, please try a slice of Roquefort cheese with a glass of Sauternes or Monbazillac. The salt in the cheese is perfectly balanced by the sweetness in the wine while the penicillium mould resonates with the noble-rot character of the wine.
- An honorary red, and all-round cheeseboard hero
Made from the same grape varieties as Port, a table red from the Douro has the vivavious fruit and good structure needed to cope with most cheeses, including creamy blues like Fourme d'Ambert.
Common Wine Faults
There is no need to put up with a bad bottle of wine, wherever it's consumed. Thankfully, most faults are rare, but it pays to know how to spot them and to draw them promptly and decisively to the attention of your waiter or wine merchant. At The Society, we rely on our members to let us know if any wines bought from us are behaving badly. Apart from giving us the opportunity to replace the wine or refund its cost, it enables us to check our remaining stock to ensure that the problem is not widespread. Any responsible restaurateur or merchant will share our views.
- Solids (Eye)
Apart from an unsolicited earwig or spider which has fallen foul of the bottling-line, the most common examples of solids are particles suspended in the wine, or crystalline deposits which may float up from the bottom of the bottle if it is agitated. Avoid wines with a snowy, cloudy 'haze', which is caused by metallic contamination, or micro-organisms like yeast or bacteria. Tartrate crystals, on the other hand, can be a sign of minimal handling, a decision made by the winemaker to preserve the flavour which excessive fining and filtration could strip out. Let these settle at the bottom of the bottle and pour carefully.
- Unwanted bubbles (Eye)
Trapped in a bottle, sugar and yeast interact, releasing carbon dioxide gas into the wine. Managed properly, this feat of nature is responsible for Champagne, but persistent bubbles in a still wine – as opposed to a little spritz of CO2 which is added to preserve freshness and which evaporates quickly – are a fault.
- Corkiness (Nose)
This commonly-used term has nothing to do with a crumbling closure which has allowed too much air into the bottle, or the floating fragments of a carelessly-pulled cork. It refers very specifically to a cork infected with trichloroanisole, or TCA, a chemical compound formed when the chlorine used as a bleaching agent in cork production reacts with moulds which may be present in the body of the cork. The musty, rotten smell of a corked wine is unmistakeable, and becomes worse as it is exposed to the air.
- Volatility (Nose and palate)
Prolonged overexposure to air causes wine to be attacked by aerobic bacteria, which turn it, quite literally, into vinegar (although not the kind you should make salad dressing with), making it sour on the nose and sharp on the palate. Another unpleasantly volatile smell is that of ethyl phenol, reminiscent of nail-varnish remover or strong glue. Wines so affected are beyond redemption.
- Oxidation (Eye, nose and palate)
This is what happens when a wine is exposed to too much air owing to a dried-out, poorly-fitting or faulty cork, for example. The symptoms are a raisiny, Sherry-like smell and often a noticeably and prematurely dark colour in white wines, and a brownish tinge in reds. On the palate, the wine tastes stale and flat.
- SO2 and H2S (Nose and palate)
Sulphur dioxide (SO2) is an essential defence against oxidation, but too much literally gets up the nose with an unpleasantly acrid tang which can cause sneezing or coughing. Normally, a good decanting gets rid of it. The distinctive 'bad egg' smell of hydrogen sulphide (H2S) on the other hand tends to stick around, especially if a mild case of what we call 'bottle stink' has developed into foul-smelling mercaptans, compounds formed when wine has not been properly racked.
Learning the Lingo
Like other specialised activities, wine tasting has a language all of its own, but it's not a foreign tongue and there is no need to be overly technical. Some of the more useful and relevant terms explained in this section may be helpful in pinpointing a particular sensation or character you may come across while tasting.
The same is true of the way in which flavours are described by tasters, because, with the exception of muscat, the grapiest of all wines, wine very rarely tastes of grapes. Our Grape Glossary lists common reactions to a selection of the varieties you are most likely to sample, designed to be a helpful stop gap while you get to grips with grapes.
- Sauvignon Blanc
Loire, Bordeaux, New Zealand, Chile, South Africa
Grass cuttings, gooseberries, cat's pee (universal); boiled sweets, pear drops (Sancerre); nettles, passion fruit (New Zealand); asparagus (some older wines). Fresh, zingy and verdant.
Alsace, Germany, Chile, South Africa, Italy
Exotic, heady, lychees, rose petals, powdered ginger, Turkish delight.
Chablis, white Burgundy, Champagne, and the rest of the world
Apples (cool climate); honeysuckle, hazelnuts, quinces, glacé fruit (white Burgundy) or melons, pineapples and bananas (warmer climates). Buttery, creamy and lanolic or oily are also widely-used adjectives, as is mushroomy (especially older wines, notably Chablis).
Alsace, Languedoc, dessert and fortified wines worldwide
Grapey, perfumed, spicy, elderflower, confit orange, smells disconcertingly sweet when the wine is bone dry. Sweeter wines can be honeyed, treacly, raisiny and spirity.
- Chenin Blanc
Loire, South Africa
Stewed apple, baked quince, honey (all the more pronounced in dessert bottles).
Bordeaux, Western Australia, USA
Waxy, blossomy, rounded in texture, relatively neutral in taste. Toasty with age and marmaladey when affected by noble-rot.
Rhône, Languedoc, Australia
Peach kernels, apricots, flowers (jasmine). The warmer the vineyard, the headier the wine.
Alsace, Germany, Australia, New Zealand, Chile, South Africa
Pure, racy, mineral, citrusy, fragrant, flowery with elements of lime juice or lime cordial and, with bottle-age, petrol or kerosene. Once described – entirely positively! – by a guest at a Society dinner as reminiscent of a well-loved garden shed.
Bordeaux, Chile, Argentina, New Zealand, Australia
Red fruits, summer pudding, chocolate, baked figs, gentle spices.
Southern Rhône, Roussillon, Languedoc, Australia, Spain (where it is known as garnacha)
White pepper, Provence herbs, spices. Warmth, alcohol.
- Cabernet Sauvignon
Bordeaux, Australia, Chile, Argentina, South Africa, New Zealand, Languedoc, USA
Green pepper, cassis, blackcurrant cordial, roasted coffee beans, cedar, liquorice.
Beaujolais, Mâcon, Loire, Languedoc, New Zealand
Bubblegum, strawberries, raspberries. The fruitiest of grapes.
- Cabernet Franc
Loire, Bordeaux, Australia
Leafy, grassy, curranty, stalky. Capsicums and pencil shavings.
Spain, Portugal (known as tinto roriz)
Red fruits (strawberries), tied closely to oaky vanilla and tobacco flavours in mature Rioja.
Argentina, Cahors, Bordeaux, Loire
Red and black berries, brambles, mulberries. Well-cured leather, smoke.
Black fruits, notably plums and cherries, fruit cake (mace, cardamom, allspice).
- Pinot Noir
Burgundy, Chile, New Zealand, Australia, Italy, USA
Forest fruits, leaf-mould, compost. Gamey, vegetal, seductive.
Tar, violets, roses.
Rhône, Languedoc, Australia, South Africa, Chile, Argentina
Black fruits, brambles, plums, spice, black pepper, leather 'sweaty saddle'.
Broad-brush berry fruits, especially loganberries and brambles, mulling spices (cinnamon, cloves, star anise).
Smoke, tar, burnt rubber, brambles.
- View a list of tasting terms
- View a short video of How to Taste