Recognizing Wine Flavors: The Ultimate Guide
All wine lovers should know how to recognize wine flavors. Wine is a complex drink, and being able to identify its organoleptic characteristics is a must, even if you are only an amateur.
As you might know by now, wine tasting involves various steps which include a visual evaluation of the beverage, an olfactory evaluation of the bouquet and aromas of the wine and a gustatory evaluation of the wine flavors, through actually tasting it.
This stage of the sensory analysis represents both a verification and a synthesis of what emerged from the visual and olfactory examinations. In fact, the assumptions made regarding the taste of the wine based on its appearance and smell can be confirmed or dismissed by the gustatory evaluation.
Taste is a much less complex sense than the smell and it only gives us elemental feelings. So how to understand these sensations and determine the flavors of the wine? Read our guide and learn how to recognize wine flavors like a pro.
The Sense Of Taste
Humans can recognize four basic flavors, and all of them play a role when it comes to recognizing the flavors of a wine.
The basic flavors are:
- Sweetness (also referred to as softness by the sommeliers and wine experts)
- Acidity (known as hardness among the connoisseurs)
It is a pleasant flavor caused by the presence of sugar residues in the beverage. It is perceived essentially on the tip of the tongue and, as it is easy to imagine, it determines the sweetness of the wine.
On the contrary of the sweetness, acidity doesn’t provide a pleasant feeling and it is caused by the acids present in the wine. This flavor is perceived mainly on the front and lateral areas of the tongue and it causes salivation.
Sapidity is another pleasant flavor given by the presence of mineral salts in wine. Perceived on the lateral and dorsal areas of the tongue, sapidity also contributes to the softness of the wine.
The bitterness of a wine is mainly caused by the presence of polyphenols, especially tannins. Tannins are present in all wines but its flavor should be almost imperceptible. Therefore, if the wine has a strong bitter taste chances are that it might have lost its organoleptic characteristics.
The tactile sensations are indirectly involved in the gustatory evaluation of the wine flavors, as it contributes to the overall perception of the taste. The tactile sensations can be divided into four categories:
- Thermic Sensation
A sensation linked to the serving temperature of the wine. All wines have an ideal serving temperature and tasting a wine that is colder or warmer than it should be can alter the perception of the flavors.
The sweetness is more perceptible when the temperature of the wine is warmer, while the sapidity and bitterness are more perceptible when the serving temperature is colder than it should be. Acidity is usually not altered by the temperature.
- Pseudo-caloric Sensation
- Astringent Sensation
The pseudo-caloric sensation refers to the thermic sensation the alcohol in the wine gives us, regardless of the actual temperature of the wine. This sensation is related to the feeling of heat and dehydration characteristic of alcohol.
The astringency of a wine is given by the presence of the tannins and the sensation can be described as a feeling of dryness and roughness.
- Pungent Sensation
Pungency is the characteristic sensation given by the sparkling beverages and is common is sparkling wines. The feeling is caused by the presence of the CO2 in the wine and it sometimes can be felt on still wines too.
How To Taste The Wine Flavors
The gustative evaluation of wine has five simple steps, but performing them in the right way is crucial.
- The first thing to do is to prepare your taste buds by “watering” your oral cavity with a small amount of the wine to be evaluated.
- Once the oral cavity is prepared, proceed with tasting the beverage by introducing more wine into your mouth without swallowing it.
- Move the wine inside your mouth then bring the liquid to the front of the mouth and inspire slowly. This step will amplify the taste sensations and it will allow you to feel the wine flavors.
- Now move the wine with your tongue and exhale slowly. The wine will flood the entire oral cavity and it will allow you to evaluate the balance between the various elements, such as sugars, acids, tannins, and alcohol.
- Swallow the wine, exhale and chew a few times with your mouth empty. The aromatic persistence and the wine flavors are now evaluated from both an olfactory and gustative point of view.
Now that you know how to taste the flavors of the wine, find out how to identify and evaluate them.
What Is Evaluated
The softness of the wine is evaluated from the point of view of sweetness, alcohol, and polyalcohol.
The sugars present in grapes are transferred into the wine and after the alcoholic fermentation, small amounts of sugars form sugary residues that give the sweetness to the wine. The sweetness can be evaluated as:
- Dry: sweetness is not present and there is a slight sensation of softness.
- Semi-Dry: it has a slight feeling of sweetness.
- Semi-Sweet: a clear sweet flavor is identified.
- Sweet: the sugars can be clearly tasted and the overall sensation of the wine is that of sweetness.
- Nauseating: the wine is too sweet and the other organoleptic characteristics cannot be perceived. Such a wine should receive a negative evaluation.
The alcohols present in the wine are formed during the fermentation of the sugar, and this element offers the wine both softness and hardness characteristic, with a predominance of the softness. The sensation identified during tasting is the pseudo-caloric and it is given by the dehydration caused by the alcohol. This sensation can be identified as:
- Light: no pseudo-caloric sensation. Corresponds to an alcohol gradation of 4-4,5°.
- Slightly warm: a modest pseudo-caloric sensation. Corresponds to an alcohol gradation of 10-11°.
- Sufficiently warm: a clear pseudo-caloric sensation. Corresponds to an alcohol gradation of 11-12° and it is in perfect balance with all the other characteristics.
- Warm: a strong pseudo-caloric sensation. Corresponds to an alcohol gradation of 12-13,5° and it can cover the other characteristics.
- Alcoholic: the main sensation felt is the pseudo-caloric one. Corresponds to an alcohol gradation of 15-18°.
In addition to the alcohols, polyphenols also develop during the fermentation. They contribute to the softness of the wine by producing glycerin that gives a certain “roundness” to the wine. Based on this characteristic the wine can be:
- Sharp: the absolute lack of softness characteristic to low-quality wines.
- Slightly soft: characteristic to very young wines, the softness sensation is weak.
- Sufficiently soft: a pleasant sensation characteristic to the young wines.
- Soft: the strong sensation of softness characteristic to aged wines.
- Doughy: a predominant sensation of softness characteristic to the sweet dessert wines.
On the contrary of softness, the hardness of a wine is determined by the acidity, sapidity, and bitterness.
Acids are an essential element in any wine and they are responsible for the sensation of freshness. The ideal pH of the wine varies between 3,1 and 3,7 and it can be defined as:
- Flat: characterized by a lack of acidity. The wine should be evaluated as negative.
- Slightly fresh: a weak acidity, characteristic to aged wines.
- Sufficiently fresh: a discreet sensation of acidity characteristic to young red wines or aged white wines.
- Fresh: a clear sensation of acidity characteristic of white, rosé and sparkling wines.
- Acid: characteristic of immature wines.
Tannins, on the other hand, are released into the wine by the grapes, their quantity in the white wines being extremely low. Apart from the vegetal tannins released by the grapes, tannins are also produced by the maturation and aging containers where the wine is kept. However, these noble tannins improve the final flavor of the wine. Based on the tannin concentration, the wines can be defined as:
- Weak: a minimal presence of tannic elements, characteristic to an altered or old wine.
- Slightly tannic: a weak sensation of tannin, characteristic of young white wines or aged red wines.
- Sufficiently tannic: a clear astringent sensation specific to red wines.
- Tannic: a strong astringent sensation specific to young red wines.
- Astringent: specific to poor quality wines, this sensation should be evaluated as negative.
Regarding the sapidity of a wine, the sensation is given by the mineral salts that are present in any wine and are caused by many factors among which the winemaking and the aging processes. Based on the sapidity, a wine can be:
- Insipid: without mineral salts, characteristic of aged wines or of those obtained from low-quality grapes.
- Slightly sapid: few mineral salts.
- Sufficiently sapid: a balanced wine with a normal presence of mineral salts.
- Sapid: a pleasant salty sensation characteristic to the wine obtained from high-quality grapes.
- Salted: the wine has a predominant salty taste. The evaluation is not necessarily negative as some Portuguese wines are characterized by this flavor.
The balance of the wine flavors is given by the rapport between the two main characteristics of the wine, the softness, and the hardness. Based on the gustative balance a wine can be defined as:
- Slightly balanced: if one of the two sensations is predominant.
- Sufficiently balanced: one of the two sensations is predominant yet not in a decided way.
- Balanced: a wine with a balanced taste sensation between the two elements, that is also compatible with the type of the wine that is tasted.
The intensity of the wine flavors is given by the gustative and tactile sensations that were individualized during the tasting. The intensity can be defined as:
- Absent: scarce gustative and tactile sensations.
- Slightly intense: reduced gustative and tactile sensations.
- Sufficiently intense: balanced gustative and tactile sensations.
- Intense: good gustative and tactile sensations.
- Very intense: superlative gustative and tactile sensations.
Based on all the elements described above, the quality of the wine flavors can be described as:
- Average: low-quality wine.
- Slightly fine: an average wine.
- Sufficiently fine: a pleasant flavor.
- Fine: a good wine, perfectly balanced and with a refined flavor.
- Excellent: a distinguished wine with a complex and rich flavor.
White Wine Flavors
The variety of the grapes and their maturation affect the flavors of the white wines. If unripe, the grapes will give the wine vegetable flavors of grass and leaves, while if the grapes are fully ripe they will offer the wine fruity or flowery flavors.
Young white wines usually have greenish shades and flavors of fresh fruit, such as apples or strawberries. With the time, the color of the white wines becomes more yellow and the flavors mature and develop to flavors of honey and toasted fruits. The flavors usually identified in white wines are sage, fennel, mint, jasmine, elderberry, acacia honey and jam.
Red Wine Flavors
Regarding the red wines, their flavors cover a wide range. Often, the mainly identified flavors are those of berries, roses, and violets. Fruity and flowery flavors are characteristic to young wines, while the aged red wines are characterized by dry fruit flavors, rosemary, and thyme. The toasted and smoked flavors are usually a result of the aging process, especially if the wine was aged in old barrels. Some red wines can have flavors of coffee and cocoa, flavors characteristic to collection wines.
Wine tasting is certainly complex and it takes years of practice to become an expert in the field. Nevertheless, we hope that this guide will help you understand better the wine flavors and aromas of the most refined beverage in the world.