How Finding Wine Flavors Changes Your Brain For The Better

Finding wine flavors actually isn’t that easy. Sure, it’s simple to swallow wine, but that isn’t exactly the point!

Wine is unique because it requires high dexterity in your sense of smell and taste. What’s interesting is that smell and taste are two of our least valued observational skills.

A chart displaying the importance of vision and hearing over smelling and tasting - human perception and cognition

Fortunately, learning to find flavors improves those under-used senses; it also challenges mental cognition. In fact, wine tasting improves the part of your brain first affected by memory disease (your entorhinal cortex, to be exact)!

So, how does one learn this skill? Read on! (Hopefully, with a glass of wine nearby.)

A Guide to Finding Flavors in Wine

How to find wine flavors: step-by-step

First things first, use the right drinking vessel. The bowl shape of a wine glass has been shown to deliver aromas in an even, predictable way. By the way, there are several different types of wine glasses from which to choose!

Then, pour yourself about 3 ounces or 75 milliliters of wine. This is enough to sniff and taste, but not too much to make it difficult to swirl.

Swirl the glass, close your eyes, and take a slow, deliberate sniff.

At this point in the process everyone has a slightly different technique. Keeping your eyes closed helps separate what you smell from what you see. That’s the goal.

Suddenly, you’re no longer smelling wine, you’re smelling something.

The goal is to focus on the something until you know what it is. It could be a bowl of crushed black cherries, freshly grated nutmeg, or even a bag of potting soil.

High quality wines have many different aromas all wrapped together. Lower quality wines are generally a bit more simplistic in their flavor profile.

Fruit Flavors in Wine Infographic by Wine Folly.

Fruit Flavors

Some tasters are generalists (i.e. “citrus notes”) and others are excruciatingly exact in their flavor identification (i.e. “Meyer lemon zest”). Either way, try to focus on the condition of the fruit. Is it fresh? Unripe? Ripe? Dried? Sweet? Candied? Roasted? Preserved?

Try to smell the following fruit flavors in wine:

  • Citrus fruits, including lime, lemon, grapefruits, etc.
  • Tree fruits and melons, including apple, pear, peach, honeydew, etc.
  • Tropical fruit, including mango, pineapple, lychee, etc.
  • Red fruit flavors, including strawberry, red plum, raspberry, etc.
  • Black fruit, including blackberry, blueberry, olive, etc.
  • Dried fruits like dried figs and dates.

Flower herb and spice flavors in wine - infographic by Wine Folly

Flower, Herb, & Spice Flavors

Very often there are flavors in wine other than fruit. Wines share many of the same aroma compounds as other flowers and plants. For example, Beta-damascenone is found in roses and Pinot Noir!

Flower and herb categories to consider while sniffing:

  • Floral aromas, including roses, elderflower, violet, iris, bergamot, and hibiscus.
  • Green aromas, including grass, gooseberry, bell pepper, green pea, and tomato leaf.
  • Tea-like aromas, including black tea, Darjeeling, green tea, Matcha, Rooibos, and Earl Grey.
  • Minty smells, including mint, peppermint, eucalyptus, menthol, sage, fennel, and wintergreen.
  • Herb notes, such as thyme, oregano, rosemary, tarragon, and basil.
  • Spice aromas, such as cinnamon, black pepper, red pepper, anise, and Asian 5-Spice Blend.

Earthy Mineral Yeast and Other Flavors in Wine - Infographic by Wine Folly.

Earth, Mineral, & Other Aromas

The fermentation process is what unlocks all the complex aromas in wine. The microbes responsible for turning grape juice into wine also produce a milieu of other interesting smells.

  • Earthy smells, including wet clay pot, potting soil, red beet, and mushroom.
  • Yeasty aromas like beer, lager, sourdough, milk chocolate, and buttermilk.
  • Rustic aromas, such as tanned leather, old leather, black cardamom, barnyard, cured meat, and tobacco smoke.
  • Chemical-like aromas, such as petroleum, new plastic and rubber.
  • Mineral smells, including petrichor, wet gravel, slate, and volcanic rocks.

Oak Barrel and Oxidation - Aging Flavors in Wine - Infographic by Wine Folly.

Aging & Oak Flavors

After the fermentation is complete, the aging process (which includes oxidation and oak barrels) also adds flavors to wine.

  • Oak adds flavors of vanilla, allspice, clove, coconut, cigar box, cedar, cola, and dill.
  • Aging (oxidation) adds flavors such as dried fruit, hazelnut, tobacco, chocolate, leather, browned butter, and baked apple.

Wine Flavor Chart next to Flavor Thesaurus Book

Get The Wine Flavor Wheel

Practice with Wine Folly’s Flavor Wheel, specifically designed for wine tasting. The Wheel includes over 100 common wine aromas organized by category, including wine faults.

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About Madeline Puckette

James Beard Award-winning author and Wine Communicator of the Year. I co-founded Wine Folly to help people learn about wine. @WineFolly