Wine Flavors: What’s Right? What’s Wrong?

Learn where wine flavors come from, how to smell them, and what flavors to expect in Cabernet, Shiraz, Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, and Sauvignon Blanc.

Understanding the flavors in wine starts with a seemingly simple question:

Where do wine flavors come from?

Imagine yourself the size of a single atom floating on the surface of a glass of wine. Down at this level, the surface of wine is quite turbulent.

Alcohol Evaporation Diagram by Wine Folly

Ethanol molecules lift off from the surface of the liquid during evaporation, carrying with them a slew of other aromatic compounds. These compounds float into our noses and give wine its many flavors.

Wine Flavors in Pinot Noir Wine versus Pinot Noir Juice - Diagram by Wine Folly

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But this doesn’t explain why Pinot Noir juice smells nothing like Pinot Noir wine.

Wine flavors are created by chemical reactions during fermentation (when yeast turns sugar into alcohol). Fermentation creates hundreds of flavor compounds.

If cherries aren’t an ingredient in wine, then how come some wines smell like cherries?

At the atomic level, aromatic compounds in wine look identical to โ€“ or are mirror images ofโ€“ smells you already know. When you sniff cherry in wine, you are smelling the identical aroma compounds that also waft from a freshly baked cherry pie. (Egads, now I’m hungry!)

Here are common wine flavors by category:

Common Fruit Flavors Found in Red Wine - Infographic by Wine Folly

FRUIT

Red wines typically smell like various berries, cherries, and plums.

Common Fruit Flavors Found in White Wine - Infographic by Wine Folly

White wines typically smell like citrus fruits, tree fruits (peaches, apples, pears), and melons.

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FLOWER / HERB

Both red and white wines can have subtle (or not-so-subtle) aromas of fresh flowers, roses, green herbs, leaves, green vegetables, and/or stems.

OTHER

Don’t be surprised if you get whiffs of cheese, bread, milk, butter, bacon fat, petrol, nail polish, potting soil, or petrichor (smells like freshly wetted asphalt in the summer – side note: I’m addicted to this smell…).

AGING / OAK

Some wine smells come specifically from aging wine (or oaking it) and include vanilla, baking spices, pie crust, caramel, Maillard Reaction (the “brown butter” smell), tobacco, cedar, coffee, leather, creosote, and chocolate.


Cabernet Sauvignon Flavors

Cabernet Sauvignon Tasting Notes - Illustration by Wine Folly

Read more about Cabernet Sauvignon.


Shiraz Flavors

Shiraz Tasting Notes - Illustration by Wine Folly

Read more about Shiraz.


Chardonnay Flavors

Chardonnay Tasting Notes - Illustration by Wine Folly

Read more about Chardonnay.


Sauvignon Blanc Flavors

Sauvignon Blanc Tasting Notes - Illustration by Wine Folly

Read more about Sauvignon Blanc.


If I smell cherries and you smell pepper, who’s right?

Look at your nose. Now imagine (or look at) someone else’s nose. (Don’t stare!) They look pretty different right?

Wine Noses Illustration by Wine Folly
Love your sniffer!

Differences in our physical attributes, along with how our brains process smells, partially explain why we each pick out different wine flavors and smells.

That said, each wine does have a “base set” of aromas that most people agree upon (who aren’t asnomiacs.)

BTW, if you have trouble picking out wine flavors, I highly recommend watching this video with a glass of Pinot Noir.

NOTE: For those who think their nose blows: I know a Master Sommelier with a below-average sniffer… So, don’t give up on your honker!

Get out and use your snout!

Next time you pick up a glass of wine don’t drink it! (Well, at least not at first). Take your time to pick out 3โ€“5 wine flavors BEFORE you taste it. That’s the secret.

This, my friends, is how you become an amazing taster. Salut!


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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