How to Distinguish Wine Notes

Glasses of red, white, and rose.
Wine can be complex, containing many different notes. Do we detect a hint of citrus, licorice, asparagus and oak? See more wine pictures.
Robin Macdougall/Photographers Choice/Getty Images

­We've all most likely seen someone performing an actual wine tasting, whether in person or on TV. First, the person holds his glass by the stem, tilting it up to the light to examine the color and body of its contents. Then he swirls the glass around and brings it up to his face. He inhales deeply, smelling the liquid waiting just beneath his nose. Then, he takes a sip and swishes it around, clearly making several mental notes. After a contemplative moment, he spits the liquid out of his mouth. This last act does not indicate a bad glass, instead it means he's merely trying to distinguish the wine's notes (taste and aroma).

Wine can have a multitude of different describable characteristics as the result of its production. Many factors, such as geographical location, geological conditions and climate affect the taste and aroma of wine. These things are often lumped together and referred to as terroir. While there is no clear consensus in the wine world on exactly what terroir is, it's often thought of the specific characteristics given to a wine because of where and how it was produced [sources: Jono, Grape Radio].


­Therefore, terroir is a big influence on a wine and its notes. They type of soil in a certain area can dictate which grapes can grow successfully. The amounts of sunlight grapes receive con­trols how long they take to grow and ripen. The barrel used to store the wine during fermentation may leave its mark (like an oaky scent from wine stored in an oak barrel) [source: Learn Vino].

With so many factors, it's not surprising that wine can be complex -- containing many different notes. It takes practice and understanding to be able to decipher differences in wine. This article will go through how to use scent and taste to distinguish different wine notes as well as explain some popular aids in learning to do so. At the end, you'll be able to understand some of what that wine taster from above is trying to do as he goes through the wine tasting steps.

Check out the next page to learn about a tool meant to help any beginner in distinguishing wine notes.


The Wine Aroma Wheel

Especially for someone new and unfamiliar with wine, it can be hard to identify the many scents associated with different wine varieties. It's easiest to describe something when you can compare it to something else. That's why Ann C. Noble and some of her co-workers at the University of California at Davis created the Wine Aroma Wheel [source: Essman]. The three-layer wheel aids people in describing the different scents they detect when smelling a wine. It provides the users with descriptive terms they can use to make analogies that will more clearly communicate the scents they smell. The wheel doesn't cover every term used for wine notes, but it includes many of the most commonly accepted terms.

The wheel is three concentric circles, like a three-tiered bulls-eye. The inner circle has the general terms, which are fruity, spicy, floral, microbiological, sherry, pungent, chemical, earthy, woody, caramel, nutty and herbaceous or vegetative [source: Ashland Wineries]. The terms get more specific and localized as you work your way out. The second ring breaks the general terms down into more specific categories and the third outermost ring is extremely descriptive. Some of the terms here include lemon, pineapple, licorice, sweaty, mousy, horsey, sulfur dioxide, natural gas, bacon, oak, asparagus, hay/straw and tobacco. By using these terms, which were chosen because they were descriptive without passing judgment, tasters can learn to associate and identify notes in wine [source: Ashland Wineries, Noble].


These are just analogies though, so don't think that because you smell hay that it's an ingredient in the wine.

Now you know the wine wheel, but what about the specifics of how to find these characteristics in the wine you're drinking? Check out the next page for information on how the wine's aroma or bouquet can help you more fully understand it.


Detecting Wine Notes Via a Wine's Nose

One of the best ways to identify the notes of a wine is through scent. A wine's nose is said to be the scents it gives off that are detectable by a human nose [source: Parker].

Many experts agree that a majority of the enjoyment and flavor derived from wine comes through smelling it [source: Prial]. But for those unfamiliar with what they're looking for or how to find the specific notes, this can be challenging.


Noble recommends beginners start with white wines, which are a little easier to work with. A great way to familiarize yourself with the common aromas it to set up a comparison between a standard wine and some of the more common elements associated with the different scents.

Gather what Noble refers to as the standards -- common foods, spices or elements -- that are often used to describe notes and scents. For a basic white wine, these would include brine of canned asparagus, bell peppers, vanilla extract, butter extract, a clove, a small amount of fresh mixed orange and grapefruit juice, peach or apricot juice, and pineapple. Put these samples inside their own individual wine glass or small dish and cover them. (For a red, the standards would include asparagus, bell pepper, vanilla, butter extract, a clove, soy sauce, berries, old strawberry jam, artificial fruit flavoring and a black pepper.)

Now pour yourself a glass of an inexpensive wine, filling the glass a third to half of the way full. One at a time, smell the wine and then smell the standard. See if you can recognize the scents in the wine. This will help you learn to identify the scents on your own [source: Noble].

For the best results, swirl the glass of wine before smelling it. This will better release notes to your nose [source: Learn Vino, Kelley Cellars]. It may also be beneficial to have several varieties of wines around so you can compare and differentiate.

Now that we've covered aroma, let's investigate taste.


Detecting Wine Notes through Taste

We've discussed that smelling wine is probably the best way to detect notes, but that doesn't mean that tasting the wine isn't important as well. After all, you're meant to drink it. Most of our taste comes from smelling, but you can learn certain things about wine -- whether it's sweet, sour or bitter -- from taste [source: Learn Vino]. No matter how familiar you get with detecting notes and understanding the complexities of wine, in the end it's created to be consumed and enjoyed.

To best detect the wine's characteristics, you need to understand the proper technique for tasting. It's not as simple as taking a sip and swallowing. This is the stage where you actually make contact with the wine -- first by detecting the aroma or bouquet and then by discovering the texture and flavors [source: Kelley Cellars].


Many suggest that you start with a small sip to awaken your senses and taste buds. Commonly, you would then take a larger sip and hold it in your mouth for anywhere from five to 15 seconds, if not longer. During this time, breath in some air and move the wine around your mouth, letting it touch every surface. Concentrate on what's happening and what you feel. Some wines will make your mouth feel dry, some will immediately taste sweet or bitter. These qualities are easy to recognize and will point you toward certain areas on the aroma wheel [sources: Learn Vino, Kelley Cellars, Schneider].

You could use the same procedure Noble suggests (as we explained on the previous page) to help you identify notes here as well. Stick to smelling the standards though, as the taste may be too strong or inhibit your ability to taste the wine. Simply smell the standards and then examine the wine in your mouth. What similarities do you find? You may also want to compare it to other wines of the same variety, such as two different chardonnays. This will help you distinguish certain notes and any differing characteristics of the wines.

Don't put the cork back in it yet! Even if you've swallowed that wine, you're not quite done. There are further steps you can take to detect wine notes. Check out the next page to find out what they are.


The Finish Line: Wine Aftertaste

If you haven't yet swallowed or spit out that wine, now's the time. Chances are, you've already detected many of the wine's notes from smelling and tasting it. But there are certain things you can learn even after the wine has bid farewell to your taste buds. Directly after spitting out or swallowing the wine, take in a deep breath through your nose and mouth. Examine what flavors and sensations are still lingering in your mouth. If there isn't much of an aftertaste or remaining sensation, the wine is usually considered of lesser quality [source: Parker].

Appropriately, wines that leave longer-lasting aftertastes are said to be a good quality. In fact, the longer the better. If it has a long aftertaste, it gives yet another chance to study its characteristics. Does it leave your mouth feeling bitter or sweet? Do you detect any new scents or flavors that weren't there initially? As long as the taste remains, try to study how it feels and smells, and associate those qualities to communicable, descriptive terms found on the aroma wheel previously mentioned.


Learning to identify and describe the different characteristics of a wine is tough. That's why aids like the aroma wheel were created. By using it at first and learning the proper techniques, understanding the subtleties of wine isn't as hard as it seems. For even more information, check out the links on the next page.

Lots More Information

Related HowStuffWorks Articles

  • Ashland Vineyards and Winery, Shakespeare Wine. "Wine Aroma Wheel." (Accessed 03/30/2009)
  • Berger, Dan. "Why Terroir is Essential to Wine Evalution." Appelation America. December 27, 2006. (Accessed 03/31/2009)
  • Essman, Elliot. "The Wine Aroma Wheel." Style Gourmet. (Accessed 03/30/2009)
  • Exploring Wine. "Terroir." Exploring Wine - UK. (Accessed 03/31/2009).
  • Grape Radio. "Wine Terms." (Accessed 03/31/2009)
  • Jono. "Terroir." The Wine Blokes. January 14,2008. (Accessed 03/30/2009)
  • Kelley Cellars. "How to Taste Wine." (Accessed 03/31/2009)
  • Learn Vino. "Wine Basics: How to Taste Wine -- Looking at Wine: Just the Basics." DePaul (Accessed 03/31/2009)
  • Learn Vino. "Wine Basics: How to Taste Wine -- Sipping Wine: Just the Basics." DePaul (Accessed 03/31/2009)
  • Learn Vino. "Wine Basics: How to Taste Wine -- Smelling Wine: Just the Basics." DePaul (Accessed 03/31/2009)
  • Noble, Ann C., "The Wine Aroma Wheel." Wine Aroma Wheel. (Accessed 03/30/2009)
  • Noble, A.C., "Using the Wine Aroma Wheel." Inno Vinum Sensory Strategy. 2000. (Accessed 03/30/2009)
  • Parker, Robert. "A Glossary of Wine Terms." Robert Parker. (Accessed 4/1/09)
  • Peynaud, Emile, Jacques Blouin, and Michael Schuster. "The Taste of Wine." Google Books (Accessed 03/31/2009),M1
  • Prial, Frank, J. "Wine Talk." The New York Times. January 26th, 1994. (Accessed 03/31/2009)
  • Schneider, Sara. "Taste wine like a pro." Sunset (Accessed 03/31/2009)