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What is wine flavour? 8 steps to choosing your wine.

Grape, place, winemaker (in that order..!)

I get told almost every day "I don't know very much about wine, but I know what I like". And that really is a great place to start. But do you know how to describe what it is you like (or, just as importantly, dislike), and do you know what it is in wine that makes those flavours? This blog is all about what contributes to flavour in wine, and how to use that knowledge to pick the wines you will love.

1) Let's start by going back to basics: what actually is flavour?

This seems like a stupid question, but it's actually much more complicated than it might seem at first. Everyone knows that our taste-buds only taste four major things: sweet, sour, salty and bitter. So how do we actually identify a flavour like strawberry or peach? This is down to a wonderful organ in our ENT system called the olfactory bulb. It's generally what we use to identify smells and aromas, but it's also key in taste. As the air that passes through our nose and mouth goes past the bulb, it triggers a reaction in the bulb which helps us "taste". This combines with our sensation of sweet, sour, salty or bitter to produce an overall flavour. The vast majority of what we mean by flavour, is therefore actually smell or aroma-based. Thus, when you have a cold, everything tastes bland - not enough air is passing past the olfactory bulb.

2) So, I should sniff things I'm eating or drinking?

Well, actually, yes. And you'll always notice chefs and food critics doing just this when they taste food. Apart from anything else, it is the first indication if anything is off.

The same applies to wine, which is why smelling forms such a critical part of analysing flavour in your glass. But, the bulb and your brain needs training. How often have you smelled something and thought to yourself "Ooh, now what is that aroma?" This happens less often in food, except in real fine-dining places, because you can mostly see exactly what it is you are eating. There may be a herb or spice you can't identify (or perhaps a sauce), but in any case, you can often simply read the menu!

Wine is not that obvious, of course. And, almost always, wine aromas are never singular - that is, it's actually quite rare that you'll get a wine smelling of just one thing. If a wine is any good at all, you should have a bunch of different aromas in the glass, which can often confuse each other, or combine to form other smells.

3) OK, this isn't easy. And then wine snobs also talk about "texture" or "body". What on earth is that?

I won't go into this too much, except to say that it can contribute enormously to flavour, especially when it comes to another complicated wine term, balance. Let's take two extremes:
  • A rich, powerful, earthy red from Italy
  • A light, crisp, fruity white from Sancerre or Chablis
In both these examples, which I think most of you will get the idea of, you will notice I'm not only using flavour words to describe them - indeed, when we say "light", "crisp", "rich" or "powerful", we are talking about the texture or body of the wine.

Simply put, when a wine really fills your mouth, coating it with flavour, we call it full-bodied or rich. If the wine leaves the palate quickly, with more of a watery feel to it, it's light-bodied. These can often contribute to flavour by enhancing them, drawing them out, or, in bad cases, not being in balance. A full-bodied wine with not enough flavour will feel "flabby", "heavy" or overly alcoholic.

4) Fine. I get it (I think!) But how does all this help me?

It's important, because when you think about your favourite wines, it's often easy to think about the body or weight of a wine before you even think about the flavours. Do you generally prefer wines which are rich, or those which are lighter.

So there's your first question to ask yourself - do you like lighter, or heavier wines?

That'll really start narrowing down your thinking. It may also depend - on what you're eating, on the season. No problem! At least give yourself a few guidelines.

5) OK, so are we going to get onto flavour now?!

Yes! Here we go...

Generally speaking, flavours in wine can be divided into a few fairly broad categories. Take a look at the wheel at the top of this post. Generally, we can group together the major flavours:
  • Fruity/Floral/Herbal/Mineral
  • Nutty/Dairy
  • Sweet/Wood/Spice/Savoury
And I grouped those together for a very specific reason: the origins of these aromas come from three sources, in order:
  1. The grape and soil
  2. The production method
  3. The ageing method
So, the grape and where it is grown contributes enormously to most of the fruity, floral, herbal flavours. Then, the way the winemaker makes his wine can often contribute a lot of the body and also any dairy or nutty aromas. Finally, the ageing (or otherwise) of the wine may help give the woody, spicy or savoury flavours.

So, a second question to ask yourself: do you like wines with wood, spicy or buttery flavours?

In all honesty, most wines, particularly those under around £10-12, will almost exclusively be based around the primary, fruit/flower-based flavours. This is because it's expensive to age or do funky things with wine that encourage these other flavours.

Therefore: THE FLAVOUR OF WINE IS DOMINATED BY THE GRAPE VARIETY AND WHERE IT IS GROWN.

6) Alright. But I have no idea what Negroamaro, Touriga Nacional or Melon de Bourgogne taste like! I can't know them all!

Absolutely - no-one does, and anyone who claims to do so is an idiot. But what you can do is know some of the major ones, and how they taste depending on where they are grown.

For example, a Cabernet from Bordeaux will taste very dissimilar to a Cabernet from Australia or California. Two Sauvignon Blancs will be almost unrecognisable from each other if one comes from Sancerre and the other from New Zealand. And this leads to our final question:

What kind of flavours do you prefer: riper fruit or crisper fruit/more earthy?

By and large, you can categorise the fruit by the heat of the climate its grown in: the warmer the climate, the riper the fruit, and the more fruity the wine will seem. The cooler the climate, the more the fruit tends to be more acidic in style (citrus, green apple, tart red fruit). This coolness also generally means other flavours (spice, mineral, earth) can show through more.

You can also carry on trying new things, and speaking to your favourite local wine merchant to help guide you..!

8) Help! I'm getting confused...

OK, let's summarise:
  1. Flavour is aroma + taste, where aroma is more dominant
  2. If you like lots of fruit, you can get that in almost any wine. If you also like other spicy, woody or savoury flavours, you'll need to look at wines above £10.
  3. The type of fruit in a wine is mostly dictated by the grape variety and where it is grown. Get to know what the varieties in the wines taste like and how they are influenced by their location.
  4. You can now start to think about the factors that go into that flavour:
    • Ripe or less-ripe fruit
    • The body or texture of the wine
    • The other aromas you might like to appreciate in a wine
If you manage to answer those three factors in terms of what wines you like usually, you will be more than 90% of the way towards finding what it is you like about in your favourite wine, and also being able to find other wines that you might also like.

I hope this helps a little! Certainly I always attempt to ask these kind of questions when I'm helping a customer choose wine. It's simply a case of breaking down into smaller decisions what a wine tastes like in order to understand it better.

Of course, coming along to guided wine tastings is always a great way of learning more too..! Hope to see you at an upcoming session soon.