Wine is probably the only beverage that has so many descriptors, from grassy and floral to dry leaves and mushrooms. Sometimes I wonder if tasting notes written by wine critics are helpful or if they just cause more confusion.
To be honest, no one will say no to a wine with pleasant violet, red cherry and plum notes, with a hint of clove and cinnamon. However, a consumer might be disappointed because the wine is very tannic. He or she might have been expecting something along the lines of a New Zealand Central Otago Pinot Noir rather than a highly structured Barolo from northern Italy. Both wines have similar tasting notes, but their structure, or shape, is miles apart.
Understanding wine is not exactly simple because there are so many different grape varieties and winegrowing regions. Tasting notes are meaningful only if consumers have some knowledge about the product such as the characteristics of the grape varieties or how the environmental conditions have affected the grape growing.
How to understand tasting notes
Grapes grown in cool climates have higher acidity and less sugar when ripe, so the wine is more refreshing, with relatively lower alcohol, a lighter body and more noticeable tannin. In contrast, wine made from grapes grown in warmer climates has riper fruit aromas, a higher alcohol content, a fuller body and rounder tannin.
The fruit profile of red wine ranges from raspberry and strawberry to black cherry and blackberry, depending on the grape varieties and their ripeness. Pinot Noir has low tannin and high acidity, while Merlot has medium tannin and acidity. The aromas of both grapes veer towards the red fruit spectrum.
Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrah/Shiraz have high tannin and high acidity, with aromas of black fruits at the end. In addition, Cabernet Sauvignon has distinctive minty and herbal notes, while Syrah/Shiraz’s nose is peppery. Spice and vanilla aromas are derived from oak maturation, while aromas of nuts, tobacco and earth are the result of ageing.
Combining the grape-growing conditions and grape varieties, it makes sense that a wine with pepper, blueberry and earthy notes and obvious tannin that gives us a drying sensation is likely an aged Syrah from a cooler climate such as northern Rhône in France. This is in contrast to a Shiraz from the warm South Australia region that is full-bodied and high in alcohol, with blackberry, liquorice and stewed fruits aromas and ripe tannin.
Similarly, a Burgundy red wine, which is 100% Pinot Noir from a cool climate in France, will be more delicate, with strawberry and red cherry aromas, bright acidity and a hint of cinnamon. On the other hand, a Pinot Noir from the warmer Californian region will display darker fruit aromas of plum and black cherry, rounder acidity and higher alcohol. More intense fruit aromas can also support more oak treatment, so the wine will show more spice and even vanilla notes. But be aware that Nebbiolo, a black grape variety from northern Italy that is used to make Barolo, has a similar fruit profile but much higher tannin.
It’s a similar situation with white wine. The fruit profile ranges from green apple and citrus to stone fruits and tropical fruits, depending on the grape varieties and growing conditions. There is usually no tannin, and acidity is the key structural component.
In order for tasting notes to be useful, they should include the wine’s structure (i.e. tannin and acidity). More importantly, wine lovers should have a grasp of basic wine knowledge to be able to navigate the notes.
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