While wine taste is subjective, different varieties of wine grape have a set of agreed upon characteristics which tend to appear in the wines they produce. These aroma/flavour characteristics don’t always appear in wines made from these grape varieties but they do provide clues as to what grapes were used to make the wine. Most of a grape variety’s distinctive characteristics are to do with aroma. Taste actually only has to do with sweetness, acid, tannin and overall intensity or concentration. All other attributes, in wine, come from aroma. Most of what we perceive as flavour actually comes from our sense of smell.
Some common grape varieties and their characteristics:
Chardonnay – Apple, pineapple, citrus, pear, melon, butterscotch, fig, butter. And, if the wine has seen oak barrels: oak, vanilla, toast.
Sauvignon Blanc – Lemon, gooseberry, grass, green olive, citrus.
Riesling – Apple, apricot, floral, petroleum, lemon.
Viognier – Apricot, floral, honey, peach, spice.
Pinot Noir – Cherry, berries, leather, earth, rose.
Cabernet Sauvignon – Currant, blackberry, bell-pepper, cedar, eucalyptus.
Merlot – Plum, raspberry, tobacco, tea, dark cherry, chocolate.
Syrah/Shiraz – Raspberry, strawberry, pepper, spice.
Sangiovese – Strawberry, blackberry, blueberry, violet, leather, wood.
These descriptors provide clues that can help you to identify the grape variety used to make a wine. Of course, they are not absolute. Characters will differ somewhat depending on a number of conditions, including place of origin (where the wine was made), producer (who made the wine) and vintage (weather conditions for the year the grapes were harvested). Still, these characters are fairly consistent.
If a wine is not a varietal wine but is made from a blend of grape varieties then it is usually more difficult to identify characteristics of individual grape varieties. However, it is not impossible. For instance, if you smell petroleum (gasoline), this is a characteristic that is usually only identified with Riesling. Likewise, pepper is strongly associated with Syrah. The smell of fresh cut grass nearly always means Sauvignon Blanc.
Tasting Makes Perfect
With practice, you can familiarize yourself with these characteristics in wines. The more often you try wines made with a particular grape variety, the more familiar you will become with that variety. One great way to do this is to go to wine tasting events with the intention of trying wines only made from a particular grape variety. Immersing yourself in a particular grape variety this way can supercharge your wine education.
Whether you are a wine connoisseur or just a wine lover, I recommend making notes when you try a wine so that you can remember your impressions. This will cause you to pay closer attention. It also means you can compare your notes with others or against the grape characteristics I listed above. If you don’t like taking notes with a pen and paper, a wine app like Quini makes recording your impressions easy. Another benefit of recording your impressions with a wine tasting app is that you won’t lose your notes.