Aromas & Flavors

One of the amazing things about wine is how a beverage that starts out as just grape juice takes on myriad different characteristics. Magic? No, chalk it up to fermentation; when grape juice becomes wine, its compounds mimic non-grape things. Here is a guide to aromas and flavors commonly found in various wines, arranged alphabetically. Most of the descriptors below can pop up both aromatically and on the palate. Most are normal and welcome...and some, not.

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Acacia: This fresh flavor and sweet aroma is usually found in sparkling wines after they've just been opened. 

Almond: Sweet almond notes (think marzipan) can be found in pinot grigio and other dry Italian white wines.

Anise : Some call it licorice, others anise; either way, this spicy element is found in red wines, particularly Old World reds (Rhône, Spain, Italy) and zinfandel.

Apple: One of the most common fruit characteristics found in white wines. Abundant in chardonnay and dry riesling. Sometimes leaning toward tart green apple, other times toward Red Delicious.

Asparagus: Herbaceous is perhaps a nicer, similar term, but funky vegetal aromas reminiscent of canned asparagus are not uncommon in strong sauvignon blancs as well as complex, high-end reds.

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Bacon: Smoky/meaty aroma of bacon fat is typical in syrah-based wines from the Rhône Valley, often in conjunction with dark fruit and spice.

Bell pepper: Green pepper aromas and flavors crop up in heavier red wines, notably Bordeaux blends based on cabernet sauvignon, merlot, and Cabernet Franc. In fact, Franc by itself can be very bell-peppery.

Black currants: A classic note found in cabernet sauvignon and cabernet-merlot blends. Often present in conjunction with berry aromas and flavors.

Black pepper: Commonly found in full-flavored reds made from syrah/shiraz, Grenache, and/or zinfandel. French Châteauneuf-du-Pape is a classic example.

Blackberries: A very common flavor and aroma in red wines from a variety of grapes and origins; frequently found in conjunction with strawberry/cherry flavors as well. May come across as "jammy" in ripe, New World reds.

Brambly: Suggesting thorny bush fruits (blackberries, raspberries) of significant intensity; usually applied to full-bodied red zinfandel.

Butter: Rich flavor and smoothness of texture akin to butter. More frequently found in whites than reds, especially chardonnays that have undergone malolactic fermentation and/or barrel aging.

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Candied: Artificial, candied version of fruit (as opposed to fresh or dried) is sometimes found in New World wines made from very ripe grapes. May suggest that some sugar may be left in the wine, even if it is technically dry.

Caramel: Also perceived as butterscotch and/or toffee, caramel aromas and flavors are typical of barrel-aged chardonnays; a sign of richness.

Cedar: An evolved aroma commonly found in aged red wine, especially Bordeaux-style blends, and sometimes alongside tobacco and cigar box scents.

Chemical: Some wines are decidedly un-fruity and emit aromas and flavors that suggest chemical substances such as petroleum (common in riesling), sulfur, nail polish remover, rubber, or plastic. In excess, chemical aromas are unpleasant.

Cherry: Very common red wine aroma and flavor. Find it in cabernet, merlot, pinot noir, and syrah/shiraz. May come across as a black cherry.

Chocolate: Actual chocolate is never in wine, but big reds (cabernet sauvignon and merlot primarily) can give an impression of chocolate or cocoa based on their combination of dark fruit and wood.

Citrus: A common element in crisp dry white and sparkling wines, reminiscent of lemon, lime, tangerine, or grapefruit. A sure sign of bright, tangy acidity. New Zealand sauvignon blanc can be aggressively citrusy.

Clean: Fresh, pure, unflawed; applied to both nose and palate and suggests a simple, palatable wine. A clean, long finish is always a good thing.

Corky: Always a flaw! Corky or wet-cardboard aromas that get stronger as a wine is exposed to air indicate a wine with cork taint. If it happens in a restaurant, send the wine back.

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Earthy: On the nose and/or palate, characteristics that suggest soil. A positive term, especially when applied to European wines, where it suggests complexity. Too much earthiness, however, can overwhelm. Earthy aromas may lean toward barnyard or forest floor.

Elderflower: The creamy, floral aroma of elderflower is often found in the nose of sparkling wines, giving these bottles a not-too-sweet floral taste that's perfect for summer months.

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Flinty: A dry, stony/mineral aromatic quality found in European white wines like chablis and Pouilly-Fumé.

Floral: Usually an aromatic quality rather than a flavor. Scents of honeysuckle, jasmine, and orange blossoms are most often found in white wines made from delicate varieties like riesling and chenin blanc. In reds you might find violets (Rhône blends) and rose petals (Italian Barolo).

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Grapey: Surprisingly few wines actually smell like grapes. Notable exceptions include sweet kosher reds made from Concord grapes as well as beaujolais nouveau and port.

Grassy: The sharp, pungent aroma of fresh-cut grass is common to sauvignon blanc.

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Hazelnut: A sweetish aroma often found in white burgundy and other chardonnays that have been barrel-fermented, and in champagne; a sign of depth and complexity.

Herbs: White wines, notably sauvignon blanc, are often redolent of fresh herbs (oregano, tarragon) and fresh-cut grass. Full-flavored cabernet or syrah wines lean toward mint and eucalyptus; reds from the southern Rhône Valley and Provence can be reminiscent of sage and thyme.

Hibiscus: With a cranberry-like flavor, hibiscus has a high acid content that makes it taste more like a fruit than a flower. It can be found in a sweet moscato. 

Honey: Characteristic of late-harvest dessert wines like Sauternes; also common in Gewürztraminer, which may be dry or sweet.

Honeysuckle: The late-harvest, sweet nectar flavor of honeysuckle is found in floral rieslings and ice wines. 

Hot: A wine whose alcohol is out of balance with other elements (fruit, acidity, tannin); can stick out aromatically and/or in the finish.

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Iris: A flowery flavor that’s very similar to raspberries, iris aromas can be found in wines such as sauvignon blanc.

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Jammy: Reminiscent of jam or cooked fruit. Especially ripe red grapes can yield flavors and aromas that suggest preserves or jam, as opposed to fresh or dried fruits. Excessively jammy wine might be called "cooked" or "stewed."

Jasmine: Potent white wines, such as Torrontés, have a distinct jasmine flavoring that's often accompanied by honeysuckle, apricots, sage, and thyme flavors.

Juicy: The term "juicy" is applied to wines whose combination of evident fruit and bright acidity leave a sense of palate-cleansing freshness.

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Lean: A wine whose palate is shy on fruit is said to be lean. This is not necessarily a bad thing, if the wine's elements are balanced. Often used for Old World whites, whose grapes generally start off less ripe coming in from the vineyard.

Leather: A distinct, almost animal-like aroma most likely to appear in high-end syrah/shiraz or red burgundy.

Lavender: Found mostly in reds and some dry Australian rieslings, this bloom has a unique floral-pine scent.

Lilac: Wine blends with pepper flavors, such as Rhône wines with viognier, will often feature a lilac profile. 


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Melon: Suggestions of cantaloupe and honeydew may lurk where peach, apple, or pear is prominent; usually the sign of a juicy white wine.

Minerals: Most commonly found in European white wines, these aromas and flavors come from the soil and are reminiscent of chalk, slate, or iron. Good when subtle.

Musty: Featuring stale, dusty aromas. Some European wines (Spanish Rioja) are slightly musty by design, but too much is not good.

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Nutty: While almonds and hazelnuts can be found in young white wines, the term "nutty" is usually applied to older white wines, champagne, tawny port, and sherry.

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Oak (aromas and flavors): When barrels are used for aging wine before bottling, aromas of smoky/charred oak are imparted to the wine, usually more noticeable on the nose rather than the palate. New oak barrels tend to generate the most intense sense of oak.

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Peach: This stone fruit is a fairly common aromatic and flavor component in chardonnay, riesling, viognier, Albariño (Spain), and moscato (Italy). Peachy wines usually taste fairly ripe, as opposed to lean.

Pear: Very close in character to apple and commonly found in chardonnay, riesling, and pinot grigio.

Pencil lead: A complex aromatic peculiar to bordeaux as it ages; may start to appear after 10 years or so.

Peony: The complex flavor of sweet, rosy peonies can be found in pink wines such as rosé.

Potpourri (a mix of floral notes): A bouquet of aromas just like the name suggests, this mix of herbs, fruits, and flowers can be found in wines such as pinot noir and bordeaux blends.

Plum: Another common red wine aroma and flavor; typically associated with Merlot.

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Rose: Roses can bring out several flavors in wine, from bell pepper and orange blossom to cherry, strawberry, and peach. Look for it in a pinot noir or Gewürztraminer.    

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Smoky: A variation on "oaky." Smokiness is a sign that the barrels used to age a wine were predominantly new and/or heavily "toasted" (dried using fire) when they were made.

Spicy: Having a character suggestive of spices, usually of the baking variety (cinnamon, clove, allspice, ginger) or black pepper (particularly syrah/shiraz.)

Steely: An almost metallic taste typical of dry European white wines high in acidity and minerality.

Strawberries: A fresh, vibrant red-berry character found widely in wines ranging from dry rosés, blanc de noir, and rosé sparkling wines, and red wines, particularly pinot noir.

Sulfur: The aroma of sulfur in wine comes from sulfur dioxide used as an antioxidizing agent during fermentation. It's a bad thing if noticeable, but it sometimes goes away after the wine is in the glass awhile.

Sweet: The term "sweet" is obviously applied to wines that still contain significant residual sugar (white zinfandel and dessert wines, for example.) Also used to describe intensely ripe, jammy red wines.

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Tropical: Exotically fruity aromas and flavors reminiscent of pineapple, mango, lychee, coconut, even banana. Serious chardonnays from California and Australia can put you right on the beach.

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Vanilla: The distinct aroma of vanilla in wines, both red and white, comes from barrel aging. Common in chardonnays and bordeaux-style reds.

Vegetal: Suggestive of vegetables, particularly bell pepper or asparagus. Among red wines, Cabernet Franc can be aggressively vegetal. Overly pungent herbaceous/vegetal aromas are not welcome.

Vinegary: Having the smell of vinegar. A sure (and bad) sign that the wine has "turned" and there's no turning back.

Violet: This mild, sweet aroma is a staple in all of the classic reds, such as merlot, malbec, and cabernet sauvignon.

Volatile: Reminiscent of vinegar; sometimes called VA (volatile acidity). A slight amount of VA can intensify a wine's other aromas, but if VA comes across as too sharp, it's a flaw.

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Woodsy: Aroma akin to earthy, specifically suggesting a forest or wet leaves; a positive aroma when found in red wines, notably burgundy and pinot noir.

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Yeast: Yeasts (natural or lab-made) induce fermentation when they come into contact with sugary grapes. Wines can smell/taste yeasty when the yeast cells are given extra time in the wine, as in barrel-fermented chardonnay and champagne.

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