Whether you’re new to wine or have a few bottles under your belt, it’s important to know what you’re looking for. Being able to describe a wine is the first step to buying a bottle you’re guaranteed to love. This is your guide to key characteristics of the world’s classic grape varietals.
Think of fruit in wines like a fruit basket, some wines have one category of fruit, while others have a mix and match of styles. The main categories of fruit for white wines are: tree fruit (like apple, pear), citrus (lemon, orange), stone (peach, white cherry), and tropical (passionfruit, green papaya). For red wines, it’s simpler: red fruits, blue, and black. Typically cool-climate wines show leaner fruits and warmer climate wines show riper ones — think of the difference between a pomegranate, fresh raspberry or stewed black plum. The subtleties are extraordinary.
Tempranillo: dark raspberry, red currant, red plum
Cabernet Sauvignon: red and black currant, black berry, blueberry
Sauvignon Blanc: lemon, grapefruit, passionfruit
Riesling: green apple, lime, peach, pineapple
Viognier: orange, peach, apricot Once you’ve got a grasp of the types of fruit, qualify them by asking yourself, “Where do these fit on the ripeness scale — are they underripe, just-ripe, ripe, overripe, roasted, stewed, candied, and/or dried?” For instance a Pinot Noir from a classic vintage in Burgundy will show fresh, just-ripe cherry fruit while a Pinot Noir from Russian River Valley tends to show very ripe, sometimes candied cherry fruit.
Nuts and Spice can come from the grape itself or oak. Common spices in wine are pepper (all colors), cinnamon, nutmeg, ginger, vanilla, and clove. More exotic spices are saffron, mace, cumin, and juniper berry. Nutty smells like, toasted hazelnut, roasted chestnuts, peanut shell, bitter almond, or walnut are some of the most scintillating in wine.
Florals and Blossoms are linked to the genetic makeup of the grape itself. Use colors — are these florals white or pink, yellow or purple? Again, try qualifying the florals — are they fresh, wet, dried? Noticeable flowers in wine are gardenia, rose, violet, lavender, jasmine, honeysuckle, orange blossom, and lime blossom.
Green Notes, like florals, are fueled by the organic compound called “Pyrazine” and they are heavily influenced by the vintage. Cooler vintages can exaggerate a wine’s green tones while warmer vintages move the green notes to the background. The signature pyrazine smell is green bell pepper, but jalapeño, aloe, or moss also crossover into that realm.
Herbs, commonly confused with the pyrazines, are a great way to describe wine. Cooking herbs show up regularly in Italian and Spanish wines, driven by the grape or terroir. Think of all the fresh and dried herbs you keep on hand in the kitchen — rosemary, sage, thyme, basil, cilantro, bay leaf, and oregano. Dill is a tricky one because it can have a pyrazinic quality (noticeable in cooler vintages), but it usually pops with the use of American oak, found in old-school styles of Rioja as well as Australian Shiraz or Cabernet Sauvignon and American Zinfandel or Cabernet Sauvignon and Malbec from Argentina.
Mineral or Earth is perhaps the hardest element to wrap your brain around; it is the elusive and alluring “X” factor determined by how a grape transmits its sense of place, its vineyard, its home. Some helpful mineral and earth descriptors are: wet rocks, cold stone, warm stone, crystalline, fresh rain, dusty chalk, seashell, baked clay, terra cotta, damp soil, fallen leaves, forest floor, tree bark, damp soil, worn leather, tobacco, flint or smoke.
Cabernet Sauvignon: green bell pepper (green note)
Sangiovese: thyme (herbal)
Nebbiolo: dried rose (floral)
Priorat: warm stone (mineral)
Sauvignon Blanc: green grass (green note)
Albariño: jasmine (floral)
Chablis: cold stone (mineral)