Non-fruit Once you’ve identified the fruits and their quality, think of the other elements that are not fruit by using 5 general categories — Nuts & Spices, Florals & Blossoms, Green Notes, Herbs, Mineral or Earth. Keep in mind, these are guidelines and just like the fruit characteristics, non-fruits are influenced by the vintage, the winemaking style of the producer and youth versus age.
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.
Common descriptors Syrah: pepper (spice)
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)