Wine Flavors and Aromas Explained

Have you tasted a variety of wines in different fruit flavors? If so, you must have wondered how wine can smell like vanilla, then taste like cherries, with a satin finish. That may seem counterintuitive, but anyway, it’s what makes the wine flavors enchanting.

Regardless of the varietal or the wine source, every wine guarantees some special notes, although we all taste these and smell them differently. It’s your wine experience that helps us to describe wine correctly. However, your brain may not know how to put these words to smell. And that explains why there’s a steep learning curve for how you taste wine and how you describe its taste.

Many factors may influence the aroma and flavors of wine-from fermentation, production, and wine aging. Understanding these elements will give you a good knowledge of how you can quickly recognize these wine flavors. And you will also learn what affects them, and soon you become a wine tasting expert.

Journey with us in the world of wine’s aroma and flavors as we spin the aroma wheel, where we will delve deeper into primary, secondary, and tertiary flavors. Although our guide is by no means comprehensive, we are focusing on the most common flavors you’re likely to come across wine types and characteristics.

Wine Flavor Facts

Why does wine resort to fruity and flowery smell but described in different notes? It beats logic since the wine grapes don’t taste like cherry or even white flowers. So, how does wine taste? And where do these flavors come from?

There are two distinct proto-aromas sets; flavor compounds and flavor precursors that interact and combine with various combinations and enzymes during winemaking. These are the building blocks that fuse to give an aroma of complex flavors that we smell. And that’s the subtleness you feel when tasting the grapes.

Most wine enthusiasts, winos, and amateurs find wine as one of the finest and most-delightful foods of all time. I may not know about you, but I am one of them. If you ask a Frenchman, tasting and smelling various wine flavors reminds you of different food ingredients. Wine drives you to the aroma of grilled or roasted meats, curry dishes, cakes, and jams. And guess what? That’s why wine makes a perfect pairing with these foods.

In essence, wine has three types of aromas, including three distinct origins.

Primary Flavors

Do you know the flavors that cross your mind while drinking wine? Fruity, floral, earthy, or spicy aromas are signifying a well-made bottle of wine. All these make the primary flavors. However, it’s the fruit-flavored wine that makes most of the primary aromas. Other categories include:

Floral Flavor

The floral category includes white flowers (orange blossom & honeysuckle), roses, geraniums, and violets. It’s no brainer that white flowers are the main ingredient in white wine, and grapes like Gewürztraminer and Muscat carry an intense white flavor. Some of the best red wines, like Merlot, have the notes of violets and roses, while Grenache showcases hints of roses or lavender.

Tree Fruit Flavor

The common fruit categories here include peach, red apple and green apple, apricot, and pear. Chardonnay wine taste comes from malolactic fermentation, which involves taking the tart malic acid (from green apples), which are compounds formed in the fermentation process. It softens them to lactic acid, giving the wine a creamy taste and a mouthfeel of apple-like scents.

Tropical Fruit​ Flavor

The flavors of tropical fruits that include pineapple, kiwi, mango, papaya, lychee, passionfruit, and banana, comes from warm regions. These fruits usually have high ripeness due to the climate and are mostly used in white wine flavors.

Citrus Flavor

These include lemon, lime, orange, tangerine, grapefruit, and other citrus flavors. These flavor categories are common in white wines such as Pinot Grigio, Chardonnay, and Viognier. The taste of wine may exhibit varying concentrations, citrus notes, and some level of bitterness.

Berries Flavor

Here the flavors include raspberry, blackberry, cranberry, strawberry, black and red cherry, and black currants. During the fermentation process, where chemical compounds that are stereoisomers to apples get kicked out, it’s the same thing here for berry assortment in red wine fermentation. Using the grapes grown in cooler climates will make the berry scents and flavors tighter, similar to cranberry and currant. Warm climate grapes produce richer fruits like strawberries and blackberries that are juicy and gives a beautiful red wine flavor profile.

Dried Fruit Flavor

These exquisite flavors include figs, raisins, dates, and jam, which come from California’s warm regions. And this you can see in big wines like Zinfandel and Cabernet Sauvignon. If you find wine stewed with figs or jam, that tells you it’s a wine you should enjoy young. However, things might be different if it’s a vintage fortified wine or has a high acidity that can counter the oxidative process.

Spices & Fresh Herbs Flavor

These exquisite flavors include bell pepper, thyme, mint, white/red/black pepper, grass, and eucalyptus. These spices are in many red, and white wines found worldwide. You will find a peppery and young Shiraz wine from Australia, a bell pepper taste of Cabernet, and notes of freshly mown grass in Sauvignon from New Zealand. All these are vast and fascinating possibilities you’ll encounter in these wines.

Earth Flavor

Anything from the ground, including dust, gravel, slate, petroleum, mushroom, chalk, and wet soil, are flavors in this category. They can either be primary or tertiary flavors coming from the aging process and can be a bit complicated. Poorly-made Riesling that is young can taste like stone, gasoline, or sugar. The best-aged wine may have flavors that give a different palate taste.

Secondary Flavors 

These are the flavors imparted by a winemaker. They describe the scents obtained by the wine through the winemaking process. And to create more aromatic complexity, grape’s natural flavors interact with the yeasts and bacteria to run the fermentation process. The flavors include yeast, toast, caramel, honey, chocolate, vanilla, oak, cream, butter, and many more. Most of these oaky flavors comes from the barrels used to age wine. Tannin, which is a flavorless compound, comes along too.

Butter Flavor

When you open a bottle of artificial butter and take a whiff, you can make diacetyl in your version, including a strong aroma of butter. That’s because the connection of butter and Chardonnay comes from the diacetyl compound. It’s a byproduct of fermentation.

Vanilla Flavor

The vanilla foams a byproduct of aging oak. And we know that oak and wine have had a long-standing relationship since the use of oak barrels in wine fermentation and aging. It’s the wood that adds a seasoning flavor and a beautiful appeal to wine. It also gives an aromatic aid and adds richer and fuller impressions of vanilla flavored wine. It’s on the palate where you will feel the oak’s influence turning to the creamy butter flavors, cinnamon, caramel, clove, coconut, smoke, tea, and toffee.

Tertiary Flavors

The formation of these flavors comes from aging wine. It so happens that oxygen and wine molecules combination change the aromatic wine flavor profiles. It’s a development that can be gradual or quick for some. Although the aroma may look similar in the primary and secondary camps, they are quite different in the context of old wine.

Some examples of wine bottles that have survived into old age with these flavors include Burgundy, Spain’s Ribera del Duero, Italian’s Chianti, and Portugal’s Madiera.

Some of the typical tertiary aromas (bouquet scents) come from leather, truffle, spices such as nutmeg, or fennel, clove, forest floor, wood ashes, or grilled meats.

In the end, it’s our nose’s interpretations that tell it all.

Since we are all different, our senses will interpret aroma compounds differently. And we tend to adapt to “smell” environments. A good example is when you work in a scented showroom, and after some time you stop smelling the scent, and yet it’s still there. That’s what may happen in a wine exposure environment. The smell of wine somehow dissipates.

In conclusion, it doesn’t matter if you agree on various flavors of wine because what’s important is you’re all smelling and tasting the same wine. People are usually using different descriptors when it comes to wine.  Even if they may disagree on specifics, most of them will quickly agree on fat-brush (“macro”). We can say one man’s peach is another’s nectarine.

The bottom-line and standard agreement here is that wine has a fruity aroma and various flavors, including apple-flavored wine and red wine flavor profiles. It’s a fantastic world!