Among wine professionals it is now widely understood that you don’t actually taste wine, you smell it and as such, wine appreciation is very much a cross-modal experience. There are only five ‘tastes’ that can be detected on the tongue by the tastebuds and they are sweet, salty, bitter, sour and umami, and it is when taste (as perceived on the tongue) is combined with aroma (predominantly retronasally, ie referred back into the oral cavity) that the all-important ‘flavour’ of wine is created.
Flavours in wine are very complex and understanding them involves a fairly in-depth knowledge of wine chemistry, but in essence they come from the grape itself and also from the winemaking process. Alcohol and carbon dioxide are not the only by-products of fermentation, there are also hundreds of esters, some of which are volatile. It is these volatile esters, or ‘aromas’, that are detected by the receptor cells and then decoded by the brain and which fundamentally make each wine taste – or rather smell – the way that it does.
However, it is too overwhelming for the brain to try and recognize hundreds of different aromas at once and so most (trained) tasters can usually identify only a handful at any one given time. For those new to wine, even identifying a few key aromas can pose a challenge – many of us start by just identifying the aroma as a whole and simply ‘smelling wine’. It is the role of the expert to learn to break the wine down into its constituent parts and this means being able to identify the key aromas and thus the flavours of wine.
The ‘Wine Flavour Tree’ is an infographic that was created to depict 40 of these key aromas and flavours that are commonly found in wine. The Tree is divided into two halves: a white wine half (on the left hand side) and a red wine half (on the right). There are five branches on each side of the Tree and each branch depicts four flavours with the intensity of the flavours and the weight of the wine increasing as you travel to the top of the Tree. The bottom branches on both sides for example depict lighter flavours such as pear, honey, almonds and apple whereas the top of the Tree hosts flavours such as ginger, bacon, liquorice and lychee. Each branch also corresponds to four different grape varieties that can be found in the key underneath the Tree (as indicated by the coloured line).
While some of the flavours that tasters say they can detect in wine are fanciful at best, the majority are very much present in the form of those aforementioned volatile aromas. Here are some examples of the flavour compounds that are found in wine and thus on The Wine Flavour Tree:
Almonds – benzaldehyde
Apple – butyl acetate
Blackcurrant – 4MMP
Black pepper – rotundone
Elderflower – hotrienol
Gooseberry – 3MHA
Herbs and grass – methoxypyrazine
Lemons – citral and limonene
Roses – damascenone and geraniol (a monoterpene)
Tangerine – octyl acetate
Violets – linalool (a monoterpene) and beta ionone
So, wine really does smell and taste of more than ‘just wine’ as its flavour is comprised of a wide range of aromas that smell just like different fruits and flowers… And it’s this multifaceted array of aromas that make wine so wonderfully captivating and complex.
Sam Caporn MW has been in the wine trade for over 20 years and became a Master of Wine in 2011 when she was awarded the Madame Bollinger Medal for Outstanding Achievement in the Practical Examinations (the tasting papers). She now works as a freelance expert – The Mistress of Wine – and is also a Co-Chair of the International Wine Challenge.