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What is That Darn Flavor?

Over the last couple of years, I've been helping my friend Leigh learn a little more about wine and develop his palate. Leigh's developing a decent palate but he's still less than confident about his tastes. Which is odd for a cheeky Brit who's never short on opinions. The combination has led to some amusing moments.

A few weeks ago, Leigh sent me an e-mail:

From: Leigh
Sent: Thursday, October 14, 2006 3:56 PM
To: [email protected]
Subject: Berry flavors


I've had enough of this wine review crap ! What is the difference in flavor between a Blackberry, Huckleberry, Boysenberry, Blueberry, Bilberry etc. I can just about believe that raspberry and strawberry have distinctive flavors but all these others! Come on? I've never even seen a Huckleberry how am I supposed to know what it tastes like ?


As a blossoming wine lover, Leigh is not alone. To the average layperson the adjectives used in wine reviews can provoke everything from hysteria to disbelief. I clipped the following letter to the editor of Business Week shortly after I got Leigh's e-mail. In it, a reader is reacting to one of Robert Parker's weekly columns in the magazine where he frequently reviews wines:
Robert Parker's "Jack of two grapes, master of both" (Executive Life Sept. 4th) described the flavors he found in the listed wines: flowers, raisins, plums, figs, incense, Asian spices, cedar, spice box, dried herbs, creme de cassis, licorice, graphite, black olives, black carrots, blackberries, smoke, barbecue spice, tapenade, acacia, roasted meat, pain grille. Is he serious or joking?

As you probably know, our taste buds only transmit five flavor sensations: bitter, sweet, salty, sour, and the mysterious flavor: umami, which can most easily be described as "savory." Any more complex flavor, even something as simple as the taste of an apple, is actually mostly aroma. No one knows exactly how many different unique aroma compounds we are capable of perceiving, but lucky for us the number is likely in the tens of millions. I say "lucky" because without this amazing spectrum of aromatic perception, our lives would be pretty dull, especially when it comes to food and drink.

One of the most essential skills for wine lovers, newbies through experts alike, is the honing of our ability to identify flavors in wine. The practice of paying attention to wine and identifying what it tastes and smells like serves both practical as well as pleasurable purposes. At the beginning of a wine lover's explorations in wine, paying attention to the flavors and aromas of wine forms a framework of experience that eventually leads to preference. The only way to figure out what you like is to try a lot of stuff, and remember what it tastes like.

Beyond the initial ability to appreciate the spiciness of certain Zinfandels or the cat pee in Sauvignon Blanc, a skill at identifying aromas can help wine enthusiasts steer clear of corked, oxidized, or otherwise flawed wine. Our senses are the only things that stand between us and a ruined meal at the hands of a spoiled wine.

Of course, to some of us, identifying the flavors and aromas in wine is an immensely pleasurable experience on its own. Part game, part mental acrobatics, trying to access our sense memories and compare them to what we are tasting can be as pleasant as reminiscing about favorite moments from childhood.

To those unpracticed in such activity, like my friend Leigh, it can be a difficult or even seemingly impossible task. And when someone easily rolls off a few descriptors for a wine, it's easy to think, "come on, does he REALLY taste all those things?"

The answer, Leigh, is yes. Just because you've never tasted a huckleberry before doesn't mean that no one has, and the ability to recall and identify that flavor is a skill no different from remembering what all those vegetables you see at the grocery store are called. Like any skill, flavor recognition takes practice, but anyone can do it, even if they are among the 25 percent of the population that are considered "nontasters"

Lucky for us, practicing tasting proves to be a lot easier and more pleasurable than practicing yoga. At its most essential, practicing the skill of tasting requires no more than simply paying attention. I've gotten into the habit of simply always taking a moment as I eat to say to myself, "Oh, so this is what _______ tastes like. Remember this" Whether that's the most common of apples, or the pineapple guava that I tried yesterday for the first time.

Paying attention to our taste and smell sensations, though, is not the same as swirling some wine in a glass and our mouths and being able to pick out aromas with acuity. There's something strangely difficult about putting words to flavors. My favorite proof of this is my Orange Ice Cream Test. I live a few blocks from Mitchell's Ice Cream in San Francisco, where they make peach, mango, and cantaloupe ice cream, among other flavors that all share the same shade of orange. Ask anyone whether they feel like they know what each of these basic fruits taste like, and they're likely to be certain they could identify them, but most folks faced with three scoops of ice cream of the same color can usually only tell that they are each a different flavor, but not much more than that.

Strangely though, if I write down the names of the three flavors on a piece of paper, most people can instantly identify which is which. The ability of most people to recognize a flavor with a little help is much, much stronger than blindly struggling for words.

This is why whenever anyone asks me how to improve their skill as a wine taster I always suggest three simple things: taste a lot more wine, take notes, and use an aroma wheel.

Some readers may be surprised to know that there a whole branch of wine science focusing exclusively on flavors and aromas in wine. Pioneered and codified by Dr. Ann Noble at the University of California at Davis, modern sensory analysis is based on a large system of scientifically derived flavors and aromas that Dr. Noble assembled into a framework known as the Aroma Wheel.

This circular diagram lays out the hundreds of major aromas found in wine, grouping them in sections that relate both to their common occurrence together as well as their common chemical origins.

In addition to the original wheel developed at UC Davis, countless other wheels have been developed. Some for specific grape varietals, others for specific regions, and still others that are just variations on the original.

I've always wondered one thing, though. Why the hell is it always a wheel!?

In general I find that round shape to be the most impractical of shapes for its purpose. There seems to be no real meaning to the circular relationship between one thing or another (why are the berry flavors next clockwise after the spices?) nor are there any additional understandings to be gained by various flavors being opposite each other on the wheel.

So, in the interest of helping my readers build their skill at identifying wine aromas, I've decided to fix the aroma wheel, and turn it into the free Vinography Aroma Card -- a handy business-card-sized tasting tool that you can carry in your wallet and use any time you want to do a little hard core wine tasting. You can download it as a PDF and print it on your color or black and white printer at home.



So there you have it. Down with the wheel. Long live the wallet card. Just whip this little baby out anytime -- whether you're sitting there with your eyes crossed in concentration thinking "I KNOW I've tasted something like this before, but I just can't put my finger on it" or whether you're making a serious attempt to become a better taster by making detailed notes about the wines you're drinking.

And when you're ready to take it to the next level, there's a whole other world of words for wine out there waiting for you.

Comments (28)

jeff wrote:
11.24.06 at 8:42 PM

hi Alder - a very fine article! I hope it doesn't get lost in the holiday weekend. I love the wallet card!

Using words to describe sensations will always be imprecise, and heavily depended on the context and experiences of the reader or listener. If all you have ever tasted are supermarket strawberries, hearing that wine has strawberry flavors can only invoke a yawn. On the other hand, if you have experienced fresh picked, perfectly ripe berries you will be excited.

As far as Mr. Parker's words, I consider myself someone fairly worldly, and I have never even heard of "black carrots", and "pain grille" sounds like what I call the Weber in the Spring... And if someone could tell me what standard to measure "Asian spice" and "barbecue spice" against (Thai? Mandarin? Texas? North Carolina?)... never mind "spice box" and "dried herbs"...

Cherry Jolly Rancher? Now we're talking...

thanks! - j

Dave wrote:
11.25.06 at 10:13 AM

Alder, I'll avoid wasting characters on the usual "great article", which goes without saying. The circular nature of the aroma wheel must be irksome to any devotee of Edward Tufte.

But I do think your wallet-sized wine chart is worthy of broader distribution! And I imagine a phalanx of marketers interested in helping develop and distribute a printed and laminated version - thoughts?

Taylor wrote:
11.25.06 at 11:44 AM


While I find your solution quite practical, I think most wine reviews today do little to help the consumer understand the wine they may be interested in purchasing or help them find wines of like style. Personal notes can be written in any style and obviously are only useful to the writer. I know of one women who uses the "Yum. Buy it." wine note method and if it works for her- more power to her. The problem stems when these notes are used by critics to speak to the wine drinking public and in turn these consumers need to retranslate all that winepseak into somehting useful.

When I write notes for myself, I certainly abuse the adjectives and frankly write alot of stuff only I can understand. However, when we write notes for the publication, we make a concerted effort to avoid as much winespeak as possible and instead we focus on how it relates to its vintage, region, varietal character, and even if its typical or atypical or a certain winery.

I think this anti-winespeak method of note writing stems from the frustration with the modern mass media whose wine notes are basically useless to more main stream wine enthusiasts and frankly just plain silly sometimes.

That said, being able to identify a wine fault is useful for any wine drinker (as you discussed) and I can certainly understand that for some it is a mental game they like to play. But the game is dependent on the players and one person's black currant is another person's shoe polish. Both of which are correct because the taster is using his personal frame of reference to identify the scents.

On more than one occassion, we have had smart, worldly, people come up to us and express a feeling of sadness because they can't get the huckleberry that some writer insists is in the glass (and don't get me started on the fact that wines evolve over time.) So in the end, I fail to see the usefulness of mass strings of adjectives in journalistic wine notes.

Sorry for the soap box, I realize this post was more geared towards getting the taster to put words to something he may be tasting and not a discourse on wine note taking and the state of wine media. Now excuse me while I go print out my Vinography Aroma Card. :)

Leigh wrote:
11.25.06 at 12:34 PM

Nice article in Scientific American seems to suggest these associations may be subjective and burned in during childhood.

Dean Tudor wrote:
11.25.06 at 12:43 PM

Aroma Wheel has been reduced to text; I've had it on my website for almost 8 years.
You need the directory-drill through the layers for it to make sense:

The following is an outline-format representation of the Wine Aroma
Wheel (1987 version) developed at the University of California-Davis.
The Wheel is copyrighted (1987) by the American Society for Enology and
Viticulture and Dr. Ann C. Noble, UC-Davis. It is reproduced here in
ASCII text format. The actual wheel is a plastic disk, and the aroma
descriptors are formatted on it in three concentric circles, or "tiers."

FLORAL ===========> [Linalool] [Orange Blossom] [Rose]
[Violet] [Geranium]

SPICY ============> [Cloves] [Black Pepper] [Licorice/Anise]

|-Citrus =======> [Grapefruit] [Lemon]
|-Berry ========> [Blackberry] [Raspberry]
| [Strawberry] [Black Currant/Cassis]
|-Tree Fruit ===> [Cherry] [Apricot] [Peach] [Apple]
| Fruit ======> [Pineapple] [Melon] [Banana]
|-Dried Fruit ==> [Strawberry Jam] [Raisin] [Prune] [Fig]
|-Other ========> [Artificial Fruit (Estery)]
[Methyl Anthranilate (Labrusca)]
|-Fresh ========> [Stemmy] [Grass, cut green]
| [Bell Pepper] [Eucalyptus] [Mint]
|-Canned/Cooked=> [Green Beans] [Asparagus] [Green Olive]
| [Black Olive] [Artichoke]
|-Dried ========> [Hay/Straw] [Tea] [Tobacco]

NUTTY ============> [Walnut] [Hazelnut] [Almond]

CARAMELIZED ======> [Honey] [Butterscotch] [Butter/Diacetyl]
[Soy Sauce] [Chocolate] [Molasses]
|-Phenolic =====> [Phenolic] [Vanilla]
|-Resinous =====> [Cedar] [Oak]
|-Burned =======> [Smoky] [Burnt Toast/charred] [Coffee]

|-Earthy =======> [Dusty] [Mushroom]
|-Moldy =======> [Musty (mildew)] [Moldy Cork]

|-Petroleum ====> [Tar] [Plastic] [Kerosene] [Diesel]
|-Sulfur =======> [Rubbery] [Hydrogen Sulfide] [Mercaptan]
| [Garlic] [Skunk] [Cabbage] [Burnt Match]
| [Sulfur Dioxide] [Wet Wool/Wet Dog]
|-Papery =======> [Filter Pad] [Wet Cardboard]
|-Pungent ======> [Ethyl Acetate] [Acetic Acid] [Ethanol]
| [Sulfur Dioxide]
|-Other ========> [Fishy] [Soapy] [Sorbate]
[Fusel Alcohol]

PUNGENT ==========> [Hot-Alcohol] [Cool-Menthol]

OXIDIZED =========> [Oxidized/Acetaldehyde]

|-Yeasty =======> [Flor-Yeast] [Leesy]
|-Lactic =======> [Sauerkraut] [Butyric Acid] [Sweaty]
| [Lactic Acid]
|-Other ========> [Horsey] [Mousey]

Alder wrote:
11.25.06 at 1:22 PM


Don't disagree with anything you say. Tasting notes are generally the LEAST useful part of any wine review that I do, in my opinion. Sadly, a lot of wine reviews by the major outlets are ONLY tasting notes, which I find ridiculous for obvious reasons.

You are correct that this post, and the card itself, is about helping people get better at describing (if only for themselves) what it is that they are tasting.

When my wife first started drinking wine seriously (after we met) I would ask her what she smelled in the wine, and her answer was invariably "Grapes. Alcohol." Now she's got a fantastic palate and I turn to her often when I'm struggling with a flavor that is elusive and often she's able to nail it. She got to the place she is at by tasting a lot of wine and being forced (luckily it wasn't too tough) to talk about flavors and aromas with me, often including reading my tasting notes to see how they corresponded to her perceptions.

Anyone who seriously wants to become a better wine taster needs to build an inventory of sensory experiences and a vocabulary to describe it. As you note, that vocabulary is personal and subjective. Not having tasted a huckleberry, my friend Leigh will taste something different than I will in a certain wine.

Enjoy your card !

Alder wrote:
11.25.06 at 1:25 PM


Not fully clear on what your point is. That the aroma wheel does not depend on being in a "wheel" format?

Do you have any idea why everyone always packages it as a wheel, then?

Alder wrote:
11.25.06 at 2:31 PM


Never heard of black carrots either -- I'm looking into that one. Words are definitely a lousy medium for conveying tastes, but unfortunately that's all we got, even if we're going to use metaphors rather than flavor descriptors. I like my Cabernets like the Robert DeNiro character in "Scent of a Woman."

Paine grille, huh? Doesn't grilled bread sound much better in French? I think most everything sounds better with a French or British accent. ;-)

Steve wrote:
11.26.06 at 4:01 PM

Hoo-ha! Alder, that would be Al Pacino in Scent of a Woman!

Otherwise, very well done. Your card is a great free service for wine people -- I'm going to include a link to it on my tasting note forms download page.

The funny thing about the aroma wheel is that its shape suggests that there is only a finite number of aromas, with 1/3 of them being off odors. Circles are appealling and I can imagine that very many people have found it handy -- just as I have -- except for the fact that it just doesn't fit in a pocket.

Also, for more comprehensive information about wine aromas that definitely wouldn't fit in a pocket, Tom Stevenson's Mind Jogging List is probably the best resource anywhere.

Saint_Vini wrote:
11.26.06 at 7:18 PM

I think the concentric circles are intended to provide greater specificity as you move outward, but I think you would need a wheel with more specific descriptors for that to truly work well.

Which leads me to a gripe - I've always found that having just 3 types of spice descriptors is far too limiting. What of Cinnamon?!? Can I get some love for Fennel?

Good post.


Alder wrote:
11.26.06 at 7:21 PM

I hear ya. I got yer cinnamon, clove, allspice, anise, and more!

Can I hear a shout out for cardamom?

Brian Miller wrote:
11.26.06 at 8:54 PM

Interesting article. While I think the strings of adjectives do go too far sometimes, they are an aspiration.

I have to admit that I have now actually tasted "pencil lead"-and in a Napa wine to boot! (Stag's Leap 1997 Reserve Cab), and the blueberry in the Artesa Tempranillo was very noticable! (O/T: I thought Artesa was pretty good in the red wines department. Their Reserve Merlot is downright "Frenchy"

Patrick wrote:
11.27.06 at 6:50 AM

My three kids regularly smell the wine I'm drinking, and at 9,8, and 5 they've developed pretty good noses. They're virtually untainted by wine writers and they've never tasted it either.
Well, about two years ago, after my daughter made her first Holy Communion, she was swirling a glass at the dinner table, and when I asked her what she smelled, she replied, with thoughtfulness, "...cherry, cinnamon...and blood!!" I guess she was remembering her recent taste at the altar, but I howled with laughter and have added "blood" to my roster of descriptive words.
And, just as a trained musician can hear patterns in a symphony while an untrained ear may simply hear a nice melody, so too the more practiced palate can tease out real descriptive words to describe what we're tasting. And that's why I don't mind reading tasting notes at a wine store - with more bottles in front of me than I'll ever drink, I can get a general description of a wine I've never tried, regardless of whether or not I ultimately think a wine is a 9.5 or not.
Thanks for another good post.

Dean Tudor wrote:
11.27.06 at 8:22 AM


I have no idea why it is packaged as a wheel, especially since there
are tons of variations over the year (the wheel started 20 years ago in
1987!!!) -- always with a wheel. Graphically, it may be easier to
display...The wheel exists for German wines, Ontario wines, beers, tea and
coffee, etc.

I guess my point was really that the aroma wheel had been reduced to mere
text over ten years ago by somebody (name escapes me), and I put it up on my
web site about 8 years ago. Certainly, it has worked for me -- I pull it
out, and nobody knows that I'm cribbing from the wheel, and the text is not
subject to the copyright of Ann Noble.

Thanks for writing back -- you are my top site for wine blogs and searching
wine blogs. Keep up the good work!!

Best, Dean

Farley wrote:
11.27.06 at 8:24 AM

I find this discussion extremely helpful and at times, validating. As a newbie wine writer, the thing that scares me the most is writing wine descriptions. I know they're rather subjective, but I still get nervous when I think about my palate and its apparent shortcomings. Which is odd, because with food, I can pick out all kinds of flavors by smelling and eating and have even recreated dishes without recipes. Why then, when it comes to wine, which I live for, do I freeze up so?

Alder wrote:
11.27.06 at 8:35 AM


Thanks for joining the conversation. We all have our own psychology about the things we do and aspire to do -- I don’t know you at all, so I cannot possibly suggest why you might suffer from tasting-notes-block.

Some people, I believe, refuse to make tasting notes or are shy to offer their thoughts because of a pressure they feel to be "right." This is a sad commentary on how wine continues to be a thing not of the common person, but of the upper class, intellectual elite, no matter how much we try. Can you imagine someone being afraid to talk about whether a hot dog at one ballpark was better than another and why?

One of my favorite writing coaches is a novelist named Anne Lamott, who has long been a proponent of something she calls a "shitty first draft." I recommend them highly. Try and puke up as much as you can without worrying about whether it is good or not, right or not, accurate or not. Just get stuff on paper and then worry about massaging it to something you're happy with later.

No idea whether that's helpful. Perhaps my little card can help a bit too. Some people who want to improve their wine sensing abilities purchase aroma kits that have various wine essences in them. Others take classes from experts who can more personally guide them towards connecting aromas with names.

Farley wrote:
11.27.06 at 8:53 AM

My last question was rhetorical. If I (with a degree in psychology, no less) can't figure it out, I would never expect you to try.

As for your tips:I've been hinting around to family that I want Le Nez du Vin, but I think what you suggest per Anne Lamott will help more. Just writing what I think without worrying about if it's 'right' or not... And of course, more research. Always, more research.


Amy wrote:
11.27.06 at 12:11 PM

Great topic, and one I was pondering recently when I read Mr. Parker's tasting notes on a Pinot Noir I was sampling at a wine shop. There were lots of descriptors, cherry, tar, anise, etc...and hummus. That one threw me for a loop--would that be spicy Trader Joe's garlic hummus or the kind they serve on the street in Egypt. I now am putting my nose into every tub of hummus to see what smell I missed. But that is exactly what I think wine enthusiasts have to do--keep smelling everything--the good the bad and the ugly to know what is what. This sometimes comes at a price when the dog comes in wet after his bath--but it's a very good point of reference.

And to start grasping some of these finer distinctions, I've religiously kept a wine tasting journal of new and familiar wines to see what happens in the glass. It has completely opened up the tastings for me, and let me know what my palate enjoys. And I do go back from time to time and see either what is written on the label about the wine, or onto websites to see how my tasting notes stack up.

But I still struggle with the difference between blackberry and boysenberry. And for anyone searching for cardamon--I've tasted it in a great Thomas Fogarty Gewurztraminer.

Thanks for the flavor card--it'll be put smack dab at the front of my tasting journal.

frank Haddad wrote:
11.28.06 at 2:51 PM

Alder the WSET has a card for wine tasting, and to aid in doing tasting notes. A little more info than the wine wheel. http://www.wset.co.uk/documents/xac_sat_17_07_06.pdf

Elizabeth wrote:
11.29.06 at 9:49 AM

I live in Napa Valley and have a wheel that I take with me for tasting and, of course, my wine notebook. I was recently invited to a wine industry function where there were more than 75 bottles (open) on a table for tasting. I was too inhibited to bring out my notebook and wheel, so I worked my way through ten bottles of wine and then left quickly to make notes. What an experience! I found five bottles of wine I thoroughly enjoyed and am waiting for someone to invite me to another. This discussion is right up my alley :)

Alder wrote:
11.29.06 at 10:02 AM


Next time I recommend breaking out the notebook and the wheel! If it was an industry function everyone would have been impressed. :-)

Don't be shy about doing whatever you need to do in order to enjoy and make the most out of a wine tasting experience, no matter how strange it seems.

Ann Noble wrote:
11.30.06 at 10:57 AM

I only use wheel to start people in processing of describing aroma, which is difficult for most people to do initially. (see long explanation) if you are interested is Noble, A.C. 2006 Describing the indescribable. Food Science and Technology 20 (3) 32-35 2006).
I also stress that my goal in teaching them this approach is to make the wheel use for them no longer necessary! Once they get started, they can much more easily come up with a descriptive term on their own..and thereby file a concrete (specific, detailed) memory of each wine.
Ann Noble

jon o wrote:
12.03.06 at 2:14 PM

Ha! Great post. I used to think like that, in fact I still do somewhat... however slowly but surely wine tasting and conversations with people like you are winning me over to the side that says that distinguishing between loganberries and blackberries is really not much different than identifying different shades of red, or hearing slightly different melodies in similar songs. It's funny about the melodies too, since our vocabularly (at least the everyday american english vernacular) is even more limited when it comes to describing music than it is with taste. Keep up the great work Alder,

Nancy wrote:
12.04.06 at 4:57 PM

Hi, Alder! I really like your aroma chart. I agree with the numerous comments about needing something to prompt us to remember what we smell, and keeping your list handy will make me ready for every occasion! Very convenient!

But I love the wheel format for teaching. We have tasting classes at the winery and when folks what the wine smells like, they're so afraid to be wrong, but if I start with "is it more fruity or more earthy?" I can usually get them to identify something general like "fruity." Then I use the wheel to help them become more specific: "Ok, if we agree it smells fruity, look at this next tier on the wheel. Is it more like berries, citrus fruit or tree fruit?" Then, "OK, we've detected citrus. Go to the next tier out--is it more like lime or orange, what do you think?"

It gets everyone's wheels turning, and I think the format helps.

One "man's" opinion. Love your blog. Nancy, your pal at Goosecross.

Jerry Murray wrote:
12.10.06 at 10:38 PM

Nice job on a tough topic to tackle. As a winemaker I think too much empahsis is being placed on describing the aromas and flavors in wine. Yes they are useful and do convey some information but they provide little indication of wine quality. Where, almost ubiquitously, our vocabularies lack is in finding words to describe a wines texture, shape and feel. I find in most cases that it is this quality in a wine, not specific flavors or aromas, that make a wine good or great.
If we want our tasting notes to more effectively communicate to ourselves and others the actual quality of a wine, we must begin to describe the way wines feel in our mouths.

Tana wrote:
05.21.08 at 4:54 PM

I am not able to download the english aroma chart. Is there another location to find it? Or could you email it to me?
Thank you,

torte wrote:
11.18.14 at 9:42 AM

Hi there, its fastidious piece of writing regarding media print, we all understand media
is a wonderful source of facts.

11.19.14 at 11:25 AM

I am really inspired with your writing abilities and also with the format to
your blog. Is this a paid theme or did you customize it yourself?
Either way stay up the excellent quality writing, it is uncommon to peer a nice blog like this one

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The Oxford Companion to Wine by Jancis Robinson The Taste of Wine by Emile Peynaud Adventures on the Wine Route by Kermit Lynch Love By the Glass by Dorothy Gaiter & John Brecher Noble Rot by William Echikson The Science of Wine by Jamie Goode The Judgement of Paris by George Taber The Wine Bible by Karen MacNeil The Botanist and the Vintner by Christy Campbell The Emperor of Wine by Elin McCoy The World Atlas of Wine by Hugh Johnson The World's Greatest Wine Estates by Robert M. Parker, Jr.