Wine 101

How can I learn to identify aromas and flavors of wines?

Wine Aroma wheel Copyright A C NOBLE 1990,2002

You may have read tasting notes describing a wine using an incredible array of complex or unfamiliar terms: “ripe cherries”; “crisp apple”; “oak undertones”; and so forth.

This kind of terminology serves a good purpose, in that it allows a wine’s flavors and aromas to be described in writing, and stored for later reference. It can also be very helpful for matching wines with specific foods.

But to the casual wine drinker, tasting vocabulary can seem a daunting proposition. Thankfully, most everyone can train their nose to detect specific aromas in a wine. With a little practice, you can learn to distinguish between aromas, in the same way your eyes can tell the difference between the colors red and orange.

In 1990, after extensive research, Professor Ann C. Noble of the University of California at Davis devised the Tasting Wheel. It divides various aromas associated with wines into 12 separate categories. Beginning in the center of a wheel, wine drinkers can identify general flavors and, moving outwards from the wheel’s center, identify more and more precise aromas in the wine. Ultimately, the taster arrives at a specific set of terms that best describe what they experienced in tasting the wine.

At the permission of Professor Noble, we have reproduced a low-resolution version of the wheel here. We would encourage anyone interested in owning a copy of the tasting wheel to visit Professor Noble’s Web site, and purchase a laminated, detailed wheel from her. Her Web site may be found at:

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How do I learn how to taste wines?

Start right here! Wine 101 was developed to help wine enthusiasts such as yourself get a foothold on tasting. This section has been organized to guide you from general concepts of a wine’s appearance, aroma, and flavor, on to more complicated concepts that can affect a particular wine’s dynamics.

Begin by asking yourself: what do you like about wine? Envision your favorite experiences drinking wine, what foods you may have especially enjoyed with it, and overall why you prefer wine to other alcoholic drinks. At the same time, think about negative experiences you have had. These can be just as helpful in identifying what you do and don’t like in a wine.

Other tips…

  • Read through Wine 101.
  • Try your hand at our tasting notes service.
  • Read some books on tasting wine.
  • Visit wineries.
  • Talk with the winemakers.
  • Talk with your friends – use what resources you have to make this a learning process for you and others you interact with.
  • Start small, build on these ideas, and soon you’ll be off in no time, writing world-class notes!
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How should I describe the colors in wines?

Wine colors can vary greatly, depending on the type of grapes used, how they
were pressed and fermented, how the resulting wine was aged, racked, fined, and

The following are terms used to describe the different colors of white, blush,
and red wines.

To accurately determine the wine’s color, you should pour a small amount into a glass, and then hold the glass away from you at a 45 degree angle. This will help spread the wine over the surface of the glass, so light can more easily pass through it. Look through the core (the middle) of the wine, and note the color you see.

You can also try holding the glass up to a light, but be careful not to use too bright a light source, as this could make the wine appear lighter than its actual color.

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What is meant by “wine clarity”?

Wine clarity refers to the amount of undissolved matter floating in a wine.

A wine with greater clarity appears purer. Light passing through a wine with great clarity appears sharp and brilliant. This rule of thumb goes for all wines, including red wines with great depth of color.

A wine with less clarity may appear cloudy or hazy when viewed in a wine glass.

Clarity is commonly used as a measure of quality, as it directly relates to how much or how little a wine was fined (refined) during its production. A wine with greater clarity is thought to be purer and of higher quality.

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In what order should I taste wines: white to red, or vice versa?

The rule of thumb is taste wines in this order: white to red, dry to sweet.

By starting with lighter, dryer wines, your palette will be able to sense their gentler characteristics, and not become overwhelmed by fuller-bodied wines.

As you taste additional wines, your palette may become accustomed to the wines, even “numbed” a bit. By working from light-white, towards more potent and full bodied red wines, your palette will always have something new and additional to pick out and sense.

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What is the difference between a “sweet wine” and a “dry wine”?

The primary difference between a sweet wine and dry wine is in their sugar content.

A dry wine may contain less than 1% residual sugars, or less than .5% for a “bone dry” wine (below which a human palette can detect no sugars).

On the other hand, a sweet (or dessert) wine may contain 20% or more residual sugar. Some late harvest dessert wines contain upwards of 25% residual sugars.

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What types of wine are aged in oak barrels?

The most common types of wine aged in oak barrels are red wines.

After fermentation, and prior to bottling, some wines are matured (or ‘aged’) in oak barrels. The aging process may take upwards of 12 months, and allows tannins in the oak barrels to add flavor and character to the wines.

An additional process – refining (or ‘fining’) – takes places while wines age in their barrels. During fining, sediments are separated out and removed from the wine. Also, wine may be siphoned from one barrel to another, a process known as ‘racking’. During racking, wine is separated from additional sediment at the bottom of the barrel.

Red wines contain higher tannins than do white wines. Thus, the introduction of additional tannins from oak casks is thought to only improve the character and flavor of a red wine. On the other hand, white wines, low in tannins and softer in character, could be overpowered by the oak tannins. For this reason, few white wines (such as Chardonnay) are matured in barrels.

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Would I like wine with a “forward flavor”, or one with a “softer flavor”?

Wines with a forward flavor have brighter, fruitier flavors.

Softer wines have a mellower range of flavors and aromas.

The best way to find out is simply sample many different varietals and kinds of wine: red, white, sweet, dry, dessert, and so forth.

You should consider asking a tasting room employee at a local winery, as they are well versed in helping locate specific ranges of wines for their clients, and will be sure to help find a wine that appeals to you. Not only that, they are friendly, and will gladly share their knowledge with you, something not always possible in other settings.

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What are the names and relative sizes used for different wine bottles?

The use of wine bottles as we know them today, is a practice that has only been around for about 300 years. Prior to that, various jugs, bladders, barrels, and vats were used to store wines.

At present, there are primarily thirteen different shapes and sizes of bottles used for wines:

  1. 375mL – A “Half Bottle”, “Split”, or “Tenth”, equivalent to about 1.5 glasses of wine.
  2. 750mL – A “Normal” or “Standard” bottle size.
  3. 1.5L – A “Magnum”, twice the site of a standard.
  4. 2.25L – A “Marie-Jeane”, equal to three regular bottles.
  5. 3.0L – A “Double Magnum”, equal to four regular bottles.
  6. 3.0L – A “Jeroboam”, equal to four regular bottles, and used for sparkling wine.
  7. 4.5L – A Jeroboam, equal to six regular bottles, and used for storing red wine. In Bordeaux, red wine Jeroboams can hold 5.0L.
  8. 4.5L – A “Rehoboam”, equal to six regular bottles, and used for storing red wine.
  9. 6.0L – A “Methuselah”, Burgundy-shaped, equal to eight regular bottles.
  10. 6.0L – An “Imperial”, Bordeaux-shaped, equal to eight regular bottles.
  11. 9.0L – A “Salmanazar”, equal to 12 regular bottles (or one case).
  12. 12.0L – A “Balthazar”, equal to 16 bottles, usually used for sparkling wines.
  13. 15.0L – A “Nebuchadnezzar”, equal to 20 regular bottles (or 100 glasses of wine), usually used for sparkling wines.

Pictured at right is a 6-liter, Burgundy-shaped Methuselah bottle. Note the standard 750mL bottle behind it.

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What are the characteristics of a great white wine?

White wines are a lighter and fruitier counterpart to red wines. Containing few tannins, and rarely aged in oak barrels, white wines impart a much less imposing flavor and characteristic on the palette than do red wines.

Specific flavors and aromas vary from wine to wine, depending on the varietal and production method employed. Overall, white wines should exhibit bright, fruity aromas, such as apple, pear, peach, apricot, tropical fruit, melon and citrus fruits. In addition, sweeter, candy-like aromas of butterscotch, vanilla, almond, and honey may be present.

The fruity, sweet qualities of white wines have much to do with how they are produced: typically, the grapes are pressed, skins and stems removed, and then the juices collected and fermented. This allows the natural fruitiness of the grape juices to show through in the wines.

White wines should exhibit softer flavors and aromas than red wines. Look for “shy” and subtle qualities in white wines, which can make tasting whites a challenge, while at the same time explain why their non-intrusive characteristics allow them to accompany lighter, aperitif dishes so well.

Depending on the type of white, the finish and aftertaste should be lighter and less instense than a red wine. Tasting a white should end with a mellow finish, not something that bites at the back of your throat.

All in all, look for wines that have a light presence, flavor, aroma, mouthfeel, and finish. Any pronounced characteristics should be agreeable, and not overpowering.

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