How to taste
Glossary of useful words
Taste Pictures
The grapes and where to find them


1. The wine smells and tastes of whatever you think it does, not whatever anyone else says it does.

2. Describing the smell and taste is difficult; the English language is not very good for this purpose. (Hence Glossary of useful words below.)

3. Although there are about a thousand kinds of grapes used for making wine there are only about 50 important ones and of these about ten really important ones which impart most of the taste and flavour you'll find on the shelves of your local off-licence.

4. With a bit of practice and by following some simple instructions (but not in polite company) you can tell a lot more about the stuff. (Hence How to Taste, below.)

5. By far the most enjoyable thing is drinking good wine in pleasant company, so it really doesn't matter anyhow.

Even given the foregoing, however, here goes....

How to Taste

Formal tasting is for consenting adults only, involving peering, swirling, sniffing, slurping, gargling, spitting and other noisy and unglamourous activities not best designed to add to the enjoyment of fine wines. If, however, you want to find out as much as possible about the wine, to recognise it and to appreciate it you're going to have to get involved in serious tasting using all of the sensory equipment you have. You need to:
  • Describe how it looks
  • Smell it.
  • Swirl it around your mouth
  • Swallow it or spit it out.
Fill the glass no more than one third. Hold the glass by the stem and keep your sticky fingers away from the bowl. Look at the colour against a white background; tilt the glass to see more detail. Young wines are purply red; they turn a bit rusty with an orange rim as they get older. White wines go from water white to old gold for older (or wood aged) wines. Swirl the wine around the glass, disrupting the surface to release the aromas. Immediately stick your nose right into the glass and take a deep sniff. Now taste it, looking for sweetness, acidity and bitterness. Chew the wine in your mouth and, with some on your tongue suck in air. Then you can (at long last) swallow it or spit it out if you want to taste lots.

Glossary of Useful Words

You don't need a whole new vocabulary. You can ignore all the wine-speak and go for the "bubblegum" school of tasting - if you think it smells of bubblegum then say so. Nonetheless there are some words which tend to crop up a lot and which are generally regarded as useful in describing wines. They may trigger something off while you are tasting....


Powerful, delicate, virtually none? Fruity, flowery, earthy, vegetbly, smoky, chemical? Peppery, burnt rubber, leather, petrol, violets? Gooseberries, cats, apricots, tar, peach, redcurrants, blackcurrants? Honey, tea, raspberries, sponge cakes?


Fruity? Clean or off-flavours? Fresh, acid, sharp, bland, soupy? Tart, taut, tired? Tannin? Hard, fat, soft? Balanced? Silky, sweet, succulent, pungent, dry, meaty, delicate? Chocolate? Cheese, pepper, pineapple, mint, raspberry, blackcurrant, apricot, cherry, green apple, lime?

The Grapes - some Taste Pictures


Petrol, nettles, revving up aeroplanes, honey, sap, lime, green apple.

Sauvignon Blanc

Gooseberries, cat's p***, cut grass, asparagus, green apple, green leaves, grapefruit.


Butter, egg custard, straw, toast, mangoes, apricots, candle wax.


Iodine, gym shoes, tar, cherries, jam, raspberries, fruit kernel.

Pinot blanc

Cream, apple, citron pressé, lavender, Parma violets, canned lychees, bracken.


Truffles, prunes, violets, liquorice, chocolate.


Butter, peach, honeysuckle, French pâtisserie, clover, pineapple, angelica.


Velvet, red berry fruits, plums on the branch, Dundee cake, toffees, pencil shavings, mint.

Syrah (Shiraz)

Raspberries, fruit gums, pepper, creosote, leather and saddlebags, goulash, biscuits on a baking sheet, a naked foot.

Chenin Blanc

Grapefruit, damp straw, honey, wet wool, cheese, kiwi fruit, concentrated orange juice, sprinkling of sugar.

Pinot Noir

Strawberries, cabbages, gamey meat, cherries, rusty metal, earth. compost.


Scented soap, exotic fruits, China tea, pot pourri, cinnamon, spices.

Cabernet Sauvignon

Blackcurrants, violets, cigar box, rose hip, green capsicum, cake, brick.

Cabernet Franc

Raspberries and blackcurrants, sponge cake and crumbs, grass and green leaves, herbaceous border, sharp steel knife.


Oak, vanilla, fruit and custard, plums, velvet. ........and finally,



The Grapes and where to find them

Most of the New World wines proclaim their ingredients proudly on the label. Not so France and the Old World. Here is a list of some of the grapes and the wines in which they appear.


Chablis. The only white grape in normal Champagne and all on their own in Blancs de blancs, literally white of whites.


Not the same as Rizling, which all of the pretenders must now call themselves. The Rhine or Johannisberg Riesling is the real thing. It is usually dry but watch out for trockenbeerenauslesen!

Sauvignon Blanc

Loire (Sancerre and Pouilly Fumé), Sauvignon de Touraine, S. de St. Bris (Burgundy). With Semillon this makes the classic Bordeaux sweeti wines; Barsac, Sauternes and Montbazillac as well as dry Bordeaux such as Entre Deux Mers.


With Sauvignon Blanc in Bordeaux. With Chardonnay in Australia (Hunter valley).

Chenin Blanc

Loire - Anjou, Vouvray, Saumur. Sweet Vouvray and sparkling Saumur. In South Africa it is the Steen.

Muller Thurgau

Riesling and Sylvaner.


Alsace, Lisbon. Sparkling Asti and Moscato Spumantes. Muscat de Beaumes de Venise, Muscat de Frontignan.

Trebbiano (Ugni Blanc)

Soave, Orvieto, Frascati, Verdicchio, Galestra. Distilled for Cognac and Armagnac.

Cabernet Sauvignon

Bordeaux (Clarets).; Graves and Medoc with Merlot and Cabernet Franc. Loire, Anjou.

Cabernet Franc

Loire (on its own). St. Emilion and Pomerol (earthy taste).


A rare Bordeaux grape now found in Chile, where it was imported in 1850 (where it is also known as Grand Vidure).  Varietals made by Carmen, Caliterra, Santa Rita etc.  One of the six varieties allowed in making red wines in Bordeaux, it is now almost impossible to find in the region because of problems ripening, phylloxera and oidium.


Bordeaux; Pomerol and St. Emilion. Provides the soft centre for Cabernet Sauvignon.

Pinot Noir

Burgundy. Choosy and hard to grow. Champagne. Alsatian reds, Germany. Italy.


Beaujolais. Often maceration carbonique.


(Shiraz) The "sweaty saddle" of Australian wines. Northern Rhone; Hermitage and Crozes-Hermitage, Cote Rotie, Cornas, St. Joseph, and part of Cotes du Rhone. Chateau Musar (Lebanon).


Southern France, Spain (Garnacha) as a component of Rioja. In Cotes-du-Rhone and Chateauneuf-du-Papes. Provençal wines.


Barolo, Barbaresco.


Oak and vanilla. Rioja. Also Penedes, Navarro, Valdepenas, Duoro.


S. France, with Grenache, Carignan and Syrah in Chateauneuf-du-Papes, Cotes-du-Rhone, Cotes du Roussilon.


SE France, Italy, Spain, California,. Big cropper for mixing.


A cross between Cinsaut (Hermitage) and Pinot Noir (South Africa).


Italy, makes up to 20% of Solaia and Sassicaia with the rest Cabernet Sauvignon.

John Pierce, January 1996

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