Updated: May 18, 2020
Most products include descriptions and benefits to help you make a buying decision. For wine, that is the tasting note. How many of you actually think these notes are helpful? Most of the time it seems these notes are written by experts for experts. How do you really get anything useful out of them? Let’s take a moment to decipher.
#1 Know the Key Wine Elements
The first step to understanding tasting notes is to learn a few key wine elements. It can make all the difference in understanding those notes and can help you decide which wine to buy.
Wine is a combination of acidity, sweetness, tannin, body, and alcohol. The way these 5 elements come together in each wine is important to understand and will help you better decipher tasting notes. We’ll break down these elements below.
This is the harmony of acid, sugar, tannin, alcohol, and water. The wine is balanced when all of these elements combine together in harmony. It is unbalanced when one or more of these components overpowers the others.
This element gives the wine a tart, sour, or zesty flavor. The higher the acidity the more it will make your mouth water.
Acidity can make white wine seem drier and red wine feel lighter. Cool climates tend to produce wine with higher acidity because the grapes don’t become as ripe as those in warmer climates.
The sugar levels in wine range from dry, off-dry, semi-sweet, and sweet/dessert wine. Dry means there is no residual sugar in the wine.
Typically, red wine has no residual sugar, while white wine can vary across the spectrum depending on wine style. For example: Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc are dry white wines. Riesling is produced across the spectrum of dry to sweet. Moscato is produced as a sweet wine.
Tannins come from the skins, seeds, and stems of grapes. Tannin is found in red wine, since it is fermented with the skins and seeds. It can also come from oak barrels. This means that red and white wine aged in oak barrels will gain tannin from the oak.
The tannin levels in wine can range from light to high. Wine that has high levels of tannin can taste very dry and bitter. Those with lower amounts of tannin can have a fruitier and slightly sweet taste, even without residual sugar in the wine.
Body describes how light or heavy the wine feels in your mouth. Think of it like milk. Light bodied wine is like skim milk, medium body is like 2%, and full body is like whole milk.
Alcohol and body go hand-in-hand because high alcohol wines are full-bodied and low alcohol wines are light-bodied. High levels of alcohol can actually feel warm or even hot as you swallow it.
#2 Learn the Common Tasting Note Descriptions
The next thing to understand is the way these key wine elements are described in tasting notes. Here are the common descriptions, what they mean, and a few tips for reading between the lines to find the wine for you.
Zippy, Light, Bright, Crisp, Refreshing
These are all terms that describe wine with high levels of acidity. It’s important for both white and red wine to have a good level of acidity because it gives the wine liveliness.
These are terms that describe a wine with low levels of acidity. This is a negative term because it’s important to have a good level of acidity for wine or else it will taste like it’s lacking something and going nowhere.
This means the wine has ripe fruit which typically means it’s from a warm climate. This description may also indicate the wine has less tannin and lower acidity which can give a sweet taste to the wine. This is important to know if you don’t care for tannins in your wine.
These descriptions mean the wine is full-bodied and will have a heavy mouthfeel. It also indicates the wine has more alcohol.
These descriptions indicate the wine is light-bodied and has less alcohol. This is typically a description for white wine although it could also be used to describe a lighter red.
Dry, Earthy, Rich, Chewy, Firm
For red wine, this means it has tannins that will feel dry on the tongue and cheeks. Chewy and firm descriptions mean the wine is fully loaded with tannins.
This describes the level of tannins and the mouthfeel of the wine. It means the tannins are in the mid-range and feels soft as it rolls over the tongue rather than drying.
#3 Practice with Actual Tasting Notes
Now let’s decipher some actual tasting notes and see what we can get out of them. I’ve selected four actual tasting notes. Two are for white wine and two are for red wine.
Tasting Note #1: Cakebread Chardonnay 2018
Winemaker Notes: This wine opens with aromas of ripe golden apple, white peach, and notes of oak. On the palate, apple and pear characters are balanced by fresh acidity, and the finish is clean, with appealing mineral notes.
Ripe golden apple, white peach: Ripe fruit and stone fruit means this wine is from a warm climate which will create deeper, fuller fruit flavors than a wine from a cool climate, generally.
Notes of oak: This tells you directly that this Chardonnay was matured in oak barrels instead of stainless-steel tanks. Other flavor descriptions for oak aging are toast, vanilla, or butter.
Apple and pear balanced by fresh acidity: This wine has a balance between the fruit and acidity which is important for wine. This means the fruit doesn’t become dominant and overwhelm the wine and the acidity doesn’t overwhelm it either. They are in balance with each other.
Mineral notes: This references a taste of stoniness, flint, chalk, or saltiness.
In other words: This is an oaked Chardonnay that is full-bodied with strong, full fruit flavors balanced by acidity that keeps it refreshing along with the mineral (stone/salty) notes that add layers of taste to keep it interesting.
Tasting Note #2: Oyster Bay Sauvignon Blanc 2019
Winemaker Notes: Pale straw green in color with brilliant clarity, Oyster Bay Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc is zesty and aromatic with lots of lively fruit characters. A concentration of assertive passion fruit and tropical fruit flavors with an abundant bouquet, it is a wine that is always crisp, elegant, and refreshing.
Pale straw green in color: This is the typical color of a Sauvignon Blanc.
Zesty: This references the acidity levels. Sauvignon Blanc is typically high in acidity.
Passion fruit and tropical fruit: This indicates the grapes are from a warm climate. You may develop a preference for cool climate vs warm climate for each type of wine as you become more and more familiar with it.
Crisp and refreshing: This references the acidity again.
Elegant: This term means the wine is light-bodied with lower alcohol content.
In other words: This wine is light-bodied with low alcohol. It is easy-drinking and refreshing because of its high acidity while the tropical fruit notes will add layers of enjoyable flavor.
Tasting Note #3: Willamette Valley Vineyards
Whole Cluster Pinot Noir 2018
Wine Enthusiast Notes: Irresistibly delicious, this perennial winner rocks bright, freshly picked raspberry and marionberry fruit, set against a core of minerality. A mix of Pommard and Wädenswil clones, all fermented with the stems, it sidesteps any herbal excess and finishes with a palate-cleansing burst of acidity.
Raspberry and marionberry fruit: Pinot Noir from cool climates typically have red berry flavors like raspberry.
Core of minerality: This describes the stoniness or saltiness that may be present.
Pommard & Wadenswil clones: This is just the further classification of the Pinot Noir grape. A detail for experts to enjoy.
Fermented with the stems: It is common practice to destem grapes before fermentation; however, this producer did not destem before fermentation. A detail for those interested in the production process.
Palate-cleansing burst of acidity: This references the high acidity that is typical in Pinot Noir.
In other words: This Pinot Noir is a medium- to light-bodied, fruity wine with refreshing acidity. There is no mention of tannins which means it won’t have the mouth-drying effects. Because of this, it may actually have a slightly sweet taste to it (even though it doesn’t have any residual sugar in it).
Tasting Note #4: Duckhorn Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon 2016
Winemaker Notes: A classic expression of Napa Valley Cabernet, this wine combines beautiful complexity with rich intensity. Layers of blackberry, huckleberry and black currants are supported by firm, dusty tannins that frame the fruit. On the palate, it is juicy and bright, with luxurious cassis and dark berry flavors supported by notes of fig, cardamom, clove and cracked black pepper that linger on the long, well-structured finish.
Blackberry, huckleberry, and black currants: Blackberry fruit is a common flavor in Cabernet.
Firm, dusty tannins: Cabernet is known for having strong tannins. That drying mouthfeel. This means the wine will be best to enjoy with food. Not as a pre-meal or post-meal beverage. Tannic Cabernet washes away the Fatty foods. This combination subdues that dry mouthfeel. If you don’t prefer tannic wine, try taking a bite of steak, chewing and swallowing it, then taking a sip of a Cabernet. See if that makes the difference for you.
Bright: This is the acidity. It’s important to have acidity in the wine to give it some interest and liveliness.
Cardamom and clove: These spice flavors come from the oak barrels where the wine matured.
Cracked black pepper: This is typically found in Cabernet along with green pepper which isn’t mentioned here.
In other words: It’s going to have deep rich flavors from the blackberry fruits, tannin, and oak aging. It will be mouth drying from the tannins and will have acidity to add liveliness to this full-bodied Cabernet.
Tasting Notes Deciphered?
There are a lot of different ways to describe wine. By learning the few mentioned here, you can skim through the tasting notes and pull out the most important descriptors. This will help you identify if the wine has mouth drying tannins, or is fruity with low tannins, or has high acidity, and so on.
Then once you actually taste the wine, read the tasting notes again to see if you can identify the elements described. This will help you to become better and better at knowing what you like and how to decipher those pesky tasting notes. Salud!