Delving into an interest in wine starts with understanding how it's produced and how different fermentation and production processes can affect the way a wine may taste and smell; fancy terms can often perplex consumers. That's why we're here. Wine labels often include descriptive terms and phrases to describe how a particular wine may be interpreted by the consumer's senses, We'll discuss these.

Wine Descriptors & what they Mean

If you are new to wine or how it is made, then you probably do not recognize or perceive some of the aroma and flavor descriptors related to a certain wine. Or perhaps you take note of different aromas and flavors. This does not mean you are incorrect, or that what is listed on the label is incorrect. Here’s why.

You might have heard of the fancy term, "terroir". Terroir refers to the environment in which grapes are grown and includes the following factors:

  • Climate
  • Soil
  • Geomorphology
  • It even includes other flora that grow in the vicinity of the vines.

Each of these factors will influence the characteristic aroma, flavor and texture of the fruit, which can directly influence the wine from which they are made. For instance, a vineyard that may be in close proximity to Eucalyptus trees can produce wines with subliminal hints of Eucalyptus aroma. Labels manufactured for wines like these, might use aromatic descriptors such as menthol, peppermint or simply, eucalyptus. This is just one simple example of how a certain characteristic might influence a wine’s aroma. Some other factors may get a bit more scientific, but it can be explained simply enough.

You might have heard of how specific grapes can have varietal characteristics. For example, Cabernet Sauvignon may have aromas of bell pepper, Shiraz, peppercorn or Chardonnay, apple and/or butter. The aromas may vary, but remain within a certain parameter of a descriptor depending on the ripeness of the fruit at harvest and its balance of sugar and acidity. Photosynthesis will create reactions in the grape, which can add to characteristics of the fruit as it matures. A "bell pepper" smell can range from green bell pepper to a sweet and roasted red bell pepper. An apple smell in wine could range from crisp, green apples to baked cinnamon and buttery apples.

Wine Character & the Production Process

A wine that has a higher percentage of alcohol is one that had a higher ratio of sugar content at harvest, and one that is low in alcohol volume would have had a lower sugar ratio at harvest. Acid content is indirectly related to the amount of sugar. Hence, the higher the sugar, the lower the acidity, which influences aromas and flavors in wine (However, this may be manually corrected during the winemaking process.) .

The winemaking process will also have a direct effect on a wine’s flavors and aromas. In fact, it is during the fermentation process that wine mutates and changes at a faster rate. This is when most of the aromatic flavor and texture influences can take place; the type of yeast alone can determine many different characters of the wine. It can influence aroma, flavor, texture and the finish of a wine. A certain yeast for white wine may give the wine a peaches and cream aroma and texture, whereas another might accentuate a wine’s natural bright acidity.

If the fermentation is controlled and slowed, the fermentation environment can be more favorable in giving the wine more palatable and enjoyable aromas. If it is fast and the temperature not controlled, negative characteristics may form; vinegary-smells, cooked or dried fruit flavors, nail polish remover or "acetone", etc. Fermentation is also the time in which winemakers can influence the wine and understand how much the soil and its elements may be showcased in the wine; mineral-tastes, dusty earth, wet forest floor, etc. It is important to get a good balance of elements encompassing the aroma, flavor and texture of a wine during fermentation. Once it is complete, certain aspects can not be reversed, masked or altered.

When the wine has finished fermentation, it is then sent off to an aging vessel. This may be a stainless steel tank or barrel, an oak cask or an oak barrel. Each vessel has the ability to impart more flavors, aromas and textures into the wine, or not. Of course oak can impart obvious aromas and flavors such as vanilla, cinnamon, pepper, tobacco, warm spices, chocolate, coffee, variants of all listed and more. The use of American oak or French oak will each have more specific aromatics imparted into the wine. This is why a winemaker may choose one or the other, or both. Almost all red wines will spend time in oak barrels, and some fuller-bodied whites, such as Chardonnay and Viognier. A barrel can be used up to four to five times and still have the ability to impart aromas and flavors into wine, whereas stainless steel is mainly used as more of a neutral medium. It allows for acidity and aromas in wine to remain fresh and young. Sauvignon Blanc, Riesling and Pinot Gris/Grigio are just a few examples of white wines that may stay in stainless steel vessels during their aging process. Some lower-end red wines may also be kept in this manner.

Aging & How it Affects Wine

While wines are aging, aromatics and flavors can be influenced, but at a much slower rate than during fermentation. They can pick up elements from their storage vessel and via another type of fermentation referred to as malolactic fermentation or secondary fermentation. If you've ever wondered how "butter" or "cream" can get into your wine, it is during this type of fermentation. This may happen naturally or be induced by the winemaker.

Every wine has malic acid. This is the tart acid you might be familiar with in green apples. The malolactic fermentation transforms malic acid into lactic acid, which is much softer on the palate and on the nose. It is the same acid found in buttermilk. One of the bi-products of this fermentation is diacetyl, which is the exact chemical aromatic naturally found in butter. This is why wines that have gone through this fermentation process have notes of butter, cream or the like.

So how might you guess or note which flavors are in your wine? Just start smelling and tasting and taking notes. There is really no wrong answer. Really! There have been over 10,000 different aromatic compounds identified in wine! Some are obviously more geared towards red wine or white wine, but there are more than just a few descriptors. How you describe a wine might just depend on how big your aroma "vocabulary" is. To train your nose, just start by putting different variations of wines and blends in a wine glass, and take long whiff of it; cut grass, a piece of leather, lemon peel, jams, cinnamon and other spices. Pretty soon, you’ll be able to identify more descriptors in wine.