Decoding Your Wine Palate: How to Determine What Varietals You Really Enjoy
Get to know what you like and, perhaps more importantly, what you don't.
Rather than rely on wine scores and critic's reviews when you choose a bottle of wine, purchase a varietal based on your own personal palate preferences. After all, there's no better time than the present to learn what it is you're really looking for in a bottle of vino. To help you consider what you like and what you don't in a glass of wine, we're here to teach you how to decode your palate.
Don't Feel Like You Have to Follow the Numbers
When you're just beginning your wine journey, you might be overwhelmed by the options. If you don't have a lot of experience or confidence in choosing a wine, it's easy to default to wines in your price range that have great reviews from critics or 90+ point scores. But one thing that many wine consumers don't realize is that these reviews and scores are highly subjective: Usually, point scores are just one person's opinion, not a vast committee of experts. If that one person was tired, or had a cold, or just got into a fight with her husband then their opinion of a wine might be skewed.
Even if her assessment was technically accurate, if her taste preferences don't line up with your own, her score will be of little value to you. Some people love black licorice, but some people hate it with a passion—even if the black licorice is technically well-made. The same is true for styles of wines. A bottle of wine can be technically well-made but may not taste great to you, and there's a difference between "not good" and "not for me." The best way to achieve success in your wine shopping is to understand the different attributes of wine and to be able to define what flavors you personally enjoy.
How to Choose a Wine Based on Its Fruit Flavors
Fruit aromas and flavors are the primary building blocks of a wine. The next time you swirl, sniff, and sip a glass of wine, notice what fruit scents jump out at you and what you like. White wines are associated with certain fruit flavors. If you like fresh, bright citrus flavors like lemon, lime, and tangerine, try sauvignon blanc, albarino, and gruner veltliner For crisp orchard fruit like apples and pears, try chardonnay, vermentino, and chenin blanc. Prefer the flavors of juicy stone fruits like peaches and apricots? Then consider riesling, verdejo, and torrontes And for rich, opulent tropical fruit flavors like pineapples, mangos, papayas, and guava, try moscato, gewurztraminer, and viognier.
Like white wines, red wines are associated with their own distinct set of fruit flavors. If you like juicy, lively red fruit like strawberries, red cherries, red raspberries, cranberries, or pomegranates, try pinot noir, gamay, sangiovese, merlot, and grenache. And for sultry, elegant black fruit like blackberries, black cherries, black plums, or black currants, try cabernet sauvignon, syrah, malbec, and nero d'Avola.
How to Choose a Wine If You Enjoy More Savory Flavors
Fruit elements may be the star of the show in wine tasting, but many wines also have savory characteristics: Wine pros simply categorize anything that's not a fruity note as "non-fruit." Not every wine has non-fruit qualities, these are secondary or tertiary elements, so they can be harder to identify, but the more you practice tasting, the easier it gets. Non-fruit qualities can be naturally present in the chemistry of the grape itself. However, they can also come from other factors like grape growing conditions and winemaking techniques, so finding them isn't straightforward. You might have to experiment with different wine producers to find your favorite savory wines—or better yet, describe what flavors you're looking for to the staff at your local wine shop and see what they recommend.
There are a few common non-fruit qualities in white wines. The first is minerality. If a vineyard is planted on chalk or flint-heavy soil, you might detect a distinct mineral scent in the wine. Gunpowder, chalkboard erasers, and salty elements reminiscent of sea-spray are flavors that can be found in many white wines depending on the growing location.
Next is vanilla, coconut, butter, and other baking spices. Many winemakers refer to the different types of barrels used to age wine as their spice rack, and aromas like vanilla and baking spices usually come from the barrel. If a white wine is labeled unoaked, you won't experience these rich flavors. Last, there are the botanical notes like herb, grass, and flowers. Certain grape varieties, when grown in certain climates, can be floral or "green," with herbal or cut-grass notes. Sauvignon blanc from Sancerre is an excellent example of a wine that has green notes, especially in cooler growing seasons.
Red wine has its own distinct non-fruit qualities. Earthiness like crushed leaves, damp soil, or mushrooms are the perfect example. Some red grapes express these notes depending on where they're grown. Examples include pinot noir from Burgundy or Oregon and nebbiolo from northern Italy. Then there's leather and tobacco, cedar, or smokiness. These kinds of flavors are usually from barrel aging, and the winemaker expressing their style based on the types of barrels and the aging time. In recent years, some wines from regions where there have been wildfires can get their smoky flavor from "smoke taint," where the grapes themselves have absorbed some of that smoky smell.
Black pepper and other spices are also common tasting notes in red varietals. Some wines that are described as peppery and spicy taste that way because the grape varieties themselves have that quality. In essence, the best example is syrah, but grenache, petite sirah, and zinfandel can have some naturally peppery notes. Other spice flavors found in red wine, like cloves, nutmeg, cinnamon, ginger, and anise, come from barrel aging. Last but not least, red wines can be associated with cocoa and espresso notes. Flavor scientists have discovered that rich, dark, and bitter flavors present in some reds come from the actual toasting process of the oak barrel. Compounds like furfurals (causing coffee and roasted almond aromas), and isomaltol (caramel aromas) can be absorbed by wine barrels during the toasting process.