Wine Talk

Snooth User: dirkwdeyoung

How best to learn how to identify specific flavors

Posted by dirkwdeyoung, Feb 20, 2010.

I am always impressed with how some people, mostly real wine experts have learned to pick out many specific flavors in a wine. Once in a while a specific flavor jumps out at me, which is sometimes good, sometimes bad. I remember in France, they would sell these kits with maybe 50 or more bottles, each containing different important smells to help you learn how to pick them out. That is good for the nose, but those little bottles were not to drink.

Maybe some of our more experienced people can suggest how to work on this skill? For example, do you sit around and eat cheeries for a couple of hours until you can say, o.k., now I have cheeries figured out. O.K., we know what some things taste like, for example bananas, certain citrus. How about pencil lead, or tar? Is it about that is what I think those things would taste like.

I think if you have some suggestions on how to develop these skills it would be interesting and helpful.


Reply by dmcker, Feb 20, 2010.

Don't knock those kits (such as in the Kevin Kline movie). But you can cobble your own collection together, too.

Here's an old thread on the subject;

Reply by napagirl68, Feb 21, 2010.

@dmcker.. funny you mention that movie.. I like that one.. corny as hell, but I still love it.. French Kiss.

This is the goal of the class at the local college I am planning to take next fall. It really teaches you how to discern and name what your are tasting. I have talked to several people who have taken it.. they find their palate (brain, nasal, and mouth) to have begun to really taste specifically. One woman told me her husband took the class... He used to salt and pepper everything with abandon, but now is very restrained in his wanton seasoning......

They utilize kits, wines, dirt!, moss, etc, etc. It's supposed to be pretty good, we'll see!

Reply by Cathy Shore, Feb 21, 2010.

We use the Nez du Vin kit here for aroma recognition. Before investing in it however (its very expensive), I used to make my own up using little jam jars. The key here is to do it truly 'blind' so you don't know what is in the jars or bottles and to do it regularly.
Aroma recognition and the ability to blind taste is a skill that can be learnt over time but in order to succeed you must do it truly 'blind' and do it regularly. It's amazing how quickly you will build up your aroma memory.
The other thing to bear in mind that each of us has a different aroma memory and that mine will be completely different to yours because our backgrounds, upbringing and previous experiences are different. You will not automatically recognise an aroma that you are not familiar with so you have to train your brain to recognise it.
I had a perfect example this week. I have had an Italian student who is studying food and wine in Angers here to talk about food and wine in English. She was completely unfamiliar with the aroma of blackcurrant - one of the easiest aromas for the English to recognise. But as the Italians in Aosta do not use blackcurrant in cooking, they don't drink it as a juice, she was not familiar with it and so struggled with it as an aroma to recognise in red wine.
I hope this helps

Reply by flavorofthevine, Feb 21, 2010.

as a certified flavor chemist I can say it takes years to really identify the different ingredients that make up the flavors you are tasting. For me its what hits me first sip- what really stands out what makes the greatest impression. Once you have the first sip, your palate is coated, sometimes coming back to it again in a few minutes helps. Obviously you may never taste what the experts are tasting, but what counts is what hits you. The Culinary Institute has a free online program that I find helpful- its gives a great overview of the popular grapes, food pairing, acidity and alcohol's affects on tasting.
Even the experts have to learn and continue to learn.

Reply by GregT, Feb 22, 2010.

dirk - the other thing to remember is that the "real wine experts" are most of the time full of crap. They're told that cab is supposed to taste like cassis, or black currants, and they say that it does, but half of them probably never really ate black currants in anything other than jam. I happen to have a few bushes and grew up drinking that juice, and for the life of me I really can't say that most cabs have that flavor, but then what do I know?

Same with most of those descriptors. Pencil lead is pretty clear when it occurs. I remember the first time I tasted a wine with that - it just seemed so obvious. But again, people find that where as far as I'm concerned, it doesn't exist because I don't find it in most wine.

Don't be concerned with picking out flavors, or trying to sound like you detect things because you think you're supposed to. When you eat a piece of toast and jam, do you just gulp it down or do you think about it? Do you taste your coffee or just slam it down? I tried to eat a piece of a Kit Kat the other day. Had to spit it out. Just tasted like fat and sugar and made me a bit nauseous because I paid attention. I can't imagine how else you would eat something but I assume that most people don't pay attention and therefore can consume something like that.

Point is, if you pay attention to everything you eat and drink, you're just fine. You can't ignore everything else and pay attention only to wine, although I wonder if that's what some people actually try to do. If you've tasted a number of different things in your life, you have more comparisons. It's like words - if you've read a bit, you have a larger vocabulary than someone who never reads. If you've tasted a bit, you have a larger taste library to draw from. But don't worry about coming up with a million taste descriptions for a glass of wine or you risk sounding like a yo-yo who can't simply sit down and enjoy a glass w/out twisting himself into knots!

Now that I've given you my little sermon, I'll suggest a few things you can do. Take a piece of oak flooring. Sand it lightly and smell the dust. That's oak and that's what you're going to smell in wines that are fresh from the barrel. Cut up a green pepper. That scent is going to show up from time to time in sauvignon blanc and most of the carmenet family. Go outside and take some dirt into your hands. Rub it around and smell it. That scent comes through in many wines, describing it as you will. There's a bit of mushroom in it, which some call "forest floor" but there's also an ashy / dusty kind of quality that seems to come up in a lot of wine too. Get a grapefruit and peel it. Smell and taste the white side of the peel - a flavor and aroma that shows up in many whites. Get a quince somewhere. My mother used to make jelly out of it, most Americans have no idea what it is, but find one and cut into it and taste it. That's another flavor / aroma that often shows up in whites. Next fall, get a white peach and a yellow peach. Cut into them and smell and taste them. You really don't need to do it more than once and if you're paying attention, you'll remember. Remember that the most primitive part of our brains has to do with scent.

Good luck!

Reply by napagirl68, Feb 22, 2010.

@ GregT.. I LOVE quince! I make quince jelly every late fall... Love it.

Also, since you seem really know your descriptors, what natural substance would you equate with the minerality of say, russian river chards, or white rhones?

Just curious if you have something I could smell/taste that I can show friends which equates to what I like..

Reply by dirkwdeyoung, Feb 22, 2010.

Dear Snooth Team,

I appreciate all of these answers and am going to read them over more than twice. Also I think a lot of people will benefit from the efforts you have made to share your ideas. Dear Cathy, how much do those Nez du Vin kits actually cost? I wonder if there is a range of prices (maybe you are talking about the professional, not debutante level). I will also check if they are available in the States (I am one of those guys, who always answers the "what do you want for Christmas", with I think I have everything I need, so maybe this is an exception). Also I think these ideas of going after very natural, sort of artisanal ways to discover aromas, which translate into describing certains flavors sounds like a very fun and long term approach rather than trying to do it all at once, which could be confusing.

Reply by zufrieden, Feb 22, 2010.

I second the request for a price range on the Nez du Vin kits. While I think going to the natural source (for example, actually eating a quince - since so few do today) is always the purist position, I can see why some might gravitate to the kit (relative compactness and completeness are two reasons that come to mind).

Perhaps a short remark on what most wine experts appear to be up to with their verbal exuberance is in order. I admit to some light suspicion of how certain flavors can so predominate in reviews of wines based on the same varietal. For example, the fundamental, identifiable flavor marker of Cabernet Sauvignon is quite unique; quite possibly no moniker save the name of the grape will suffice as an accurate descriptor (a rose is a rose is a rose, or something like that). But part of the idea of reviewing is to get beyond this triviality and identify something extra - something more than Cabernet Sauvignon that reflects the presence of craftsmanship, provenance and terroir.

That's why the wine reviewer strains to describe a wine using known scents. Of course, whether she knows the flavor or scent firsthand is a question of integrity. Perhaps therein lies the rub.

Reply by dirkwdeyoung, Feb 22, 2010.

Zuf: decided to do a little snoothing around and came up with these two links. The Nez du Vin Kits do have an importer est. in the US already and you can see the price range on the first link:

Another offer, seems to be in a better value range (if it is as good!?), wine enthusiasts kit available on amazon:

cheers, Dirk

Reply by Cathy Shore, Feb 23, 2010.

I see that you've already found an importer for the Nez du Vin kits kirkwdeyoung. The one we use is the most comprehensive and the most expensive at 399$ - I'll check what we paid for our in Euros later but am just off out pruning now.
One note of caution - the aromas are those recognisable to a Frenchman's nose - so you will find things in there that are not suited to other 'noses'! More later. C

Reply by Cathy Shore, Feb 23, 2010.

Back from the vineyard. The kits are available in smaller formats (one for reds, one for whites, one for wine faults). So, I suggest you could start off with one and see how you get on. That way it's not quite such an investment and could go on a birthday list. I think we paid around 250 Euros for ours.

Interesting to see the good old Quince raise it's head. Quince is one of the main aromas found in Chenin Blanc and although I had a quince tree in my garden in Surrey in the UK, I never did anything with it. Here in France, it's a BIG deal and loads of people make jam, jelly, tarts etc with it. I have struggled identfying this aroma as it is so close to pear but slightly more exotic and scented so, this year I went out and bought some quinces and made a tart. As a fruit it's a bit of a pain. They are difficult to peel, impossible to core (I broke my expensive stainless decorer) and discolour within 5 minutes of being exposed to air. I roasted mine with brown sugar and lemon juice, pureed them, added eggs and cream and poured the rich puree into a sweet pastry case which I then baked in the oven until just firm. As a tart - I've had much better (and easier to make) but as a handle on the aroma of quince - it worked. I got it!

There are other aromas in the box that are absolutely not familiar to the English such as Acacia (very floral white flowers) and Tilleuil (Limeflower) in whites and Bourgeon de Cassis (the shoots of the blackcurrant bush) and grilled hazlenut.

At the end of the day it is what YOU smell in the wine. It doesn't matter what anyone else says it smells of - it you don't get it yourself it won't help you one bit.

What would be good idea would be to start off with some wines that have 'classic' aromas. For example if you took a Sauvignon you could try and find the aroma of Bourgeon de Cassis and if you took a Gewurtz then you could try and find Litchi or roses.

Aroma is broken down into primary, secondary and tertiary so the age of the wine and the stage of it's development will also affect what you can smell in the wine.

Did you know that around 80% of our enjoyment from food and wine comes from aroma alone. Think of when you have a cold - eating and drinking becomes a bore because you can't smell anything and therefore you can't taste anything.

Best of luck with it all - keep us posted as to how you are getting on.


Reply by GregT, Feb 23, 2010.

Zu - a rose is a rose???

Come to my house in the early summer. I don't have all that many but I've got around 50 and when you finish smelling each one, you will never again say that!! When people taste a barolo and tell me they smell rose petals, I always inquire whether it's perhaps something like Safrano, and old tea rose, or maybe more like Souvenir du Malmaison, which is a Bourbon rose that smells quite different!

Violets is another thing that bugs me. People smell violets in wine? Like Port sometimes?? Right. Have you ever actually smelled a violet? I have. Picked a bunch of them and held them to my nose. There's really not all that much scent there, so those people must have noses like dogs! But thrown into a sugar syrup and dried, why, that's something else again. Put those babies on your cake and you transform it into a delicate confection!

When I was a child, for some reason I would always smell food before eating it. Apparently it was considered weird, but I didn't know that at the time. I found out later that my first grade teacher thought it was strange. But going thru the day, we smell all kinds of things w/out paying much attention. Right now it's raining. The smell of the wet pavement, or the tree branches that are glistening with the moisture, or the wet earth in the garden, all of those things are in our heads if we pay attention. Coffee in the morning, old ashes in the fireplace, strawberries and boiled cabbage - those are all descriptors that we know.

Anything that helps is useful, but rather than isolate wine from everything else, see how it is connected to everything else. If you pay attention, it turns out that the same compounds in different concentrations become different aromas to us. The scent of grapefruit peel is partly from the same molecules that we find in bell peppers. An old belt or leather jacket has aromas that are also found in some of our wines.

Reply by bridawineguy, Feb 23, 2010.

If I can offer my 2 cents....

I think your original question was regarding the development of your abilty to discern different flavors in the wine, rather than smell different aromas, correct?

If that is the answer is going to seem as if it comes from Left field, but here it goes....

I am in the wine trade, and I have worked for multiple importers, wholesalers, and distributors, and I have had the good fortune to taste with some of the best Somm's, MS's, MW's, winemakers, growers, etc...
and this is what I have learned from those amazing experiences;

* your taste(s) is completely subjective to you, and it does have its own intrinsic biases - whether it be personal, emotional, and/or cultural

* most of the "experts" will always disagree to some extent on the presence of certain flavors (ie; I've been in a room where one MS tastes "blackberry", while another tastes "black/red cherries" - so, no one cares if you have a different perception :-) If they care, or try to force their opinion on you.... they are the "WRONG" type of wine person..they are one of those "know-it-all snobs", or "wine nazi's", as I call them.

* ready for this....those flavors ARE THE LEAST important part of the process!! Don't worry, I know you are thinking that I am crazy......

1) wine should have varietal correctness (Pinot noir should taste like Pinot, not a Syrah!)

2) wine should taste like "where it comes from" (the notorious "buzzword" is "terroir")....but, there should be a discernible difference between a Burgundian Pinot Noir, a Willamette Valley Pinot Noir, and a Russian River Pinot Noir.....these wines should "taste like the place"! Each of these places has their own micro/macro-climates that are expressed in the wine - this should be one of the wine's hallmark what makes wine so interesting!!

3) wines should have a humble balance between the oak/steel - acidity - fruit/tannins,.. all of these characteristics should "mingle", not overpower each other...that's when a wine is "perfect", or trully "enjoyable"

If you focus more on the "correctness" of the varietal, and the "expression" of place, and the "balance" of the will have learned a skill that is far more important/valueable than being able to recognize "blackberries", "currants", or "black cherries".....because even the greatest palete(s) in the world will always have a varying degree of opinions regarding the presence of those flavors/characteristics....

But usually, and very frequently,....most of the "experts" in the room agree on the typicity of the wine, and the overall quality/or lack there of...while considering its price point/retail value......while typically DISAGREEING about the presence of "cherries" vs "raspberries".

So, most importantly,....decide on wines that your palete likes, and is confortable paying for...because, at the end of the day, that is what matters!!!

I hope this was helpful!

Reply by GregT, Feb 23, 2010.

bridawineguy, really?

What exactly is "varietal correctness"? Is nebbiolo for example, the same in Piedmonte and in Santa Barbara? Or is varietal correctness whatever we're used to tasting from the first place we tasted the wine from?

What should pinot noir taste like? In Sonoma it can get pretty ripe. Maybe someone thinks it's like syrah. Why is that wrong?

In Australia it's another story. In Hungary it's yet another again, and in Italy still another. Should it taste like it's from Burgundy? Should it have the same body weight, the same mouth feel?

Right now I'm drinking tempranillo. It's from Ribera del Duero. Should it taste like it came from Priorat or from Rioja or from Washington or from Hunter Valley? How do I know where it's from? In my personal case, I've had a few of them, so maybe I could get 50% correct if I were guessing, but do I REALLY taste the location or do I simply know enough of those wines to identify it?

Balance, yes, but it's hard for some people to discern in young wines. The wine I happen to be drinking is going to be great in 10 years, but that's only because I know the wine, the region, and the grape well enough to hazard a guess. If I didn't, I'd think it was too tannic, too closed, too acidic. So balance is hard to define as well, unless you know the wines.

I completely ignore varietal correctness and don't believe in the concept. I think it's a preconception, prejudice, or bias. I have a hard time understanding the concept of terroir or place too. I find it to be akin to astrology. As in,

"What sign are you?"


"I knew it!"

But if you knew it, why ask?

Other than that, I agree with you however.

Reply by zufrieden, Feb 23, 2010.

I love this discussion - just the sort of thing to get the logical connectives placed correctly. I have to run, but will be back with a few comments on these interesting lines of thought. One thing in my defense, though - with my quotation of Gertude Stein I was not suggesting that each variety of rose has the exact same nose, color or appearance; only that we know those 50 varieties are indeed roses. I'm talking more of universals, if you believe in those, that is...

More later.

Reply by bridawineguy, Feb 24, 2010.


Please allow me to expound on my concept of “terroir” and “varietal correctness”;

While I certainly agree with some of your dialogue, I cannot agree with all of it.
You are correct in thinking that it is sometimes difficult to compare a Nebbiolo from Piedmonte, to a Nebbiolo from Santa Barbara (they can be distinctly different wines) - that was not my point. However, a Pinot Noir should taste like a Pinot Noir. In this day and age, we have too many wines that are made for the pure purpose of “keeping up with the Jones”, or trying to “taste like the wine that Parker gave 98 points”, or a better example…would be the “Sideways” effect. After the movie, anyone and everyone was trying to make Pinot. Most of these producers had NO business making pinot, or attempting to sell it for that matter.

In my profession, I taste approximately 100 - 150 wines strictly for professional purposes, and probably 25 - 30 for my own personal interests - during the course of each week. When the “Sideways” phenomenon occurred, I tasted Pinot’s that were 1) from regions that should not produce Pinot, 2)15.8% etc., 3) tasted like port, 4) tasted like rubber tires, 5) tasted like blackberry soup. I can certainly continue this example for hours, but I will not for the sake of time. Due to the fact that other wine professionals have previously taken the time to “define” a good Pinot (hence, the concept of “varietal correctness”)…I have had the opportunity to discern/learn/understand/embrace the really good Pinot Noir’s from Burgundy, Willamette, Russian River, etc. When tasting the “Sideways” effect Pinot’s…I was able to immediately recognize many of these Pinot’s as being “commercially unacceptable”, and my colleagues typically agreed with me (many of whom, have been in the wine biz for 30 -40 years). So, there is something to be said for “varietal correctness”. If I were to walk into Redd, in Yountville, and take Jason Heller a Pinot Noir that tasted like “Syrah”, I can almost guarantee what his reaction would be….he would immediately spit out the wine, tell me that it DOES NOT taste/smell/act like Pinot, and probably tell me to never bring it to him again, while graciously declining to find a place on the wine list for it! The same scenario would repeat itself if I were to walk into Gary Danko, or French Laundry, or Citronelle..with the same bottle of wine. If there was not some form of varietal correctness,…all wine would be “wine”. There would be no use for A.V.A’s, A.O.C’s, D.O.C.G’s…you wouldn’t even have to mention “Willamette”, or “Russian River”…it just tastes like wine - its all grape juice!!! Also, there would be no use what so ever for the “blind tasting” part of the MS exam. You could guess “wine”, and you would be granted your MS certification.

As far as “terroir”, being a form astrology…………..

There are varying soils, varying amounts of moisture, differing sun exposures, microclimates, and macroclimates. If this were not the case, Selbach could just make “Mosel” Riesling, instead of making his famed Zeltingers, Wehleners, Graachers, and Bernkastelers. I mean really, why waste everyone’s time….just make Rhone wine instead of Cornas, Cote-Rotie, Hermitage, and Gigondas…because there is no such thing as “terroir”

The entire Grower champagne (a.k.a. “Farmer Fizz”) phenomenon is rooted in the concept that people like Terry Theise can import champagnes that speak to their “terroir”(ie; producers such as Aubry, Vilmart, Gaston Chiquet, A. Margaine, Chartogne - Taillet, Pierre Peters, - just to name a few). Terry laughs at the establishment, and proves that many of the big champagne houses “snuff out the great expression of terroir”! If you were to ask ANY wine director, beverage director, or sommelier, the quality of Terry’s champagnes…they will tell you that Terry is one of the best - for this reason!! In fact, in Andrew Jefford’s book, “New France”, Jefford writes, “Champagne is on the verge of profound change. There is a growing realization that its viticulture has become slovenly and the subtleties of its terroir have been neglected. The era of good growers, and great vineyards is just beginning.” Later in his book, he has a quote from Mr. Regis Camus of the famed Charles-Heidsieck, as he says, “We’re against terroir, we are very much in favor of blends.” Later, Mr. Camus professes in the book, “with blends, we are able to eliminate the imperfections of terroir”!

I was fortunate enough to sell the wines of Robert Craig for 4 years. I had the good fortune to meet him on a few occasions. He is recognized by many, as one of the greatest growers of California Cabernet! When I last saw him , he was still teaching “Cabernet”, to students, at UC - Davis. He once told me…”The French think they know terroir…they do not know as much as we do.” “Do you know there are more soil types in California than there are in all of France!” I am sure that you are aware…years ago, he petitioned to have Spring Mountain, and Howell Mountain recognized as their own A.V.A’s…because of the different terroirs.

You seem to know Spanish wines…..I had the amazing opportunity to be the wholesaler for Jorge Ordonez, Eric Solomon/European Cellars, Rare Wine Company, and Classical Wine Imports (all in the same portfolio) for 4 years…arguably the 4 greatest Spanish importers on the planet!! I have also had the good fortune to sit in the wine caves of Tinto Pesquera, and listen to Alejandro Fernandez talk about his dream as a child to make his own wines, and how everyone laughed when he attempted to introduce the espalier system in Vina Alta. He was told by everyone “that it would not be beneficial to plant on the high table lands”, yet, he feels that this is the “greatest expression of Tempranillo”, due to the soil’s heat retention. I guess Alejandro has no use for a concept like terroir.

Also, I am currently studying for the MS exam. Please allow me to “cut/paste’ a copy of the requirements for passing the examination;

The tasting examination is scored on the candidate's verbal abilities to clearly and accurately describe six different wines. Within twenty-five minutes he or she must:
• Identify, where appropriate, grape varieties, country of origin, district and appellation of origin, and vintages of the wines tasted.

I am assuming that “country of origin”, “district”, and “appellation of origin” have absolutely nothing to do with the nuances in the wines created by “terroir”!! I assume that if I just blurt-out “its Syrah”…I automatically get a passing grade!?!?!? There is absolutely no need to discern California, from Washington, from Rhone Valley…if that were the case there would be 50,000,000,000 sommeliers running around.

Should I continue with terroir?

Reply by Cathy Shore, Feb 24, 2010.

I think you're all going off piste a bit frankly. I did blind tasting exams just like your MS exams with the Wine & Spirit Education Trust in London 25 years ago and we, like you, had to identify, grape, country, district and AC if possible, vintage, quality and price of the wines that were served blind.
Clearly different grape varieties perform differently in different climates and the final wines have very different expressions of those grape varieties.
And how can you separate aroma from flavour. Aroma IS flavour. Without it - we taste nothing.
Seems to me that the executives at Gallo could do with a bit of training in this department seeing as they can't tell the difference between a Pinot Noir, Merlot or Cab Sauv!

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