Picture this: you’re at a white wine tasting with a group of experts. After trying a glass of sweet Riesling, one of the experts says, “This one has plenty of apricot, with just a hint of peach cobbler.” However, no matter how many times you try that same wine, you can’t seem to find those two flavors yourself. Is the expert wrong, or is your palate to blame? It takes time and hard work to refine your palate and pick out some of these subtle, hidden flavors in a wine. When I first started tasting wine, I could easily identify bold flavors and tannins, yet the subtler flavors evaded me. It wasn’t until I had trained my palate on multiple styles of wine that I was able to pick out these tastes and drink comfortably around the experts. This is a skill that almost anyone can learn, and I’m here to walk you through the process.
Why You Should Start with White Wine
To kick off your wine tasting boot camp, start with something relatively easy like identifying which types of fruit you smell and taste in white wines. This builds up your confidence and prepares your palate for bolder wines (which usually have hidden flavors that are harder to spot). The great thing about white wine is that all of us usually taste the same flavors; we just describe them differently or have trouble putting them into words. They’re all based around citrus versus honey (acidity versus sweetness). Since we can all identify these two main characteristics in every white wine, there’s less room for subjectivity, allowing you to hone your palate without worrying whether you’re getting the flavors wrong.
Peaches in Sweet Wines
Generally, sweet white wines have a strong aroma of honey and a flavor of summery tree fruits like peach or apricot–they’re less citrusy and more rounded. Begin by trying Bordeaux Sauternes that you know have botrytized grapes, such as Yquem or Rieussec. First, take one long sniff of the wine without judgment. Does it give the impression of being sweet on the nose? If so, it’s time to isolate those scents. Picture honey in your mind, and take a short sniff from the glass again. Repeat this until you can isolate the honey and get a strong feel for it. Clear your palate by smelling your forearm (it looks odd, but it works).
If you noticed any fruit notes from your first sniff, go back to them and isolate them as you did with the honey. If you didn’t catch any fruit on your first sniff, don’t worry! Start with peaches–this is a common flavor present in almost all sweet white wines. Once you’ve found what you think is a peachy smell, move on to pear, then later apple. Go through the list below, and jot down which fruits fit the bill, and which don’t. When you find an aroma, stick with it until you know it inside and out. You’ll almost always be able to identify fruit flavors in a wine before you ever take your first sip because aroma is an important aspect of how we think the wine tastes overall. However, once you’re done smelling the wine, you’ll also want to taste it, keeping an eye out for the flavors you found in the list below.
- Apricot (or nectarine)
Lemon in Dry Wines
End your first week of boot camp with a sampling of dry wines to further refine your palate. Stick with dry or off-dry German Riesling or California Chardonnay. As with the sweet wines, take a long sniff without judgment, then start isolating flavors. Rather than looking for honey and peaches, look for citrus fruits like lemon or lime. Once you’ve identified either of these fruits, take this one step further: are you tasting a tart lemon, or does it have some rounded sweetness like lemon meringue? Is the lime acidic, or more like key lime pie? Once you’ve isolated one of these two fruits and cemented their characteristics in your mind, as a test, go back and try to find hints of honey or apricot. You’ll likely find that these flavors don’t fit the wine in front of you.
Next, repeat the sniff test with the fruit characteristics listed below.
- Passion fruit
While sweet white wine tasting notes often have multiple layers of fruit, you’ll find that dry wines are usually isolated to just one or two fruits. A tart, acidic wine will likely taste and smell strongly of lemon zest, with a slight sweetness that’s not too strong (like grapefruit). Generally, the riper the grapes are, the closer the wine will taste to pineapple, while slightly underripe grapes will have plenty of lime or lemon and little else. When you finally take your first sips of the wine, see if you can determine how ripe the grapes are based on which fruit you locate. Not only will this refine your palate, it will help you make better selections for your collection by weeding out underripe wines. The goal of an effective white wine tasting note is to determine quality and find the flavor combinations that speak to you.
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