Even seasoned collectors feel insecure about their palates once in awhile. For the longest time, my Achilles heel was herbal notes. I could easily pinpoint dark fruit, citrus, and lavender, but grass, thyme, and eucalyptus always seemed to evade me. It wasn’t because those flavors weren’t there–I’d read multiple tasting notes that all picked up on them. Rather than accepting my palate for what it was, I decided to fix this blind spot by putting my taste buds to the test. Like sommeliers who train for international competitions, you can also train your palate no matter how experienced a wine taster you already are. These are the methods that allowed me to finally identify floral and herb flavors in wine.
Educate Your Senses
How do sommeliers find strange flavors like old saddle leather, pencil lead, and wet dog? They usually have some experience with them. The world’s best sommeliers are sponges when it comes to flavors and aromas: they soak up everything they can. Your first step for finding hidden floral and herb flavors in wine is to test your palate out on real flowers and herbs before you ever uncork the bottle.
Visit a plant nursery to begin exploring the common floral notes you’ll find in most wines. Take a long, deep inhale first, then take shorter sniffs until you have a feel for the flower’s unique characteristics. Some flowers like lavender are even edible, so you can taste test them (buy a packet of culinary-grade lavender, rather than plucking them straight from their branches).
Here are some flowers whose flavors and aromas you’re most likely to find in wine:
- Blossom (this refers to fruit tree flower aromas–orange, peach, and cherry blossoms are the most common)
Next, buy both fresh and dried versions of the most common herbs whose flavors are found in wine. Follow the same steps as you did for the flowers, taking one long inhale, then a series of short sniffs. Don’t take your knowledge of any herb for granted. Even if you think you know what rosemary smells and tastes like, take a whiff and see if you can pick out any characteristics that you don’t usually notice on a daily basis.
Here’s a list of essential herbs to try:
- Grass (although it’s not technically an herb, many herbaceous wines have this descriptor)
Finding Herbal Characteristics in Wine
There are three types of herbal flavors in wine: vegetative, spicy, and oaked.
Vegetative Herbal Flavors
I recommend looking for vegetable notes first, since they’re the easiest to immediately identify. Start with Cabernet Franc, which has strong squash-like flavors that most critics describe as fairly “green.” First, picture the scent of freshly-cut grass; as you take your first sniffs of the wine, see if you can pick out a grassy aroma. If you can, this is a sign that the wine is going to have other vegetal notes like green bell pepper or tomato. Sauvignon Blanc often has these qualities as well, due to high levels of pyrazines (an organic compound that tastes like fresh vegetables).
Spicy Herbal Flavors
After identifying vegetables, move on to the classic spices like clove and thyme. Buy bottles of Syrah, Malbec, and Zinfandel, then sniff each wine with all seven herbs above in mind (with the exception of grass). Take note of each herb that you think you can find in the wine, then go back through your narrowed-down list to find one or two characteristics that fit best. For instance, mint will offer a bit of a bite, while clove will taste nuttier.
Oaked Herbal Flavors
There’s usually only one herb note that comes from oak, and that’s dill. You’ll know you have a dill-heavy wine when you taste just a hint of green. Buy a bottle of Rioja to test out this subtle, hard-to-spot flavor. The wine is aged for months in oak barrels, which gives it a distinctive toasted coconut profile, yet it retains some freshness and spice to cut through the sweet coconut. This is where you’ll find that elusive dill.
Finding Floral Flavors in Wine
Most floral notes come from either esters (acids), or from terpenes (the grape’s concentrated essential oil). I find that floral notes are easiest to identify by scent alone–only a handful of flavors like rose or lavender can be identified in the taste itself. This is why I recommend starting with these two flowers to practice finding both the smell and taste.
Lavender and Rose
Buy bottles of Cotes du Rhone and Muscat Blanc. Starting with the Rhone, picture the smell and taste of lavender as you take your first sniff and sip of the wine. In quality producers like Guigal, this flavor should be immediately evident. Once you’ve found lavender, move on to the bottle of Muscat Blanc, keeping rose in mind. You should be able to smell this immediately, but be sure to taste the wine and look for sweet-smelling flowers as well.
Lily, stone fruit blossoms, and geranium are all on the sweeter end of the perfume spectrum, with light aromas and flavors. I recommend looking for these notes in German Riesling or Gewurztraminer. Unlike lavender and rose, these flavors can be hard to spot. My tip is to completely ignore the fruit flavors and keep your previous experiences with white flowers in mind as you try the wine. Identify the floral notes before you take note of anything else about the wine.
This is truly the Holy Grail of floral notes. It’s tough to spot, but when you do, your life will be forever changed. The first wine in which I successfully found violet was Nebbiolo, so you should start with that one first. Having both the scent of violet and the color purple in mind as you taste the wine will be your key to success. Still having trouble identifying this note? Don’t stress over it. Many people inherit a gene that makes it difficult to smell or taste violet. You can overcome (somewhat) genetics by tasting violet-heavy wines over and over until your palate adjusts. Stock up on plenty of Nebbiolo!
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