Our Extensive Guide to Understanding Wine Flavours

With all the many different wines available to us today, it can be a daunting task to decide which one to buy. However, although packaging, price and reputation are all factors in making a choice, when it comes down to it, you need to buy a wine for its flavour.

We’ve divided up the thousands of flavours found in wines into 12 broad style categories, from crisp, neutral whites all the way through to fruity, juicy reds. So, even if you don’t know anything about grape varieties or wine regions, you can simply choose a wine style, and we’ll guide you through the types of wine that are available to you.

This is also a chance for you to try something new; if you currently only buy toasty, buttery Chardonnay, you might like to branch out and try something from the perfumed, exotic whites, such as spicy Gewurztraminer. Keep coming back to this flavour guide whenever you fancy trying something new …

Crisp, Neutral Whites

The wines are bone-dry, crisp and refreshing, and when chilled, are ideal with shellfish.

This style of wine is especially popular in Italy, where they enjoy its neutrality, preferring it to more aromatic or fruity wines. You will find many examples, such as Soave, Orvieto, Pinot Grigio, Pinot Bianco, Frascati and Verdicchio.

France also produces a number of these crisp wines; with Muscadet from the Loire Valley being the most neutral. There is also unoaked Chablis from Burgundy – the Chardonnay grape in a dry, minerally style.

You won’t find many New World producers offering this style, and even when they grow the same vines, they tend to make fuller, more flavoursome wines from them.

For less than $10, try:

  • Orvieto Secco, Sergio Mottura (Central Italy): A fresh wine with aromas of wild mushrooms and crisp citrus fruits.

For around $10 to $20, try:

  • Piccolo Demonio Pinot Grigio (Northern Italy): Crisp and clean with a lemony edge.
  • Donatien Bahaud Le Master de Donatien Muscadet de Sevre et Maine Sur Lie (Loire): Spritzy and crisp, with a hint of anise.

For around $20 to $30, try:

  • Chablis 1er Cru ‘Les Forets’, Vocoret (Burgundy): This wine offers complex mineral flavours and crisp, crunchy apple fruit.

To push the boat out (over $30), try:

  • J Moreau Chablis Grand Cru Les Clos (Burgundy): Bone dry, minerally, with lemon and apple overtones.

Sharp, Zesty Whites

The flagship wine for this style is Sauvignon Blanc from New Zealand – especially from Marlborough – with its unmistakable gooseberry tang. Chile makes some similar, although slightly softer wines.

The Loire Valley produces Sancerre and Pouilly-Fume from Sauvignon Blanc, which are crisp and refreshing with lighter fruit flavours and a minerally or smoky edge. You’ll find that the best value Sauvignon Blanc is dry white Bordeaux; usually labelled as Bordeaux Sauvignon Blanc or Bordeaux Blanc. Bordeaux is always softer than Loire or New Zealand versions.

The Loire also produces sharp-edged wines from Chenin Blanc, such as Vouvray and Savennieres. Loire Chenin has a minerally acid bite when young, but becomes rich and honeyed with age.

The other grape that produces this sharp, zesty style is Riesling. It can have peach, mineral or smoke flavours when young, with a dash of green apple, and bags of acidity. However, if left to mature for a few years, these flavours mingle and mellow to produce a honey and petrol flavour, which actually tastes better than it sounds. The leanest Riesling comes from Germany’s Mosel Valley; slightly richer ones come from the Rhine; drier, weightier ones from Alsace. Rieslings from Australia start life bone dry and age to a lime and toast flavour.

For around $10 to $20, try:

  • Chateau de Roques Bordeaux Sauvignon Blanc (Bordeaux): Slightly bitter with a taste of grapefruit.
  • Villa Maria Private Bin Sauvignon Blanc (New Zealand): Sharp, with gooseberry, green tomato and passion fruit flavours.
  • Cave de Turckheim Riesling Heimbourg (Alsace): Refreshing, with lemon and limes, and a hint of apple.

For around $20 to $30, try:

  • J Moreau et Fils Sancerre (Loire): Dry, flinty, with a citrus tang.

Dry, Nutty Whites

This intense, dry, nutty and powerful style is typified by oak-aged Chardonnay in the form of white Burgundy. These wines have a soft edge, with a backbone of dryness, with subtle nut and oatmeal flavours. New World wineries in California, New Zealand, Australia and South Africa, produce many other Chardonnays with this same approach.

The Semillon grape also brings us wines in this style, with the best oak-aged wines coming from Graves and Pessac-Leognan in Bordeaux. These wines are blended with Sauvignon Blanc, giving a nutty, creamy wine with a hint of nectarines.

Good quality white Rioja from Spain will become lush and nutty on aging, and un-oaked Australian Semillon from the Hunter Valley will also mature to become waxy and rich.

All of these wines need a little aging to show their best, but Spanish Chardonnays from Navarra and Somontano are less expensive alternatives, and will give you an idea of the style.

For around $10 to $20, try:

  • Rioja Blanco CVNE, Via Real (Spain): Light biscuit flavours, with hints of cinnamon and grapefruit.
  • Bourgogne Blanc Cuvee St Vincent, Vincent Girardin (Burgundy): Forwardly fruity and wonderfully balanced.
  • J McWilliam Semillon Chardonnay (Australia); Toasty, waxy notes and herbal and honey hints.

For around $20 to $30, try:

  • Chateau Carbonnieux, Classified Growth of Graves, Pessac-Leognan AOC, (Bordeaux): A wine with mineral and grapefruit aromas, and a floral and white fruits flavour.
  • Mercurey 1er Cru “Clos des Barrault”, Domaine Juillot (Burgundy): A brilliant gold wine, with floral aromas, and ripe pear, peach, hazlenut and vanilla flavours.

To push the boat out (over $30), try:

  • Domaine De Chevalier, Classified Growth of Graves, Pessac-Leognan AOC, (Bordeaux): Attractive fragrances of citrus combine with mint and cashew nuts.

Toasty, Buttery Whites

This style of white wine will give you upfront flavours of peaches, apricots and tropical fruits with a toasty, vanilla and butterscotch richness. This buttery richness is supplied by new oak barrels.

The grape that epitomises this style is Chardonnay, although may other whites can be given that tropical flavour, and new oak barrels will provide the toast and butterscotch.

The toasty, buttery style was more or less invented in Australia, but it’s also the distinguishing characteristic of most Chardonnay in the USA and South America.

For less than $10, try:

  • 35 South Chardonnay (Chile): A soft, easy drinking wine with ripe tropical aromas and buttery finish.

For around $10 to $20, try:

  • Jacob’s Creek Reserve Chardonnay (Australia): Toasty oak layered through the creamy flavours, balanced by lively acidity.
  • Fetzer Bonterra Vineyards Organic Chardonnay (USA): Rich, ripe melon and pineapple fruit.

For around $20 to $30, try:

  • Piper’s Brook Chardonnay (Tasmania): A creamy butternut classic.

Perfumed, Exotic Whites

These perfumed wines combine exotic fragrances with aromas of spring flowers. One of the best examples is Gewurztraminer from Alsace, which is crammed with spices, lychees and roses. Gewurztraminers from other countries tend to be far more subtle than the Alsace version; the Italians make theirs as toned down as possible, whilst the German style is more floral.

The Muscat grape, again from Alsace, is floral with a heady grape aroma. Other perfumed wines include the apricot and floral-flavoured Viognier, which is at its best in the Rhone; Torrontes from Argentina; and Irsai Oliver from Hungary. The Alborino grape in Spain produces a crisply apricot wine.

For less than $10, try:

  • Cape Promise Muscat (South Africa): Floral and spicy overtones and a crisp refreshing finish.
  • Colibri Torrontes (Argentina): Zesty, with flavours and aromas of flowers, spices and tropical fruits.

For around $10 to $20, try:

  • Cave de Turckheim Gewurztraminer Herrenweg (Alsace): Intensely spicy and exotic, smelling of lychees and tasting full bodied and dry.
  • Pazo Senorans Albarino (Spain): Award winning wine with huge apricot flavours.

For around $20 to $30, try:

  • Cave de Turckheim Gewurztraminer Grand Cru Brand (Alsace): Stunning aromas of spice and lychees.
  • Stonehaven Limestone Coast Viognier (Australia): A fresh and lively white wine, with aromas of orange blossom, mandarin, nectarine and pear.

Luscious, Sweet Wines

These sweet wines often have intense flavours of peach, pineapple and honey, and are best showcased in the Bordeaux wines of Sauternes and Barsac. These are syrupy and rich wines with intense flavours of pineapples and peaches, butterscotch, barley sugar and honey, all balanced by acidity. Monbazillac, Cerons, Loupiac and Ste-Croix-du-Mont all produce lighter, less expensive examples.

The Loire Valley produces rather unusual sweet wines that are also less rich and less expensive: Quarts de Chaume, Bonnezeaux and Vouvray. They’re quince-flavoured with a firm acid grip and a minerally streak. Do bear in mind though that most Vouvrays are dry; the sweet ones will be labelled as ‘moelleux’ or ‘liquoreux’.

The Alsace sweet wines tend to be very rich, and are good accompaniments to foie gras. Gewurztraminer versions tend to be heavier than Pinot Gris, with Riesling being the lightest of the three. Selection de Grains Nobles will be sweeter than Vendange Tardive.

The sweet wines of Germany have their own language to describe them. Beerenauslese (selected berries) and Trockenbeerenauslese (dry selected berries) are intensely sweet and extremely expensive; Auslese (selected) is less sweet and less expensive. They are all very high quality, and the best are made from Riesling, whose intense acidity keeps the sweetness from being overwhelming.

Eiswein (Germany) and Icewine (Canada) are made from frozen grapes picked in the middle of winter, and produce a fiercely acidic wine with thick, rich sweetness.

Hungary’s Tokaji is perfumed with smoke, apricot, toffee, vanilla, orange peel and honey, and is of very high quality. Its acidity prevents it from being overly sweet.

Moscatel de Valencia is a simple, sweet Muscat from Spain; it is unpretentious, down-to-earth and incredibly good value.

For around $10 to $20, try:

  • Tokaji Dry Furmint Emerencia (Hungary): Juicy tropical fruit balanced by mouth-watering acidity, with zesty lemons and a long finish.
  • Moscatel de Valencia (Spain): A luxurious ultra-sweet wine, with overtones of honey and orange marmalade.

For around $20 to $30, try:

  • Cave de Turckheim Tokay Pinot Gris Vendange Tardive (Alsace): A honeyed with peach and pear notes.
  • Lemaire, Vouvray Moelleux (Loire): Ripe with plenty of honeydew, almonds, hints of liquorice and even a hint of black fruit on the finish.
  • Chateau Bastor Lamontagne, Sauternes (Bordeaux): Lusciously sweet, honeyed wines designed to be drunk young.

To push the boat out (over $30), try:

  • Cave de Turckheim Tokay Pinot Gris Selection des Grains Nobles (Alsace): Golden, sweet, with marmalade flavours.
  • Cave Spring Cellar Riesling Icewine (Niagara, Canada) :Luscious fruit flavours, honeyed sweetness and balanced acidity.
  • Erdener Pralat Riesling Auslese

Delicate Rose

Good rose should be dry, delicate, fragrant and refreshing – never sickly or sweet. If you pick the right rose wine, you’ll find that it is delightful to drink on a warm summers day, with a crisp, strawberry and herb flavour.

The Provence and Languedoc-Roussillon regions in France are some of the best known for rose wines, but Bordeaux, Navarra (Spain), and Portugal all produces some good examples. However, the Loire’s Rose d’Anjou tends to be sweet and dull, and is best avoided; Cabernet d’Anjou is usually drier and more refreshing.

The best grape for rose is Grenache, but it’s by no means the only one. South Africa makes a wonderful crisp, fruity wine using Pinotage, whilst California’s blush wines are usually produced with Zinfandel.

For less than $10, try:

  • Chateau La Gravette Rose, Minervois (Languedoc-Roussillon): A bouquet of vanilla flowers and stewed strawberries follow through to a light and fresh palate.
  • Chateau Meaume Rose (Bordeaux): Made from the free run juice of predominantly Merlot grapes.
  • Dumisani (South Africa): Pinotage grapes have been blended from 3 different regions to produce this crisp, dry, fruity rose, with rich strawberry and candied aromas and flavours.
  • Beringer White Zinfandel (California): Fresh red berry, citrus and melon aromas and flavours rounded out with hints of nutmeg and clove.

For around $10 to $20, try:

  • Chateau Guiot Rose, Costières de Nîmes (Languedoc-Roussillon): An elegant wine with an intense aroma of juicy fruit, and refreshingly persistent flavours.
  • Chateau Saint Roch-les-Vignes , Rose de Provence (Provence): A delicious rose showing soft spice and attractive fruit.
  • Ochoa Navarra Rose (Spain): A dry rose, with a fragrant bouquet, and pleasant, slightly restrained fruit with a very clean, fresh finish.

Sweet-Sour Cherry Reds

These are interesting wines with sweet-sour plum and cherry fruit flavours and a rasping herby bite. They almost all come from Italy and have a character that’s distinctly different from anything else available elsewhere.

Much of their popularity in Italy comes from the Italian custom of always drinking wine with their meals. The streak of sourness in these reds cuts through food, and they are not intended to be sipped as an aperitif.

This style of wine can be made from a number of different grapes: Dolcetto, Sangiovese, Barbera, producing wines such as Chianti, Teroldego and Valpolicella.

The Nebbiolo grape is used to make tough, tannic wines in the Barolo region of Piedmont, which have an intriguing tar-and-roses flavour. Good Barolo is extremely expensive, but you could try a Langhe, which will give you the flavour for less money.

The South of Italy produces reds which add a prune flavour to the sour-cherry bite, such as Copertino and Salice Salentino.

New World producers are also starting to have tremendous success with the Sangiovese grape, with notable examples coming from California, Australia and Argentina.

For less than $10, try:

  • Chianti Le Chiantigiane (Tuscany): Made from Sangiovese and Canaiolo grapes, this wine has aromas of cherries and violets and red fruit flavours.

For around $10 to $20, try:

  • Barbera d’Asti DOC, De Forville (Piemonte): The nose shows intense cherry aromas and hints of vanilla, which follow through to the crisp, yet smooth palate.
  • Chianti Classico, Banfi (Tuscany): Concentrated, with generous cherry and bitter almond flavours.
  • Sangiovese, Santa Celina Mendoza (Argentina): A warm, savoury and pleasingly complex wine.

For around $20 to $30, try:

  • VignAalta, Colli Etruria Centrale DOC, Badia di Morrona (Tuscany): A blend of Sangiovese (95%) and Canaiolo with rich cherry fruit, dense concentration and great elegance.
  • Langhe Freisa DOC, Castiglione Falletto, Giuseppe Mascarello (Piemonte): A wine made with the Freisa grape, giving a wonderful red fruit expression balanced by very fine tannins.

To push the boat out (over $30), try:

  • Marchesi de Frescobaldi, Brunello di Montalcino Castel Giocondo (Northern Italy): A huge Sangiovese wine with black cherry fruits and a big, tannic personality.

Spicy, Warm Reds

This is a gloriously warm-hearted, spicy red wine style, with rich flavours of fruit berries, black pepper and chocolate. The best examples are Australian Shiraz or French Syrah.

Australian Shiraz is rich, dense and chocolaty, often with a twist of pepper, a tang of leather or a hint of smoke. You can find good examples at all price levels.

This grape is known as Syrah in France, and is grown successfully in the Rhone Valley. The French version tends to be a little more austere in style, and has a smoky-mineral flavour compared with the rice spice found in Shiraz. It’s often more expensive, too. However, you can find some good value wines, such as Vin de Pays d’Oc Syrah, Fitou, Minervois or heavier styles of Cotes du Rhone-Villages.

California Zinfandel made in its most powerful style is spicy and rich, and South African Pinotage is definitely worth a try.

In Spain, Toro and the more expensive Priorat regions produce wines with weighty vanilla and plum flavours, whilst Argentine Malbecs and Chile’s great big spicy-savoury mouthfuls of Carmenere are excellent value.

For less than $10, try:

  • Cotes du Rhone ‘La Rectorie’ (Rhone): Pepper-laced forest fruit with great balance and elegant tannins.

For around $10 to $20, try:

  • Jacob’s Creek Reserve Shiraz (Australia): Rich berry fruit, dark plum flavours, hints of chocolate, pepper and liquorice.
  • L’Artisan Minervois (Languedoc-Roussillon): A juicy wine with flavours of ripe blackberry and spicy black cherry.
  • Domaine Chaume Arnaud Vin de Pays Syrah (Rhone): Brimming with summer fruits, an elegant and delicious wine.

For around $20 to $30, try:

  • Speir Premium Pinotage (South Africa): A deep ruby wine, with attractive aromas of red berries and vanilla. Rich flavours of banana, spices and red berries with elegant hints of vanilla oak.
  • Don Victor, Carmenere Grand Cuvee William Fevre (Chile): A subtle mix of blackcurrant and green pepper, with smoky and minty notes.
  • Seghesio Sonoma County Zinfandel (California): Full-bodied red fruit, with a chocolate mouthfeel and fantastic crisp acidity.
  • Stonehaven Limestone Coast Shiraz (Australia): Dark cherry and liquorice-pepper flavours.

To push the boat out (over $30), try:

  • Closa Batllet Priorat (Spain): With aromas of blueberry liqueur, violets, liquorice and toast.

Intense, Blackcurranty Reds

These wines have a distinctive blackcurrant flavour, and are produced either entirely from Cabernet Sauvignon, or blended with Merlot and other grapes to soften the texture and enrich the fruit flavours.

The Cabernet-based red wines of Bordeaux are the best examples of this style, with a fragrance of cigar boxes and lead pencils. These Bordeaux wines can be expensive – the cheaper versions simply aren’t worth buying. New World Cabernets tend to be more modest in price, and have more blackcurrant, but also a vanillary flavour and sometimes mint.

Cabernet Sauvignon is one of the most reliable wines you can get. It keeps its characteristic flavours at every price level, and wherever it’s from. Expensive wines should be ripe and rich with layers of intense flavour: cheaper ones have simpler flavours that are more jammy, more earthy, or more green-pepper lean.

Australia, Bulgaria, Chile, France’s Vins de Pays d’Oc and South Africa all offer good Cabernets at budget prices. Australia, South Africa and Chile also offer some more expensive versions, as does Penedes in Spain.

You’ll also find this style of wine with its blackcurrant flavours in Ribera del Duero from Spain, although the grape used here is Tempranillo.

For less than $10, try:

  • Tempranillo La Serrana, Vino de la Tierra (Spain): Classic Tempranillo notes of dark cherry and blackcurrant, with a hint of dried flowers and sweet spice.
  • Vistasur Cabernet Sauvignon, Cachapoal Valley (Chile): A well styled wine showing obvious blackcurrant fruit, vanilla spice and soft tannins.
  • Les Fontanelles Cabernet Sauvignon, Vin de Pays d’Oc (Languedoc-Roussillon): A highly concentrated wine packed with blackberry and blueberry fruits and a silky, chocolaty edge.

For around $10 to $20, try:

  • Wynns Coonawarra Cabernet Sauvignon (Australia): A focused wine with blackberry, currant and spicy-herbal flavours, and tannin and minty finish.
  • Montes Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon, Colchagua (Chile): A full bodied spicy wine with complex aromas of cinnamon, caramel and plenty of berry fruits.

For around $20 to $30, try:

  • Esprit de Chevalier, Rouge Pessac-Leognan (Bordeaux): A full-bodied wine, with a seductive bouquet of blackcurrants and sweet tobacco.
  • Chateau d’Angludet, Margaux (Bordeaux): A traditional style that delivers blackfruits, pencil shavings, cigar boxes with ripe tannins, and backed by firm acidity.
  • Wolf Blass Heritage Release Cabernet Sauvignon (Australia): Intense aromas of blackcurrant and vanilla are lifted by a hint of eucalyptus.

To push the boat out (over $30), try:

  • Chateau Haut-Bages-Averous Pauillac (Bordeaux): A classic blackcurrant and mint leaf style of Claret.

Silky, Raspberry Reds

These wines are mellow, perfumed reds with a gentle raspberry, strawberry or cherry fragrance and flavour. The Pinot Noir grape produces the greatest examples of this style, and gives wine a silkiness of texture no other grape can imitate.

The best examples of this silky red wine come from Pinot Noir’s home ground: Burgundy (Bourgogne). Nearly all red Burgundy is made from Pinot Noir, with the best wines maturing to develop aromas of truffles, game and decaying autumn leaves.

The New World also produces some very fine examples of this style; especially the Californian vineyards of Carneros and Santa Barbara, and Matinborough and Central Otago in New Zealand.

In general, cheap Pinot Noir is rarely worth buying, but both Chile and Somontano (Spain) have some very tasty budget examples.

Although Pinot Noir wine is the epitome of this style, red Rioja and Navarra (also from Spain, but made from grapes such as Tempranillo and Garnacha), are soft and smooth with a fragrant strawberry quality. This quality also appears in the lighter Cotes du Rhone-Villages from France. However, none of these other wines capture the silkiness of Pinot Noir.

For less than $10, try:

  • Cono Sur Pinot Noir, Rapel Valley (Chile): A fresh, strawberryish, fruit-dominated red.

For around $10 to $20, try:

  • Louis Latour, Marsannay Rouge (Burgundy): This wine offers an intense bouquet of red fruit and a mouth-filling, silky palate with a distinct gamey character.
  • Fairleigh Estate Pinot Noir, Marlborough (New Zealand): Delicious berry fruit and subtle spicy aromas with well balanced tannins.
  • Estancia Pinot Noir (California): Luxurious cherry and raspberry flavours and a rich, silky mouth feel.

For around $20 to $30, try:

  • Marie-Louise Parisot Gevrey-Chambertin (Burgundy): A lovely wine with ripe black cherry fruits and gamey, earthy undertones.
  • Saintsbury Pinot Noir, Carneros (California): Wild complex aromas display wonderful red cherry, redcurrant, mocha and sandalwood characters alongside a perfectly balanced and seamless palate.
  • Quartz Reef Pinot Noir, Central Otago (New Zealand): Generous and vibrantly fruity, with rich plum and spice flavours, with an aromatic bouquet of spices and herbs.

To push the boat out (over $30), try:

  • Louis Jadot Savigny-les-Beaune 1er Cru Les Lavieres (Burgundy): With ripe black cherry fruit and a twist of earthy liquorice flavour.

Fruity, Juicy Reds

These modern, juicy and refreshing red wines are approachable and delicious, and are perfect for casual drinking – with or without food. This style originated in the New World, and you’ll find it in wines from Australia, USA, New Zealand, South America and South Africa. Fruit flavours are emphasised and astringent tannins are minimised.

These wines are designed to be drunk immediately – they do not need to be aged. In fact, any wine of this style should be drunk within two years of its vintage.

Chilean Merlot is the definitive wine in this tasty and affordable style. The best wines are young, well-balanced, and packed with blackcurrant, blackberry and plum flavours. Argentina produces a smooth Tempranillo, a fruity Bonarda and a very juicy Malbec.

Spain also produces lots of inexpensive soft, supple reds; look for wines from La Mancha, Navarra or Valdepenas. California’s juicy wines are demonstrated by young Merlot and Zinfandel.

Back in the Old World, Beaujolais is famous for this style. However, these wines tend to be slightly more expensive, and have less obvious fruit flavours. Vin de Pays d’Oc reds are often slightly cheaper and fruitier.

For less than $10, try:

  • Casillero del Diablo Merlot, Rapel Valley (Chile): A soft wine, with flavours of cherries, currants, berries and plums.
  • Grange du Midi Merlot, Vin de Pays d’Oc (Languedoc-Roussillon): Warm red in colour enhanced by soft plummy fruits.
  • Argento Malbec, Catena, Mendoza (Argentina): Ripe brambles and spicy blackberry aromas, with intense sweet, rich and soft flavours and gentle oak and balanced acidity.

For around $10 to $20, try:

  • Chateau de Corcelles, Brouilly (Beaujolais): This is an intense ruby red wine with clean red fruit flavours and refined, silky tannins.
  • Casa La Joya Merlot (Chile): With ripe blackcurrant fruit and with a dash of vanilla.
  • Monos Locos Merlot (Chile): The very epitome of soft and juicy, but with enough structure to make it a great food wine.
  • Moncayo Grande Merlot Cabernet (Spain): Soft blackberry aroma with hints of leather and cigar box. Flavours of juicy, fleshy ripe plums and currants. A clean freshness balanced by sweet crunchy tannins.