What Does Wine Taste Like? A Beginner's Guide
Every year, the world population drinks more than six billion gallons of wine.1 Undoubtedly, there’s a reason for this overflowing consumption: Wine tastes sublime.
But what does wine taste like, exactly? Well, it depends on the bottle—and the subjective opinion of the wine lover drinking it. Like music or art, wine can be a very personal experience.
With that said, each type of wine has a distinct flavor and aroma that sets it apart from other categories. Are you a new wine spectator? With a little knowledge (and plenty of practice), you can learn to identify, describe, and differentiate these flavors.
In this guide, we’ll be exploring the flavor profiles of some of the most popular wines. Writing about taste can be tricky, but we’ll do our best to evoke the thrill of popping the cork for the first time. By the end of this article, you'll be knowledgeable as the most seasoned wine drinkers.
Common Wine Descriptors
Head to a vineyard or tasting room for the first time, and you’ll hear all sorts of unfamiliar terms. What in the world is maceration? Why is the wine breathing? And what does the sommelier mean when they say the wine has legs?
While we won’t dive into the entire dictionary of wine terminology (and you certainly don’t need to know every definition to enjoy wine), there are some helpful terms to understand when talking about taste. Because we’ll use wine descriptors to discuss flavor throughout this guide, it’s worth learning a few helpful terms.
Some of the essential tasting words to know are:
- Acidic – The mouth-watering zing of lemons or vinegar often shows up in wines (especially white ones). High-acid wines feel sharp and crisp, while low-acid wines are smooth and creamy.
- Sweet – Thanks to residual sugars, many wines have a sweet undertone, so it's possible to find a dessert wine. In wine tasting, the opposite of sweet is dry.
- Fruity – A fruity wine leads with fruit, while a less fruity choice only has subtle undertones of fruit. Red wines tend to have the rich flavor of dark berries and stone fruits; white wines are reminiscent of lighter fruits like pears, apples, or zesty grapefruits.
- Tannic – Have you ever had a sip of wine that left your mouth feeling dried out? Then you had a tannic wine. High-tannin wines are sometimes referred to as “chewy.”
- Oaky – Some wines are aged in oak barrels that impart a rich, warm quality reminiscent of wintery spices, vanilla, and cedar. Unoaked wines tend to be lighter and fresher.
- Sparkling wine - Sparkling wine is basically red or white wine that is carbonated.
What Does Red Wine Taste Like?
Although the mind-boggling variety of red blend wine styles make it impossible to generalize, many reds have a similar flavor profile. Most often, the taste of red wine tends to be a delicate balance of sweeter, dark-fleshed fruits and bitter dryness.
Of course, it’s much more nuanced than that. With that in mind, let’s take a closer look at some beloved varieties of red wine.
Produced from grapes of the same name, pinot noir wine is a longtime favorite of wine enthusiasts the world over. Typically sitting between 12% and 15% alcohol content, pinot noirs are often brightly acidic, moderately dry, and reminiscent of:2
Some winemakers also age their pinot noirs in French oak barrels. When they do, the wine can take on flavors of vanilla, chocolate, and baking spices (think cinnamon, nutmeg, and cloves).
How to serve Pinot Noir? Unlike most red wines, pinot noir should be served slightly colder (around 55ºF).3
A staple of the US West Coast, red zinfandel is often made with late-harvest grapes. This technique can give the wine a sweet, jammy taste. Other tasting notes include:4
- Black pepper
Typically, “red zins” are also fairly tannic and moderately acidic. For the best tasting experience, serve your red zinfandel slightly below room temperature.5
Merlot wine is another much-loved wine, and with good reason: It’s exceptionally drinkable. Thanks to its relatively soft tannins and moderate acidity, merlot is typically well-balanced. Some of the flavor notes you’ll pick up in merlots include:5
- Black cherries
- Vanilla, cedar, and clove (when aged in oak)
Some wine connoisseurs will also compare merlot to graphite (yes, pencil lead). This note is mostly found in finer merlots, so if you’re not up for some schoolyard nostalgia, you may want to opt for more budget-friendly bottles.
What is the difference between Pinot Noir and Merlot? Merlot is sometimes compared to pinot noir. However, they’re far from identical. One of the major differences between merlot and pinot noir is the ideal serving temperature: Merlot should be served slightly warmer than pinot noir, at about 60–65ºF.6
Often shortened to “cab sav” by savvy sippers, cabernet sauvignon wine can certainly pack a punch. With higher tannins and moderate-to-high acidity, the flavor of this popular red wine is usually compared to:7
- Black currant
You may also hear references to a green bell pepper flavor—a bitter-yet-vaguely-sweet taste that pairs well with many foods.
To serve a cabernet sauvignon, pop it in the fridge for about 25 minutes before pouring. It should reach the ideal temperature of 60–65ºF by then.8
Unlike many other styles of wine, red blend wines aren’t made from one particular type of grape. Instead, they’re produced by mixing two or more different red wines, giving vintners the ability to customize the taste. As such, it’s more challenging to identify the flavor profile of a red blend.
With that said, because red blends are becoming increasingly popular,9 it’s worth learning how to taste them.
The best way to start tasting red blends is to look at the wines or grapes used in the bottle you have your eye on. Then, reach for a bottle of each of those styles. Take note of what you like and dislike in each wine, then head back and pick out a blend that focuses on your preferred flavors.
What Does White Wine Taste Like?
On the other end of the spectrum, there’s white wine. With a dazzling array of whites to choose from, summing up the general flavor of white wine is no easy feat. Even so, many whites can be described as bright, crisp, relatively acidic, and vaguely floral.
For more specifics, let’s investigate some of the most well-known styles of white wine.
Chardonnay—the world’s most popular white wine—is a crowd-pleaser. That’s because Chardonnays are produced around the globe, and since climate, weather, and soil all play a role in coloring a wine’s flavor, there’s usually something for everyone.
To oversimplify things, you can generally separate Chardonnays into two categories:10
- Cool climate Chardonnay – Grapes grown in colder locales like France, Northern Italy, Canada, or Tasmania (Australia) will give Chardonnay an acidic, citrusy, mineral taste. Apple and lemon are common comparisons.
- Warm climate Chardonnay – If your Chardonnay comes from sunny Spain, South Africa, Southern Italy, or California, it will likely be sweeter and less acidic. You may taste hints of peach, papaya, or pineapple.
By checking the bottle for the country of origin, you can guess at the flavors of a Chardonnay before you even uncork it. You’ll also want to see whether the wine was oaked or not. If it was, you might notice a faint whiff of vanilla and spice.
To serve Chardonnay, chill it to around 55ºF, pour it into a stemmed glass, and enjoy.8
Dry, slightly sweet, and moderately acidic, pinot grigio is a refreshingly light wine that pairs beautifully with a warm summer day. Flavor-wise, you’ll usually hear pinot grigio compared to citrus and stone fruits. Some of the most common tasting notes reference:11
As a lighter white wine, pinot grigio is best served between 45 and 49ºF.8
Another worldwide favorite, sauvignon blanc is a crisp, dry, acid-forward style of wine that can evoke that green bell pepper aroma. In terms of taste, sauvignon blancs vary significantly, but you’ll often hear comparisons to:12
- Passion fruit
In most cases, sauvignon blancs are aged in stainless steel casks to preserve that fresh flavor. However, some vintners oak their sauvignon blancs, giving them a toasty vanilla note.
Like pinot grigio, serve this lightly-colored wine at 45–49ºF to experience the fresh and vibrant flavors at their best.8
As with red blends, white blends come from masterful combinations of two or more grape varieties. The flavor of these wines depends on the type and ratio of wines used, so it’s impossible to describe the taste of a white blend. The best way to explore a white blend wine is to try it—no two combinations will taste the same.
Discover the Flavors of Wine Firsthand
Reading about the typical flavors of wine may help point you toward your preferred bottle, but the only way to experience the subtleties of different wines is to taste them for yourself. After deciding which one is your favorite, then you can find out how long should wine breathe.
However, seeking out the next wine to try can be intimidating—both as a total beginner and a wine lover looking to learn more about tasting. Even when you know your wine descriptors and regional differences, standing in an aisle full of bottles can feel overwhelming.
For a stress-free experience, consider ordering wine online instead. With tasting notes on the page and the ability to conduct as much research as you need, you can explore new wines in the comfort of your own home. Plus, there’s nothing better than having a bottle of wine (or five) show up at your door.
- International Organisation of Vine and Wine. State of the World Vine and Wine Sector 2021. https://www.oiv.int/sites/default/files/documents/eng-state-of-the-world-vine-and-wine-sector-april-2022-v6_0.pdf
- Wine Enthusiast Magazine. The Essential Guide to Pinot Noir. https://www.winemag.com/2019/08/13/the-essential-guide-to-pinot-noir/
- MasterClass. Wine 101: What Is Pinot Noir, How to Serve Pinot Noir, and How to Pair Pinot Noir. https://www.masterclass.com/articles/wine-101-what-is-pinot-noir-how-to-serve-pinot-noir-and-how-to-pair-pinot-noir
- The Spruce Eats. What is Zinfandel Wine? https://www.thespruceeats.com/what-is-zinfandel-3511215
- Food & Wine. Zinfandel — A Guide to the Basics. https://www.foodandwine.com/wine/red-wine/zinfandel-wine-guide
- Wine Enthusiast Magazine. Everything You Need to Know About Merlot. https://www.winemag.com/2018/11/26/everything-you-need-to-know-about-merlot/
- MasterClass. Learn About Cabernet Sauvignon: Wine, Grapes, Regions, and Tasting Notes. https://www.masterclass.com/articles/learn-about-cabernet-sauvignon
- Wine Enthusiast Magazine. Your Cheat Sheet to Serving Wine. https://www.winemag.com/2015/03/03/your-cheat-sheet-to-serving-wine/
- Food & Wine. What Are Red Blends, Really? https://www.foodandwine.com/wine/red-wine/best-red-blends-drink-now
- Wine Enthusiast Magazine. The Essential Guide to Chardonnay. https://www.winemag.com/2018/09/13/the-essential-guide-to-chardonnay/
- MasterClass. Learn About Pinot Grigio: Grapes, Taste, and the Best Pairings. https://www.masterclass.com/articles/learn-about-pinot-grigio-grapes-winemaking-and-the-best-pairings
- Wine Enthusiast Magazine. Your Guide to Sauvignon Blanc. https://www.winemag.com/2018/12/17/your-guide-to-sauvignon-blanc/