Wine Aromas and Flavours: the taster’s handbook

Aromas & flavours


In this major resource, Tom Stevenson presents his wine-tasting guide to identifying aromas and flavours. It comes complete with his multi-lingual mind-jogging list of over 200 identifiable aromas or flavours, where to expect them, their probable causes, and the chemical compounds behind them.

tasting notes

Recording specific information is a discipline that every serious wine taster should undertake, but it can be boringly repetitive. Indeed, the size of some tastings can make it difficult for even the most dedicated professional to write a lucid note for each wine. In the late 1970s I came up with a solution: a tasting notebook, with each page containing this repetitive information. All that was needed was to tick the appropriate boxes, and in seconds the basic detail could be noted. Furthermore, additional comments are kept short, sharp and to the point.

I have been refining and modifying the notebook ever since, and now have it professionally printed for my own personal use. This tasting book has fascinated people wherever I go. Usually I am asked where it can be purchased. After explaining that it cannot, I am invariably asked if a page can be photocopied for their own use. Thus, numerous variants are floating around in virtually every winemaking region of the world.

Long ago it was suggested that I should get the notebook published, so that others could utilise the system. At first I thought “Oh yeah, that’s going to make me rich”, but somewhere along the way I warmed to the idea. Not that it would be a best-seller, but perhaps it could cover the cost of printing my own books. And so, steadily, the book has evolved into something that others could use (though this is the first time it has been published). The element that has evolved most is what I called my Mind-jogging list.

my mind-jogging list

(go straight to the mind-jogging list)

Most wine enthusiasts will understand the inspiration for this section; how many times have you picked up a wine, instantly recognised something, and said “I know that smell …. but what is it?”. If I was given a penny for every time this dilema forced tasters to digress for 20 minutes of discussion I would be a millionaire. Typically all sorts of suggestions get nowhere near the mark until, if lucky, someone hits upon the right aroma. That is as satisfying as having someone scratch an unreachable itch.

However, the unidentifiable itch of an aroma can be easily scratched: if you think about it, the aroma is not the problem, it is our inability to put a name to it. Yet something that rings a bell of recognition must be known intimately. Despite the agonising quest, it will in all probability be an everyday smell, not one that is obscure, rare or esoteric.

The solution I came up with was very simple: compile a list of fruits, flowers, spices, nuts, etc. so the next time I come across a distinctive aroma I would just run a finger down the appropriate list until my brain connected with whatever it was. And you know what? It works, and has worked for everyone I have encountered who is afflicted with “I know that smell” syndrome.

Wine contains various chemical compounds that can be directly linked to everyday aromas that have nothing to do with wine per se (such as diacetyl – see BUTTER). But most wines do not suggest one distinctive non-wine aroma, and very few evoke more than three or four. From the flowery prose of some tasting notes you would be forgiven for thinking they emit a veritable potpourri of aromas. However, the possibility of numerous aromas standing out from one another is too remote to consider.

It is only when one or two compounds dominate that a distinctive aroma can be discerned. Even then, not by everyone: we all have different thresholds at which we detect these compounds. The fact is, the more aromas that are in competition, the less distinct they become. Take any tasting note containing a dozen non-wine aromas and use it as a recipe: put the ingredients into a liquidiser, thoroughly emulsify, then ask anyone to take a sniff and identify all twelve aromas.

Having pin-pointed a specific aroma, I got into discussions with oenologists about what might possibly be the cause, and so I began annotating the list with active chemical compounds that could be responsible. Later, I would check these compounds out, and from there I began studying papers on the subject. The explanatory notes have kept growing.

Fifteen years down the road and I am delighted to share the mind-jogging list with visitors to I have added a multilingual translation (a lifesaver when, during a heavy day’s tasting, I am floundering to describe Elderflower to a Portuguese oenologist) and the list can be printed off for your own use. A word of warning: the causes of aromas I have listed are more the result of an innate curiosity than any desire to be didactic about something that can be affected by so many variables. Not least of which are the different thresholds we all have for detecting such compounds.