Wines: Tasting notes decoded
How to understand tasting notes…
Black pepper is among the world’s most commonly used spices and begins life in clusters on a vine — not dissimilar to grapes.
Peppercorns are actually green when they’re harvested, but they turn black once dried. They are usually ground down to release their signature earthy spiciness, generated by the chemical compound piperine.
Flavours reminiscent of this mild spice might appear in the flavour or aroma of some wines. Black pepper notes usually crop up in earthy or spicy dry red wines, particularly those made from Syrah / Shiraz, either single-varietal or constituting a classic blend with Mourvèdre and Grenache.
Syrahs from northern Rhône may intermingle black pepper with floral, minty or even creosote notes. Australia’s warm climate Shiraz blends, such as those from Barossa Valley, might combine peppery hints with baked fruit and liquorice, developing into leathery or earthy characteristics with age.
Other potentially peppery wines include rosé blends from Provence, typically Grenache, Syrah and Cinsault. Sangiovese wines hailing from Chianti Classico, can also contain black pepper notes, usually associated with oak influences like black tea, leather and cedar.
Blackberries are soft, black-coloured fruit, commonly found wild in English hedgerows during summer months. They can be eaten fresh, cooked in puddings or made into jam.
In the wine lexicon, blackberry belongs in the black fruit category, alongside similarly sweet and tart soft fruits, such as blackcurrants, blueberries and black plums.
As you might guess from their appearance, blackberries are closely related to raspberries, although the latter is considered more tart in taste and less firm in texture.
Leafy or brambly blackberry flavours might be used to describe a tannic, full-bodied red wine style that hasn’t yet fully matured. Prominent blackberry with leafy notes could also hint that the grapes didn’t fully ripen before they were harvested.
On the other end of the spectrum, jammy blackberry notes describe the rich ripeness associated with fruit preserves, when heat and sugar are added to intensify flavours.
If you see blackberry paired with words like cooked, stewed, jam or dried, it might be describing red wines with developed fruit flavours from controlled oxidation, a common feature of bottle-ageing.
As a typical black fruit flavour, blackberry notes are ubiquitous in red wine tasting notes — from Touriga Nacional wines from Portugal, to Nero d’Avola from Sicily.
Cherries have a distinctive fruit character, often replicated artificially for confectionery and liqueurs.
When it comes to wine tasting notes, it’s important to distinguish between different cherry forms and flavours. For starters, there are both sweet and sour cherries — think of the difference between maraschino and morello cherries.
Red cherries are seen as part of the red fruit flavour profile, and black cherries are included in the black fruit category. In both of these, cherries might be seen as not so sweet or tart as the berries, yet more concentrated than fleshy plums, for example.
In Decanter’s How to read wine tasting notes, the general character of cherry is defined as, ‘firm, vibrant fruit with a touch of acidity and none of the sweetness of, say, blackcurrants’.
Wines that can carry notes of tart cherries include northern Italian reds, such Piedmont’s Barolo and Barbaresco wines made from the Nebbiolo grape. Red cherry notes can be found in some Tuscan Sangiovese wines from Brunello di Montalcino and Chianti.
Young Pinot Noir wines can encompass a range of cherry flavours from red to black, particularly those of New Zealand, where some of the best examples combine cherry with hints of jam or strawberry to offset earthy notes.
Perhaps the wine most associated with cherries is Beaujolais, a red wine made from the Gamay grape. Cherry notes in these wines are usually the product of carbonic maceration, a process in which whole grapes are sealed in a vessel filled with carbon dioxide prior to regular fermentation. This helps to preserve the naturally juicy and fruity character of Gamay.
A cooked wine can be considered a fault. It can refer to a bottle that has been exposed to extreme heat. This can occur during shipping and is evident to the consumer as the cork can protrude and the wine quality will be greatly diminished.
However, when a person refers to ‘cooked fruit’ when tasting, this means that the grapes have had too much hang-time on the vine or too much sun exposure and are in fact overripe or even sunburned. This leads to a wine that has lower total acidity, which will make it taste less fresh; it will usually have jammy characters. This jamminess can be coupled with a higher level of alcohol, which can create a flabby mouthfeel.