Recognising Grape Varieties

By Franz Scheurer


Although most of us are quite secure in our knowledge of what a specific grape variety should taste like (as long as we know what we are drinking) it becomes a challenge to try to recognise the variety in a blind tasting.


We are so good at tasting what we see, and expect to taste, that if we are put into a situation, where the visual stimuli is largely taken away from us, we flounder rather badly. However, this is the one chance we have to honestly answer our own questions and you might be surprised at the outcome.


I never forget, many years ago when I first arrived in Australia; all the wonderful beers available in this country delighted me and I settled on one that became ‘my favourite’. Working in advertising, however, I knew the power of a good label, and I organised a blind tasting of a couple of dozen beers, only to find out to my dismay, that my ‘favourite’ was not even in the first ten! I switched brand… and learnt something in the process.


So how do we recognise a grape variety? The short answer is practice. You drink and discuss. Drink and discuss. Repeat: Drink and discuss. The more you train your tastebuds and your mind the better your chance at recognising a specific aroma. It does however help, if you have an idea what you are supposed to be looking for in the first place. Each variety has specific, recognisable attributes and once we know what might be there, we have a better chance of recognising them.


With this in mind, I decided to put together a short list of ‘wine descriptors’ and I asked a number of wine and food professionals to help me put these together. (Thanks guys!)


So here we go:


R E D S:


Pinot Noir: Cherry, Strawberry, Raspberry, Spice, Barnyard and Mushrooms


Grenache: Lolly, Confected Fruit, Raspberry, Herbal and Christmas Spices


Merlot: Plum, Prune, Fruit Cake, Cinnamon, Leafy and Black Fruit


Cabernet Sauvignon: Tar, Capsicum, Cedar, Leaf, Mint, Cassis and Black Olives


Shiraz: Black Fruit, Pepper, Plum, Savoury Spices, Ink and Violets


Duriff: Leather, Ripe Berries, Earthy and Jammy


Sangiovese: Herbal, Bay leaf, Bitter Plum, Prune, Liquorice and Undergrowth


Nebbiolo: Tar, Cedar, Roses, Violets, Floral, Orange Peel and Sour Plum


Gamay: Cherry, Lifted Pear, Bubble Gum and Meaty Christmas Spices




Riesling: Citrus, Lime, Floral, Minerals and Kerosene


Sauvignon Blanc: Gooseberries, Cat’s Pee, Passionfruit, Herbaceous and Asparagus


Semillon: Damp Straw, Lanolin, Preserved Lemon, Smoky and Canned Apricots


Chardonnay: Melon, Topical Fruit, Grapefruit, Rotten citrus, Nuts and Butter


Pinot Gris: Bath powder, Minerals, Floral, Pear, Apple and Gingerbread


Gewürtztraminer: Lychees, Rosewater, Turkish Delight and Spice


Viognier: Heady Apricots, Peaches, Biscuit and Lanolin


Marsanne: Minerals, Stone Fruit, Honeysuckle, Glue and Grass


Rousanne: Cold Tea, Herbs, Minerals and vaguely floral


Verdelho: Tropical Fruit Salad, Unripe Bananas, and Herbaceous



The above descriptors are primary and assume that the wines are quite young. Obviously, wine making techniques and ageing will have a substantial influence.

If you look at the above list not as a definitive description of grape varieties but as a place to start you might learn something from it.


So it is back to: Drink and discuss!