The tricky thing about taste is that just like with colors, people perceive flavors differently. I ran into this experience in class where everyone but me had identified something as “honeydew” but to me, it was clearly a more floral note like “jasmine.”
Nothing melony about it.
That said, I do find it really useful to have a list of flavors- it helps me to really pinpoint what it is I think I’m tasting or smelling.
Dr. Ann Noble at UC Davis is credited with creating the Wine Aroma Wheel. You can buy one here.
They’re visually pleasing, sturdy, and easy to follow (you start in the center and work your way out.) But if you don’t want to buy one, there are some knockoff versions available through a basic google search (though buying one is the forthright thing to do.) Or, you can also just sort of think of things by category.
I’ll list the categories I find most useful below (note that my categories don’t exactly line up with the ones on the aroma wheel, but it’s a similar idea.) I’ve tried to color code them by white or red wine. Red wine descriptors are in red, and white wine descriptors are in green. If something could easily apply to both, they'll be brown. This is not to say that any of these flavors couldn't be present in either type, it's just going to be more common in the ones I've colored here. Some of you may disagree with my categories, which is OK by me. You may also someday detect something that I haven't included here- good job!
Vegetal (some of these are desirable. Some aren't.)
Now, spoilage aromas are a whole other ball of wax… And I could probably dedicate a whole post about where they come from. I’m not going to go into detail now, but will list a few of the most common and obviously detectable ones. Theoretically, these could be present in red and white wines since they're related to microbial spoilage.
Corked: If you get a wine that smells and tastes kind of “mousey,” like wet cardboard, or wet, moldy straw, this is what they’d call “corked.” It doesn’t mean that bits of cork got into the wine (a common misconception) but is caused by a compound called TCA. Basically, it is likely that a cleaning solution in the winery came into contact with the cork, eroding it a little and causing it to let in bacteria that cause those flavors.
Wet dog/mouse/barnyardy smells and tastes: These are all indicative of spoilage. They may individually be caused by different things, but just know they're bad. If you detect them in a wine, that is not good. They won't make you sick, but they don't taste bueno.
Butter: In small amounts a little buttery flavor in a white wine can be fine. But if it is overpowering or present in a red wine, it is a bad thing. It is actually a flavor component called diacetyl and is the product of bacteria (it is also where fake butter flavor comes from in lots of food items.) Chardonnays often aim for a tiny bit of buttery flavor, but it isn't commonly desirable in others.
Nail Polish Remover: I think this one is pretty easy to detect, especially by scent. I’ve only ever found it in white wine. Some people have likened it to the very specific scent of model airplane glue (now, I never built model planes, so to me, it smells like nail polish remover.)
Fuel: You might get a sort of kerosene or gasoline aroma of some spoiled wines. Some people liken it to airplane fuel (ick!)
Rotten Egg: Again. Duh.
I hope these suggestions are useful. Just keeping them in mind while you’re drinking a glass can help you put your finger on what it is you think you’re tasting.
Did you know?
Contaminated wood is a common vector for spoilage organisms coming into the winery. Some winemakers won't even allow wooden pallets into their cellars. They'll unload the pallets outside, place everything onto sanitized plastic pallets and then bring their bottles or other supplies into the winery on those- this may seem finicky, but if it avoids losing product, it's worth it!