Tea and Wine Taste Descriptions: Fact or Fiction?

Tea and wine taste nothing alike.

Yet are these wine or tea descriptions?

  • lush, buttery floral and vanilla notes
  • floral aromas of jasmine, orange blossom and honeysuckle
  • flavors of spiced plum and dark cherry, notes of cocoa
  • leather, tobacco smoke, and dried cherries
  • velvety mouth feel and subtle and lightly smoky notes of cocoa and leather
  • incredibly smooth and sweet taste composed of lychees and honey
  • smooth, sweet, and sophisticated; rich honey notes emerge, with malty undertone
  • creamy mouthfeel
  • sweet, creamy notes
  • hints of pear, peach, and apricot
  • bright, brisk muscatel edge perfectly balanced with woody, apricot influences
  • soft, fragrant bouquet and a tender, mild taste reminiscent of apricots
  • unsmoked tobacco, forest floor, and lead pencil shavings
  • spicy, earthy, and woody, with tones of mushroom
  • nuanced sketch of wood and stewed plum

Actually, this list contains both wine and tea descriptions. So now, can you differentiate which are which?

wine and tea

Difficult, isn’t it? Wine and tea descriptions are remarkably similar—and often seem outlandishly creative. Honestly, given a tea or wine to drink as a blind tasting, I doubt I’d come up with “lead pencil shavings”! (Besides, pencils have long used graphite and not lead.)

Yet, after tasting the tea or wine, if those words were suggested to me, I might very well understand how they could apply. Many times I can taste something but can’t figure out the word to describe the taste. I don’t have the necessary vocabulary.

On the flip side, were I told before tasting X that there is a hint of lychee, I’d probably pick up on that lychee—or believe that I tasted it, because I suspect that if someone with a lot of tasting experience told me that that’s what I should be tasting, I just might “taste” it. Suggestion is extremely powerful.

Were I told that X had notes of plum, and then asked if I’d describe that plum as spiced or stewed, I’d probably find that plum note and might be able to figure out spiced or stewed. But on my own, again, without the suggestion, I seriously doubt that I’d ever come up with “stewed” or “spiced” much less “plums.”

That’s not to say that I don’t necessarily pick up the flavor. It’s just that I am really bad about specifying exactly what it is that I taste! I don’t have the necessary cultivated palate.

Or is that the problem?

Madeline Puckette points out in Wine Folly that “Wine writing is a business and its job is to SELL wine, not to be honest or accurate.”

Ron Jackson, founder of Canada’s first course in wine technology, concurs:

In most instances, detailed descriptors, such as black cherry, sliced apple, iris, are more illusory than real, and tell more about the upbringing of the describer than the wine being described. (10/25/16)

Marketers might (secretly) agree but wine sommeliers may well protest because they’ve spent years developing their palates—and subscribe to a very specific terminology that accurately characterizes each wine.

Likewise for a true tea sommelier. Germany-trained tea sommelier, Lisa, who founded TeaHaus, says that a tea master may taste 1,000 teas a day, while she herself, while learning to be a sommelier, would taste up to 120 per day. One hundred twenty teas a day?! One thousand teas a day?! To differentiate that many teas you must have a very refined palate and the vocabulary to describe each tea.

But Ron Jackson continues, explaining that

stress on identifying particular fragrances is best left to descriptive sensory analysis in the laboratory, for which aroma charts were designed.

Outside the flowery language found on wine bottles or in tea descriptions, useful descriptors do exist and are used.

Sommeliers and professional tasters of both wine and tea need a vocabulary that their colleagues understand and that allows them to mentally organize what they are smelling/tasting. You can’t taste 1,000 teas in a day and not have a system. Tetley tasters, for instance, use an in-house language that allows them to describe each tea in a very precise way (Todd 6/10/16).

For the rest of us, there are aroma and flavor wheels for tea and wine, readily available online. In these, many terms overlap, especially in the categories of fruit, floral, earth/undergrowth, animal, wood, fire, and spices. Although such graphics may not yield the same results as laboratory analyses, and using them certainly won’t replicate the expertise of professional tasters, they do provide a starting point for the rest of us to put words to what we’re experiencing.

tea tasting

In addition to the language describing aroma and flavor, descriptors for mouthfeel and finish are also critical for both tea and wine, and I personally think these are far easier to describe. We all know great mouthfeel when we experience it. Think chocolate that perfectly melts into a heavenly creaminess, velvety smooth, in your mouth.

The first mouthfeel quality that comes to mind for tea, however, is usually astringency, that dry mouth feel caused by the tannins in tea. Black teas typically have more astringency than green teas, but there’s a huge range, from full-on astringency to “refreshing astringency,” “very balanced, mellow astringency,” “very delicate astringency.” In wine, both tannins and acidity can result in astringency, most commonly in red wines.

In wine, the higher the alcohol content, the more viscous or thick it feels. Tea too has viscosity; in the Japanese tea ceremony, either “thick,” koicha, or “thin,” usucha, tea may be prepared. An Assam might have a “thick cocoa-like mouth feel.” Other teas, just like wines, may be “silky” or “velvety smooth.” Creaminess is lovely in teas such as milk oolong and kabusecha, and in a soft, buttery, Chardonnay.

Both tea and wine linger on your palate, and their finish can dramatically impact your experience. End with bitterness and you’re unlikely to take a second sip. According to the California Wine Club, “Great wines have rich, long, complex finishes.”

The length of the finish is the final indicator of the wine’s quality. That taste can be short and crisp, or it can linger for a minute or more, continuing to unfold the flavor secrets of the wine before finally fading away. Generally, more extensive finishes will be evident in higher quality wines; 20 to 30 seconds is good for the average bottle of wine and when it reaches 45 seconds, it is showing powerful flavors and careful crafting. It is not uncommon for spectacular wines to last as long as a minute or even more. These everlasting finishes are the hallmark of great wines, increasing pleasure and adding value beyond the palate! (Total Wine & More)

So, tea or wine?

  • full, clean aftertaste
  • balanced, delicate finish
  • deep floral notes that linger
  • the finish lingers with a hint of spice
  • the finish trails off with the taste of unsweetened chocolate and cassis
  • the spicy finish lingers on the palate

Those lingering notes are critical to both fine wine and fine tea, and are part of the entire experience of drinking.

wine tasting

So the next time you examine a bottle of wine or a package of tea, or read incredibly detailed, over-the-top, tasting notes, you might take those descriptions with just a bit of salt, and when you drink that wine or tea, don’t let someone else’s words limit your experience of what you taste!

Now that being said, you shouldn’t totally discount marketing verbiage and reviews. If the descriptors stress floral and you hate floral, then that wine or tea may not be what you want to purchase. If you prefer bold and robust, something like this Harney and Sons’ take on Silver Needle tea will wisely steer you toward something different: “If you are not paying attention, you might think you are drinking water.”

Viewing these descriptions as more of a guide may be more helpful. Because, yes, Assam teas are always malty and you certainly should pick up on that—but create its complete flavor profile in your own words, whether those words are found on the aroma wheel or not!

Certainly an expert sommelier can accurately describe a tea or wine for you and can advantageously pair it with food, but in your own home and in your own tasting journey, don’t let yourself be limited by what you “think” you should taste.

After all, how many of us can distinguish between “blueberry,” “wild blueberry,” “huckleberry,”and “bilberry”? I don’t know what garrigue tastes like, but I can enjoy how a tea pleasantly lingers, with a hint of who knows, a whisper of whatever that is, a smidgeon of you know what I mean, and a whole lot of god I love this tea!

Or wine.

Because as we now know, those descriptions can be interchangeable.

wine and tea 2

–Jackson, R. “Wine quality: What does it really mean?” Elsevier, SciTech Connect, 10/25/16.
–Puckette, M. “40 wine descriptions and what they really mean,” Wine Folly, accessed 6/17/20.
–Todd, R. “How this master tea taster . . . ,” Fast Company, 6/10/16.
–”Wine tasting terms,” California Wine Club, 2020.
–”Wine finish,” Total Wine & More, accessed 6/17/20.

4 thoughts on “Tea and Wine Taste Descriptions: Fact or Fiction?

  1. Interesting article, thanks for sharing your thoughts on this topic with us.

    I have had a well developed palate since my childhood, the issue is many people don’t. So as much as I can notice certain flavours and notes in teas, other cannot. Some people think is not possible that teas have such a wide variety of flavours & complex taste.

    As an example, I have a friend who admits she has no palate & she cannot tell the difference between a high quality matcha or one from the supermarket, which I can. This is why she does not see the point for buying high quality matcha since she cannot have the full experience due to her impaired taste buds, as she calls them.

    But having a palate is not enough if you don’t use it. The more things you try, eat, smell, taste, savour… the more your palate & nose will be able to perceive the subtle nuances that other people are not able to notice since they always eat the same things.

    When I run my workshops I tell people what I perceived in the teas they drink, after they tell me what they taste. And make clear that everyone’s palate is different. If someone has never experience how Osmanthus flower tastes, it’s really difficult they can tell me they perceive such a note in the tea or any other beverage. In fact, I never tried Osmanthus until a couple of years ago and only because someone described such flavour in a Sheng Pu erh so I wanted to experience it by myself.

    While perhaps some companies add a large set of flavours for marketing purposes it doesn’t mean that these two products, wine & tea, cannot have such flavours. But maybe not everyone will be able to perceive them.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks for your excellent input! I agree with you that through experience, learning how to pay attention to what we’re tasting, and really developing our palate, we certainly can expand our perceptions of what we taste. And you are correct that tea can have an incredible complement of flavors, which change from what hits us first to what lingers on the palate. I do think, however, that we can be led by suggestions, and that sometimes the descriptions seem rather overblown. And by the way, I envy your ability! 🙂


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