When Wine Doesn’t Taste Like Grapes

We get this question a lot in our Tasting Room: Why do I smell and taste things other than grapes? There are a couple of short answers to explain what is happening when wine doesn’t taste like grapes:

  1. Science!
  2. You

First, the Science

‘Wine’ is made from grapes. ‘Fruit Wine’ is made from fruit other than grapes. ‘Mead’ is made from honey. After fermentation of their sugars, each of these contains alcohol, water, and ‘esters,’ the chemical compounds that represent aromas and flavors. These are identical to chemical compounds found in other fruits and foods.

In addition to this, there are so many variables. Growing conditions, yeasts introduced during fermentation, and the fermentation process itself, all affects what esters are present.

For example, a certain yeast may be chosen for the fermentation of Riesling juice to result in more citrus flavor. When that wine doesn’t taste like grapes, but instead tastes like lemons, it does not mean we are squishing lemons along with the grapes at pressing!

More Science: Flavors & Aromas


When our winemakers are tasting, they are looking for aromas and flavors, organic or inorganic, which are classically recognized for that varietal.

Wine can present aromas and flavors as diverse as berries and flowers, or rocks and smoke. Each varietal is known for the presence of different aromas and flavors, organic or inorganic, which are classically recognized for that varietal.

Red wines, for instance, can be associated with aromas and flavors of plum, chocolate, black pepper, and tobacco, among many others. Cabernet Sauvignon often presents the ester of ‘pencil shavings.’

Rieslings, on the other hand, are often associated with citrus and minerality—think slate or wet rock.

This post by Wine Folly has a great chart expanding on these descriptors.

It’s not you, it’s… Wait. It is you. (And more science.)

Technically speaking, a Cabernet Sauvignon should not taste like oranges and a Riesling should not taste like cherries. If it does, the wine is not a good representation of the varietal.


When you taste wine, what you taste is instructed by your flavor and aroma memories.

But, what if you taste oranges or cherries? Well, you are not wrong. Tasting wine is a subjective experience. If you taste cherries, ask yourself what kind of cherry flavor you detect. Cherry pie? Fresh cherries? Jolly Rancher? That flavor came to mind because of your past experiences with flavors.

I repeat—your flavor and aroma memories instruct what you detect when wine tasting!

For example, lychee is a flavor commonly associated with Gewürztraminer. But what if you have never tasted lychee fruit before? For you, the flavor might present as roses or perfume, because those are aromas that you do know, are common in Gewürztraminer, and have commonalities with lychee.

What about the tongue map?

You mean the one where the taste buds for “sweet” are on the tip of the tongue; the “salt” taste buds are on either side of the front of the tongue; “sour” taste buds are further back on the sides; and “bitter” taste buds are on the back of the tongue?

Well, forget it. The tongue map has been debunked.

Scientists have proven that all the taste receptors on the inside of your mouth are capable of tasting all flavors. Not just sweet on the tip of the tongue and sour on the sides. The tongue map is not science anymore, and it’s not you. Let it go and map your own tongue.

Taste for yourself

At Sheldrake Point Winery, we want you to form your own opinions about flavors and aromas. When you ask why wine doesn’t taste like grapes, remember that the short and long answers are summed up as ‘science and you.’

Still want a little guidance for the sake of drawing food and wine parallels? Join us for one of our special tasting events. Coming up this fall is Goes Good With Turkey: Wines for Your Thanksgiving Table.

A Finger Lakes native, Kyle brings longtime Finger Lakes winery experience to Sheldrake Point. After over five years combined at both Fox Run Vineyards and the Seneca Lake Winery Association, Kyle joined Sheldrake Point in March, 2016. She has earned degrees in Hospitality Management and Interior Design, as well as her Sommelier Certification via the Court of Master Sommeliers, and holds the WSET 2 Certificate. She is a founding board member of the Finger Lakes Chapter of Women for WineSense, and teaches wine education classes at the New York Wine and Culinary Center.