Stumped for the right words to describe your favourite Kiwi tipple?

A group of lucky scientists have spent six years - and $12 million - defining the unique flavours of our world-beating sauvignon blanc - and found it's a winning combination of sweet, sweaty passionfruit, asparagus, and cat's pee.

The research is helping New Zealand growers develop new top wines, said Philip Manson, science and innovation manager for NZ Winegrowers.

"We've started to get people thinking about some of those aspects of flavour and aroma in the wine and where they come from, the influence of land and grape and viticulture practices."

Tests were carried out by an expert sensory panel trained to distinguish between sixteen flavours, including canned and fresh asparagus, stone fruit, apple and snowpeas.

They found Hawkes Bay wines were high in "mineral, flinty" characteristics, Marlborough wines had an intense "sweet, sweaty passionfruit" and asparagus flavour, while Wairarapa was the top spot for cat's pee.

Another panel of ordinary wine drinkers were tested to see which they liked the best - with the Marlborough style coming out on top.

The $12.6 million study is being carried out by Plant & Food Research, which includes the Marlborough Wine Research Centre, the University of Auckland and Lincoln University.

Plant & Food science leader Dr Roger Harker said terms such as cat's pee and capsicum gave winemakers a consistent way to describe flavours.

They're not intended as a marketing tool - although Cooper's Creek winery have already had a go with their sauvignon blanc, Cat's Pee on a Gooseberry Bush.

"As some of these words are used by wine connoisseurs, they actually start to mean something in the marketplace as well," Harker said.

Fine wines manager at wine retailer Glengarry, Regan McCaffery, said customers with an interest in wine wouldn't be surprised to hear their favourite drop described as "sweaty passionfruit".

"But most wouldn't stop to think about it," he said. "Most people drink purely for enjoyment - they don't stop to analyse the wine."

Harker said there was still more work to be done on establishing how the flavours were created, and how they changed as the wine ages.