Wine Aromas

All you need to know about wine aromas while wine tasting

The wine tasting experience is incomplete without the release of the wine’s aromas. In fact, a wine’s profile is characterised as much by its aromas or the ‘nose’ as it is by its flavours or the ‘palate’. Smelling the wine is especially important before tasting since the smell affects how we process the taste.

Wine aromas are one of the most diverse aspects of tasting and assessing a wine and can tell us so much more about a vintage than our sense of taste alone can. Our tastebuds can only register sweet, sour, salty, bitter and umami, but our olfactory ability can identify thousands of unique smells.

Smelling a wine, the right way

There is a fine line between a wine’s aromas and a wine’s bouquet, especially in professional settings. But generally speaking, the two terms are used as synonyms and refer to the smell of the wine in the glass.

To smell a wine, simply give it a good swirl in the glass. This will release the wine’s aromas into the air. After swirling it for about for several seconds, lower your nose into the glass and breathe in normally, but don’t sniff. As you breathe in, think about what aromas you might be picking up. Avoid strong fragrances in the vicinity that could drown the aromas of the wine and interfere with your experience of it.

How to identify these wine aromas

Smelling the wine is the easy bit, but understanding the aromas takes practice. The more wines you smell, the better you get at identifying the different aromas because our brains can only recognise smells from memory. It does help to think of aromas in categories typical to common wines.

White wines generally evoke citrus or tropical fruit aromas and floral scents. Red wines typically smell of red or black fruits and berries. Citrus aromas can be further distinguished into lemon, orange, grapefruit, pineapple, tangerine, or lime zest. Red fruits can include cherries, apples, prunes, plums, pomegranates, or raspberries.

The main types of wine aromas

Wine aromas can be categorised into primary, secondary, and tertiary smells. Primary aromas come from the actual grape varietal used to make the wine and will depend on climate and ageing. These can be fruity, floral, herbaceous, or earthy notes, and can range from pears to elderflower to cut grass. These aromas allow us to distinguish between wines that are quite young and less influenced by secondary and tertiary aromas.

Secondary aromas come from the winemaking process and are fermentation-derived. Chemical reactions among the acids, sugars, phenolic compounds and alcohols create these scents, which are either based on yeast or a result of malolactic fermentation. Think aromas like butter, cream, spices, or chocolate.

Secondary aromas can be indicative of the winemaker’s choices. For example, if a vintner runs a Chardonnay through malolactic fermentation (not caused by yeasts but by bacteria), the bouquet will carry rich buttery aromas not present in a Chardonnay that has not gone through this kind of fermentation. 

Tertiary aromas develop during the ageing process and in storage conditions due to exposure to oxygen and oak. Oxygen produces nutty aromas, while oak infuses wine with woody or spicy scents. Oxidative traits like coffee, caramel, toffee, and cocoa, and reductive notes that are earthy in nature are tertiary aromas. Tobacco, cedar, vanilla, and coconut are other common tertiary scents in wine.

Wine aromas can also indicate flaws in wine. Overly oxidized wines smell rather flat, while a wine that has not received enough oxygen can smell like cabbage or veggie components. Corked wines often smell of damp cellars or wet cardboard.Wild yeasts or Brettanomyces (referred to as Brett) are a common secondary aroma source that is considered to be a wine flaw by many. At their best, Brett can smell like a bouquet of wild game, bacon, and some spices. But they can also leave an unpleasant scent of spoilt cheese or sweaty socks.

The compounds that create the aromas

All wine aromas basically come from compounds that are either present in the grapes or are created during winemaking or ageing. It’s worth knowing some of these common compounds and the aromas they produce – it’s all science!

Terpenes are compounds that are present in grape skins and imbue the wine with the smell of rose petals or citrus. Think Muscat or Riesling! Pyrazines or methoxypyrazines smell of green bell pepper or green leafiness. These are stable compounds present in varietals like the Sauvignon grapes. In other grape varietals, their presence and aroma can be a sign of underripe.

Another class of compounds are esters, source of the primary fruit aromas in young wines. These are volatile compounds created due to alcohol reacting with acids. Other aromatic compounds in wines include aldehydes, ketones and diketones, mercaptans, and lactones.

Once you detect an aroma in a wine, you want to be able to identify and describe it. Here, the subjective nature of wine tasting comes into play, since different individuals will describe an aroma in their own different ways based on their unique experiences and memory. As with wine pairing, there is no right or wrong answer here, as long as you are able to experience and appreciate the aromas in a glass of wine while you drink it!


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