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Gentle Guide ➺ Aromas

We know the vignette. Swirl the glass, understatedly or pretentiously, dealer’s choice. Hold it to the light if you’re so inclined, make a crack about the legs on it (whether you know what that means or not). Stick your snout in and have a good snuffle. 

Wildflowers, forest floor, kerosene, tobacco, clove. Sniff. Popcorn, toast, blossom, pepper, stone fruit. Gun powder. Sure. Honeysuckle. Why not? Barnyard. How wholesome. 

There are as many aromas found in wine as there are wine nerds eager to spot them. Whether you’ve got the finely tuned nose of a bloodhound or a blunter instrument, we can agree that wine smells (and tastes) different to plain old grapes.

Why are there flowers in my wine?

Aroma is ‘the big thing’ when tasting wine. If you’ve ever tasted with a cold, it’s harder to distinguish between different drops in your lineup. While our mouths taste only five flavours – sweet, salty, sour, bitter, umami – our noses have exponentially greater capacity to distinguish between chemical compounds present in wine.

If you think you’re tasting raspberries for example, odds are you’re getting a little sweetness, a little sourness, and a big hit of raspberry aroma to the schnozz. You’re not imagining it, and some European dude in a waistcoat didn’t make it up. The reason wines smell the way they do is tied up in chemistry, namely the organic molecules present in grapes that are transformed during fermentation and beyond.

primary aromas

If you think you’re tasting raspberries for example, odds are you’re getting a little sweetness, a little sourness, and a big hit of raspberry aroma to the schnozz. You’re not imagining it, and some European dude in a waistcoat didn’t make it up. The reason wines smell the way they do is tied up in chemistry, namely the organic molecules present in grapes that are transformed during fermentation and beyond. 

The first aromas you’re likely to spot in wines are primary fruit aromas. Primary meaning the compounds you’re smelling are in the original grape. They smell like fruits, because they are in fruits.

Some Chardonnay, for example, is described with tropical fruit aromas. The grapes naturally contain aroma molecules called thiols (amongst many others). Those very same thiol molecules are found in fruits like passionfruit, also. They smell the same, because they are the same. Unfermented Chardonnay grape juice might not smell all that passionfruit-y though. Sugars in grapes are converted to alcohol through fermentation. Most aroma compounds are smaller, volatile molecules– that’s why they enter the air and can be inhaled. Large sugar molecules bind aromas, so when sugar is fermented ‘out’ of the wine, aroma molecules are freed up to hit your nose.

That’s why aromas associated with plants are detectable (and delectable) in wine. Wine comes from plants, so it’s no stretch to conceive of other planty scents entering the fray– flowers, herbs, spices. As for the decidedly non-plant aromas? Earth, minerals, bread, gun powder, kerosene, leather, meat, smoke, butter. These typically fall into the category of secondary or tertiary aromas.

secondary aromas

Secondary aromas are those that arise because of chemical reactions involved in fermenting grapes. Yeasts are used to carry out fermentation, freeing up aroma compounds and changing their chemical composition, explaining the presence of smells we wouldn’t expect.

Plus, yeast itself can bring flavours to wine we recognise from other applications. Baking uses the same species (though different strains) of yeast, explaining bready or biscuity character.

Wines aged on lees (dead yeast cells) will pick up a lot of this character, alongside other possible aromas like hay, or nuttier notes. Malolactic fermentation is another chemical reaction that alters the compounds in wine, converting malic acid to lactic acid (found in dairy products), explaining buttery or creamy notes.

tertiary aromas

Tertiary aromas Include those that arise from aging and oxidation of the wine. 

This can be oak aging, where oak barrels are used to store wine, imparting their own character to the elixir. Vanilla or coconut, smoke and well… wood. 

This can be aging in stainless steel, ceramic, or bottle as well. Here, it’s not about anything being added as much as exposure to small amounts of oxygen causing redox reactions, transforming compounds into other compounds. 

Given enough time, aged Riesling famously develops a compound called TDN as a result of this process, which is described as smelling of kerosene or petrol. 

With aging, primary fruit aromas and flavours that start out fresh and bright, soften to become jammier and more caramelised. Earthier character can develop in the bouquet, like mushrooms, truffle, leather, game.

While most casual drinkers will use the terms aroma and bouquet interchangeably, the two technically differ. Aroma refers to those primary fruit characters present in the grapes. The bouquet refers to the more developed aroma profile following fermentation and aging.

There are also scents that indicate faults in a wine. Mustiness, wet dog might mean a wine is corked. Bandaids or barnyard might indicate presence of a wild yeast called Brettanomyces that many dislike in a ferment. Too much exposure to oxygen, or too little, during fermentation and aging can cause a whole suite of curious aromas you might deem less than pleasant.

want to smell better?

Wines with a ‘good’ bouquet are often considered those that are more complex, so by their very nature, it can be difficult to identify individual scents. The key is simply practice. This might be guided by an expert, such as at a winery or in a guided tasting, to help point things out. 

Building a stronger base of scent memory can also help. Next time you’re eating an apple, cooking, touring a garden, passing an industrial site, take the time to mindfully catalogue different scents. Familiarising yourself with which scents are common to different varieties and styles can help too– many of us will identify a scent readily once it’s pointed out to us, but struggle solo.

All noses are different, all noses are beautiful. If yours doesn’t fall in with what you’re told you should smell, it doesn’t mean you’re wrong, your palate might just be calibrated a little differently. To sniff well, swirl first to ensure aroma molecules are agitated into the glass. Smell slowly, and move the glass closer and further away (different scent molecules have different weights, and may sit nearer the upper or lower rim of a tilted glass). Smell again after tasting, to see if that clarifies things for you. It might be helpful to think in terms of scent categories, ie. fruit, floral, spice, earth, mineral.

Still only getting wine? It could be worse, wine is delicious. Long may we sniff.