Have you ever doubted people who say they smell this and that from a wine? Do you think they’re bluffing or do you feel intimidated by them? It's time to demystify wine aromas.
Let’s make one thing clear first. Wine is 100% fermented grape juice, with no added aromas, so everything we smell in wine is from the grape varieties, fermentation, maturation and ageing process. In wine terms, we classify aromas as primary, secondary and tertiary.
We’ll start with primary aromas. These are the aromatic signatures of each grape variety, and they vary in intensity and distinctiveness. Gewürztraminer has strong lychee and rose aromas, while Muscat is grapey. Sauvignon Blanc is grassy, while Riesling is floral and citrusy. Cabernet Sauvignon’s aromas are blackcurrant and mint, whereas Syrah’s are pepper and blue/blackberry. Chardonnay and Pinot Blanc are comparatively neutral, with much less intense aromas.
Grape varieties consist of a lot more subtle aromas, but pure grape juice is not very aromatic. Some of the aromas are in a latent state and can only be unleashed through the chemical reaction of fermentation, which converts sugar to alcohol. These ester compounds formed by the reaction of alcohol and acid are called secondary aromas. Most of them are fruity and floral, so we can smell a lot more in wine than in grape juice.
However, the final fruity aromas can be affected by other factors such as growing conditions. Grapes grown in warmer climates have riper fruit aromas compared to the same varieties grown in cooler conditions. Chardonnay from the warm southern European regions around the Mediterranean coast has ripe pear and apricot notes, while Chardonnay from the cooler Chablis region veers towards green apple and citrus notes.
The yeasts used to induce fermentation and the fermentation temperature also determine the flavour profile of wine. Winemakers from Marlborough like low-temperature fermentation of Sauvignon Blanc, with a particular yeast strain to highlight the pungent guava and passion fruit aromas, while Sauvignon Blanc from Sancerre is more subtle, with gooseberry and nettle characteristics. The tropical fruit aroma found in Chardonnay is a secondary aroma developed during fermentation.
Aromas are volatile molecules. We smell the strongest and most volatile aromas in the first sniff. When we gently swirl the glass, this flushes out the more subtle and heavier molecules, and we can smell more layers of aromas. But please remember not to swirl the glass too vigorously or for too long; otherwise these volatile aromas dissipate out of the glass.
Tertiary aromas are those derived from the maturation of wine. The most common are spices and vanilla from ageing in French oak or coconut and coffee from ageing in high-toasted American oak. Sparkling wine that’s spent three or more years on lees has pronounced biscuit and brioche aromas.
As wine ages, the young, fruity characteristics give way to more a complex bouquet. Aged red wine smells of tea leaves, cigars and earth, while aged white wine has dried flower, nutty, spicy and vanilla notes.
Note that some people may refer to all fruit aromas as primary aromas, maturation aromas (toast, brioche, spices, vanilla) as secondary aromas and aged bouquet as tertiary aromas. But once you understand how wine aromas come about, it doesn’t really matter what they’re called.
I hope you will not be intimidated by people who tell you the many things they can smell from a wine. Raise a glass and enjoy the beautiful and ever-developing aromas!
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