Breaking Down Wine Aroma
Do you smell your wine before you drink it? When experts describe wine, they often refer to its aromas while swirling it in the glass before taking a whiff and then a sip.
Wine aromas are mysterious, especially since different variations of the exact wine can have different scents.
In this blog, we’re breaking down what wine aromas are, where they come from, and looking into what makes a wine smell the way it does. Keep reading for everything you need to know.
What Are Aromas in Wine?
Aroma is detected by our sense of smell, otherwise known as the olfactory sense. When you smell the aromas of something pleasant, your nose knows it. This is why during wine tasting, wine lovers often indulge in the scents of wine before taking a sip, adding to the taste and overall sensory experience. The climate and terroir (soil) in which grapes are grown greatly influence their aromas.
Sommeliers and winemakers often refer to the “aromas” and “bouquets” wine has to offer. These terms are often used interchangeably in the ordinary world, but did you know there’s a difference between the two in the wine world?
Aroma vs. Bouquet
In professional wine tasting, aromas are the unique smells a grape variety expresses when young. Examples would be the crushed cherry notes of Pinot Noir, black currant in Cabernet Sauvignon, or citrus aromas in a fresh and fruity Sauvignon Blanc.
As wine ages, its aroma compounds change. The acids, sugars, alcohol, and organic compounds undergo a chemical reaction, tasting the wine flavor and scents. These new smells are known as the wine’s “bouquet.” After aging, heavier, more complex aromas emerge. This means the crushed cherries and cranberries of your Pinot Noir will emit truffle aromas after several years.
We’ve discussed what wine aroma is, but how do we classify those sweet and savory scents when it comes to wine?
Primary, Secondary, and Tertiary Aromas
In order to better understand the chemical composition of wine and the best food pairing for a particular type, we need to consult the “aroma wheel.” Invented in 1980, the wine aroma wheel visually represents the many aromas and flavors wine can possess. Its color-coded circles divide aromas into three categories, and it looks like a pie chart, which is fun!
Wine aromas are typically grouped into “aroma families” like these:
- Floral aromas
- Fruit aromas
- Mineral aromas
- Animal aromas
- Burnt aromas
- Herbs and spices
Below are the three broad categories on the aroma wheel.
1. Primary Aromas
When smelling a young wine, the first thing you’ll notice are its fruit and floral notes. These are known as primary aromas. Primary aromas are produced from the grapes the wine is made from. In red wine, blackcurrant, spice, licorice, and plum scents are most prevalent. In white wine, citrus fruits and perfumey floral notes permeate the nose.
2. Secondary Aromas
Secondary aromas come from vinification, also known as the winemaking process. The yeast transforms the wine’s sugars into alcohol, giving way to rich, biscuity, and buttery textures. An example of this would be the baked apple and caramel aromas of a buttery oak-aged Chardonnay.
3. Tertiary Aromas
Tertiary aromas are those derived from fermentation. The wine aging process unearths rich and complex scents. For example, once bright and fruity, aged red wine may develop leather, stewed fruit, dried fig, tobacco, mushroom, or forest floor aromas.
Wine Tip: If you’d like a more in-depth look at a vast array of wine aromas, Le Nez du Vin is a tool amateur and experienced wine lovers use! It’s a wine aroma kit full of samples and a guide to help you “make scents” of your wine.
Now, let’s dive deeper into our chemistry lesson by dissecting the specific compounds associated with certain wine aromas.
Wine Aroma Compounds
Have you ever wondered where your wine’s aroma comes from? Here’s a list of noteworthy compounds found in wine and the type of aromas they contribute.
A terpene is a compound class responsible for those characteristically fragrant citrus aromas in wines like Muscat, Riesling, and the incredibly sweet white wine Gewürztraminer. Other scents produced by terpene include lavender, orange blossom, lily, bay leaf, rose petal, elderflower in Sauvignon Blanc, and Syrah’s peppery flavors.
Aldehydes are diverse compounds responsible for the grassy notes found in New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc, vanilla oak in California Zinfandel, bitter almond in Pinot Grigio, and the caramel flavors of oak-aged wines.
If you’ve ever smelled green bell pepper in Cabernet Sauvignon, this is due to Methoxypyrazines, part of the Pyrazine compound class.
Ever tasted a crisp, tropical white wine? Esters are a group of compounds that contribute to stone fruit, banana, citrus fruit, and red apples.
5. Ketones and diketones
Those haunting lavender scents in Pinot Noir and Syrah result from ketones. These compounds also contribute to those buttery flavors in creamy, oak-aged Chardonnay.
Mercaptans are volatile compounds that make up passionfruit, guava, and gooseberry aromas in Sauvignon Blanc. They’re also responsible for the leafy and black currant notes often associated with Cabernet Sauvignon.
These rich compounds are often associated with long-aged wines like the fortified wine Madeira. Lactones often give off curry spice, toast, nuts, or maple syrup aromas.
Not So on the Nose
Don’t fret if you’re having trouble identifying your wine’s aromas; developing a nose for wine takes time.
If you want to test your senses, shop customer-favorite selections of red wine, white wine, Rosé, sparkling wine, new arrivals, award winners, organic wines, and wines under $20 over at Macy’s Wine Shop.
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