Wine Words: Aromas

published Mar 5, 2012
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Aromas are a very important component of tasting and enjoying wine. Wine aromas are strongly linked to wine flavors and taste, since when we taste a wine we also absorb its aromas through our retro-nasal passage that connects our mouth to our nose.

So what exactly do we mean when we talk about aromas in wine?

If we like what we smell, we tend to want to drink the wine. Another key reason that aromas are important is to see if the wine is in good condition. Bad aromas can mean a faulty wine – and that is something we certainly do not want.

Wine aromas are very diverse. When we talk about wine aromas we are talking about a number of different things. While the aromas of any one wine are strongly linked to the particular grape variety/ies that made the wine, they are also influenced by where the grapes were grown (introducing the notion of terroir), by how the wine was made (such as particular winemaking and maturation techniques) and, by bottle age.

Grape or Primary Fruit Aromas
Different grapes have different primary aromas. These vary according to where the grapes are grown. The same grape grown in a cooler climate will have different aromas when grown in a warmer climate. For example, Chardonnay grown in a cool climate like Chablis, will have prominent green apple and citrus aromas. Chardonnay grown in a moderately warm climate such as the Maçon will smell more like melon and grapefruit, while Chardonnay grown in a warm climate will show more pineapple and tropical fruit aromas.

Grape aromas can be fruity and/or floral. Many white varieties such as Riesling and Viognier have very definite floral notes. Even some reds, such as cool climate Syrah, can have aromas of violets. Fruit aromas most associated with white wines include citrus, orchard, stone and tropical fruit. Red fruit aromas span the gamut of black and red fruits, all sorts of plums, berries and cherries. Depending on ripeness the aromas can be like freshly picked fruit, jammy, baked or even raisined or dried when ultra ripe.

Mineral, Herbal, Vegetable and Herbaceous Aromas
Beyond fruity, wine aromas can be mineral, spicy, vegetable, herbal or herbaceous. While some of these aromas can come from the primary grape, they can also come from the specific terroir, where the grapes were grown.

Herbal aromas can be fresh or dried and include tarragon, mint, eucalyptus as well as the famous Garrigue aroma associated with the wines of Châteauneuf du Papes. Herbaceous aromas include grassy or asparagus notes so often found in Sauvignon Blanc. Mineral aromas can be flinty, stony, earthy or tarry. Vegetable aromas include green or black olive (think cool climate Syrah) as well as all sorts of salad, peas and beans.

Finally, spicy aromas can be inherent to the grape such as black pepper in Syrah, white pepper in Gruner Veltliner or they can come from oak.

Aromas of Oak
As well as adding spice, oak can add all sorts of wonderful aromas to a wine including cedar, toast, char, smoke, clove, licorice, baking spices, vanilla, coconut or vanilla.

Winemaking Aromas
Cool temperature fermentations tend to preserve and even enhance the primary fruit aromas of the grape, while warmer fermentations tend to produce wines that are more driven by structure than primary fruit. Similarly wines fermented in stainless steel tanks are typically fruitier than those vinified in cask. Techniques such as Malolactic Fermentation (MLF), which converts the harsher malic acid in a wine into a softer lactic acid can add creamy, buttery aromas to a wine.

Aromas of Maturity
As a wine ages either in tank, wood or in bottle it undergoes lots of internal chemical reactions. Compounds in the wine breakdown and react with each other to form new compounds and new aromas. Such aromas include leather, cigar box, truffle or mushroom, fusel/petrol, brioche/cereal or honey aromas.

Off-Aromas or Faults
These are the aromas that we do not want to find in our wine. Sometimes a teeny weeny hint of certain ones is desirable and actually adds complexity to a wine, but it is a thin tightrope and a dominant force of any of them is undeniably a fault. Such aromas include overly oxidative aromas, cork taint (TCA), vinegar, nail polish remover, rotten cabbage, sulphur, stinky barnyard or smelly sweat.

Mary Gorman-McAdams, MW (Master of Wine), is a New York based wine educator, freelance writer and consultant.

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