Flavors and Aromas in Wine, and How They get There.
It’s not your imagination. There are a lot of aromas in a glass of wine. Think black currants, cherries, lemons, or sweaty horse.
Let’s just say it’s an acquired thing but appreciated among imbibers of Rhône wines. But, let’s not stop there.
Can you say pass me the petrol, dear?
Did you put salt in my wine or wine in my salt?
Okay, who let the cat in the cellar?
You may wonder why there are all these different scents in wine. Shouldn’t it just smell like grapes? Why do you pick up strawberries, cedar, or coconut in your glass? You don’t have to feel like a nut because there is a good reason—well, actually several—that explain what’s going on in your wine.
The Good, the Bad, and the Downright Ugly
We don’t all smell the same. We don’t all like the same things, either. A lot of it has to do with our genetics. There are two ways we detect what’s in our glass or around us. There is the detection threshold, which just means you know you smell something. Then, there’s the recognition threshold, where you say, yup, that’s a pineapple if I ever smelt one.
In wine, there are good, bad, and ugly things you might pick up that either have you saying, pour me another glass, or who bought the Château Bilge Water to the party?
It turns out that there are up to 1,000 different aromas in wine. Who knew? Let’s run down what you can expect is swimming in your glass.
The Good Things in Wine
A lot of the over 1,300 grape varieties give off some pleasant smells just because of their composition. It may surprise you to learn that there isn’t just one apple aroma. There are actually over 300 chemicals that make your Granny Smith or Honeycrisp taste the way they do.
Part of the reason there is more things to smell in wine is because many are blends. Each of those grapes brings its own flavors to the party. That’s why you get those yummy fruit aromas. It’s the grapes being the grapes.
The Bad Things in WineSometimes, things do go well in the winery or the vineyard. Storms with poor timing or yucky weather can ruin the harvest. Sometimes, bad stuff happens that ends up spoiling the wine and causing even
worse smells. Bacteria, we’re looking at you! Winemakers call them faults, and for a good reason.
How else would you describe rotten eggs, rancid butter, or nail polish remover? That horsey smell we mentioned earlier is the fault of a fungus called Brettanomyces or Brett. Some people call it complexity, others call it gross!
A sweaty horse is one thing. Maybe it helps that people call it by different names that make it sound less repulsive, like barnyard smell. It almost sounds like a drive in the country. Bring it on! There’s another aroma that is another of those acquired tastes that may seem a bit more out there than a stinky stallion. How does cat pee sound to you?
No, you read that right. Sauvignon Blancs from the Loire Valley and Bordeaux in France have cornered the market on this particular smell. New Zealand has also gotten in on the act with a wine appropriately called Coopers Creek Cat's Phee On A Gooseberry Bush Sauvignon Blanc. Its less-than-stellar ratings probably speak to its eclectic following.
The perfect storm that creates these, shall we say, distinctive aromas, comes from a combination of the right weather conditions, certain grapes, and a class of chemicals called pyrazines. As you may expect, the pro-pee crowd finds it delightful, adding a welcome bit of complexity to the wine. We can’t write what the other camp says without breaking common decency rules of etiquette.
All we can say is at least the winery is being honest and transparent about it.
The Downright Ugly Stuff
Some of the worse smells in your glass of wine are often caused because the wine wasn’t stored right or it got in the bottle because of the cork or that it lives in the winery. We’re talking about you, cork taint. Boo! Hiss!
People will detect nasty smells, such as a musky basement, wet cardboard, or mold. Fortunately—or maybe not so much—humans can detect the lowest concentrations of it. At least you’ll know it’s there before you drink it. As we always say, life is too short to drink corked wine! And just to clarify one thing that has long remained a controversy in the wine world: it’s okay to smell your cork.
You may have heard about a technique to get rid of the dreaded cork taint using Saran Wrap. The theory was that it would attract the offending molecules that you could then treat them as they deserved. Sorry to burst your bubble, but it may only help a bit at best. You could try decanting it and letting it breathe in hopes that the wine may improve. If not, your local wine shop will certainly take it back and replace it.
How Smells Get in Your Glass
Now that we know what some aromas are, let’s get down to the nitty-gritty about why they are there in
the first place. Grapes bring a lot to the mix. If you do any amount of wine tasting, you know that a Cabernet Sauvignon smells a lot different than a Chardonnay.
Some of it also has to do with where the vines have their roots in the ground. A Sauvignon Blanc from California will smell like a hayfield. On the other hand, one from New Zealand will clobber you over the head with tropical fruits.
The Chemistry Experiment in Your Glass
The road from grapes to wine includes several chemical reactions that ultimately affect what you smell and taste. Each one can produce another good, bad, or indifferent aroma. A lot of magic happens in the cellar, too.
Those oak barrels can create that woodsy or coconut smell you detect. Wine writers call it the bouquet of a wine. Some people might describe it as cedar or tobacco. It’s all good when that’s what you want in your glass.
Sometimes, oak can get in the way of fruity aromas. That’s why some winemakers use stainless steel instead. The great thing about this technique is that it puts the spotlight on the grapes and lets them steal the show.
Temperatures and Sunlight, Oh, My!
You’ve probably heard about the importance of a wine’s vintage. It tends to be more significant across the pond than here stateside unless something really bad happens, like wildfires. That’s the weather’s hand at work, making it either too warm, too cold, or just right.
If the temperatures get really hot without a lot of rain, then you may detect petrol, aka gasoline, in your glass of wine. Before you spit it out, hear us out. It lingers in Riesling and sometimes Gewurztraminer wines. While it sounds gross, we think it’s kind of cool in a weird kind of way. It’s often really subtle, too.
It’s not like you’re drinking gas out of the pump. It’s just the chemical that causes it to smell that way showing up to the party. For wine nerds, that’s 1,1,6-trimethyl-1,2-dihydronaphthalene (TDN).
Scientists call the smells you pick up volatile compounds. All these chemicals are stuck in the bottle. When you remove the cork (or screwcap), oxygen gets into the act, helping them cover into gases. That’s what happens when you swirl your glass of wine. They’re saying, let me out, and you’re making it happen.
Nature likes to recycle a lot of things. That’s why we share 98.8 percent of our DNA with chimpanzees. But it’s the 1.2 percent that counts. It’s also what happens with chemicals. That’s why wine smells like
Winemakers can do it in several ways, too. Some don’t rely on Nature to take her course and make wine. They give her a gentle shove with the use of certain cultured yeasts. Those are ones created in a laboratory. Some can do some cool things with fermentation and the final product. Let’s go back to our chilled glass of Gewurztraminer.
Okay, we get it that it’s not everyone’s cup of tea or glass of wine, as it were. But you have to agree that if you’ve even taken a whiff of it, it jumps out and demands attention. Winemakers can enhance these signature aromatics by the particular cultured yeast they use.1 It’s one of the reasons that they call winemaking an art. And there’s a huge recipe book of things you can do!
Speaking of Minerality and Eucalyptus
This topic is sure to raise some eyebrows. However, if we’re talking about what you taste, it only makes sense to hand the mic to the elephant in the room. Some people have claimed that wine tastes salty or briny. Often, it involves grapes that grow near the sea. It only makes sense that salt spray would shower down on the fruit and end up in the glass.
The same has been said of some Australian wines and eucalyptus. After all, it grows everywhere. Instead of jumping into the proverbial boxing ring, we’ll just say that we’re open to either one. It doesn’t seem like a bungee jump of faith to acknowledge that the environment plays a role in what you smell in your glass. Can anyone say terroir?
That Beaujolais Noveau in all its glory!
Some techniques are more popular than others, with camps that either love it or hate it. Beaujolais Noveau is the perfect example. It’s got that fun November ritual of the anticipated release that third Thursday of November. How many wines can you say remind you of strawberries, bananas, and bubble gum?
Winemakers do something different with this wine that makes it taste the way it does. No, it’s not the yeast. Actually, it’s because there’s something else in charge of the show. Wait for it! It’s a good bacteria that lives on the grapes.
Instead of crushing the grapes, the winemakers pile them on in vat as whole bunches. After a while, it gets really heavy for the ones on the bottom, and they burst open, releasing their juice. That’s a different sort of science experiment that gives those yummy results we mentioned. They call it carbonic fermentation.
Whether you like it or not, you can’t help but love the attitude of Beaujolais Noveau. It says, here I am just to have some fun. It’s not stuffy or foo-foo. What you see or what you taste is what you get! You can thank the bacteria, enzymes, and come carbon-dioxide love for this easy drinker.
Part of the allure about wine is that it has all this mystery surrounding it, with wine tasting notes worthy of a Nobel Prize for Literature. Whiskey may taste like whiskey. Gin has its following. Wine has its magic like no other libation. The aromas you detect in your glass also tell a story. It describes the grapes’ journey from the vine to the glass.
That’s what makes trying to tease out the wine’s secrets so enjoyable. A sip can tell you what the weather was like during the harvest year and what the winemaker was up to in the cellar. After all, how many beverages have you ever heard described as cerebral? (Hint: Karen MacNeil talking about the Chenin Blanc wine, Savennièrres.)
If you want to talk grapes and wine aromas, be sure to visit the Sail to Trail WineWorks to enjoy a flight of our delicious wines to experience and ponder over a yummy charcuterie board.
1Lewin, Benjamin MW (2017). Wine Myths and Reality. Vendange Press. p. 98. ISBN 978-098372966.