Scents in Wine

Have you ever wondered whether a wine that smells of sun-ripened peaches came from a vineyard next to an orchard? Or whether the chalky note in an Old World wine sprang right from the soil into your glass? 

Given how little we know about the mechanics of taste and smell, it’s understandable. 

Science has taught us some things, however. First, the smells apparent in wine do not come from the surrounding environment. There are only two exceptions: smoke from wildfires and the scent of eucalyptus from surrounding trees. But the truth is, neither of these wines is likely to make it to market. 

Here’s what else we know: The aroma and tastes of wine result from compounds within the grape itself, the fermentation process, and any aging regimen. At each stage of winemaking, molecules separate and recombine to form an entirely new creation. And this creation is alive, changing, and evolving until the moment it is released. 

Wine Tasting and Anosmia

For people who love wine, anosmia can be a life-altering condition. The loss of the sense of smell destroys the ability to taste wine. For a sommelier, this can be the end of their career.

However, a focus on wine tasting and training to become a sommelier can be part of your therapeutic recovery. The focus on scents in professional sommelier programs is a great way to recover, learn a new skill, and possibly start a new career.

Sommelier Jargon and Scent

We call scents in wine derived from the grape “Primary aromas.” These range from fruity to floral and herbaceous to funky. A sommelier can identify a grape variety in a blind tasting based on these aromas, also known as “varietal fingerprints.” 

Secondary aromas are those that arise from fermentation. The yeast used during fermentation can play a large role in imparting flavor to wine, and certain winemaking techniques can bring about biscuity or nutty aromas. 

Finally, tertiary aromas come about during the aging process. The most common are baking spice notes that come about from oak aging, but even aging in the bottle will play a role in how the wine tastes. 

scents in wine

How Many Scents in Wine?

The typical taster will be able to identify four to five aromas in a given wine. Fruit aromas are the easiest to discern. These include citrus, tropical, and orchard fruit scents in white wine and berry scents in red wine. 

But a well-made wine will smell like more than just fruit: it should have earthy notes, as well. Earth may include the smell of soil, clay, herbs, flowers, and even sea salt. Depending on your background, you may find those earthy notes compelling or completely off-putting, at least at first. (If you find yourself struggling to appreciate earth aromas, try pairing them with food. Oftentimes the earth notes will marry beautifully with a properly seasoned dish.)

Earthy notes will become more prominent as wine ages. Fresh fruit will transform into dried or stewed fruits, like prune or fig. In red wines, tobacco and mushroom will develop, too. White wines start to give off scents of dried apricot or orange marmalade. Other tertiary characteristics include nutty and spicy aromas. Wine professionals refer to these traits of aged wines as the “bouquet”. 

Taking the time to enjoy the panoply of scents in wine is the mark of a true wine expert. In doing so, we pay proper tribute to not only the winemaker but to the land itself.

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