A wine’s aroma is full of info about its flavor, body, and winemaking practices. Keep reading to discover why it’s important to give your wine a good sniff before you sip.
When you see someone delicately swirling wine around in their glass before smelling it, they’re not just trying to look elegant. They’re actually helping the aromatic compounds attach to oxygen which makes them easier to smell. Honestly, there’s an entire art to swirling wine, but we’ll get into that another day. Today we’re focusing on the aroma of wine.
So, other than simply enjoying the smell of a wine, why is smelling your wine such an important process? Well, it may surprise you to hear that we mainly experience wine through the nose. That doesn’t mean you should snort your wine, but it does mean a stuffy nose will make it harder to get the full experience. If you don’t believe us, plug your nose while taking a sip of wine and you’ll notice muted flavors. No joke!
What’s even more interesting is that the aroma can give you a LOT of information about your wine, from ingredients to different fermentation techniques. Who knew that your nose was so powerful? Keep reading to learn more about why it’s so important to smell your wine.
Aroma vs. Bouquet
A lot of people use the words “aroma” and “bouquet” interchangeably when talking about the way wine smells. However, they are two distinct concepts.
Aroma has more to do with the particular type of grapes used to make the wine. So, while there will be slight differences between two Pinot Grigio bottles from different vineyards, overall their aromas will be similar since they use similar grape varietals.
Bouquet, on the other hand, has to do with the aging processes used on a wine. Certain aromatic compounds, like aldehydes and esters, are formed when fruit acids and alcohol oxidize during the aging process. For example, if you notice hints of vanilla in your wine, it probably means it was aged using barrels made of new oak.
That being said, it can sometimes take quite a while for a wine to develop a mature bouquet. If a winemaker creates a wine that’s designed to age and develop, it actually might not be as enjoyable if you drink it too early. That’s because the desired aromatic compounds haven’t had enough time to develop.
Wines that are designed to be enjoyed immediately, on the other hand, may not develop much of a bouquet. If you make the mistake of aging a wine that’s better when young, the fresh aromas may diminish and the wine may not be as enjoyable. Honestly, the science of smell is fascinating and it’s a huge part of what makes winemaking so complex.
Different Types of Aromas
The word “aroma” here is a bit misleading since we’ll also be talking about different bouquet scents. However, the breakdown of different scents is generally put into three different categories. The Primary and Secondary categories of scent deal more with the aromas imparted from grape varieties. The Tertiary category is where you’ll pick up more scents associated with the bouquet of a wine.
When we sniff something, aromatic compounds give us information by traveling through our noses to our olfactory receptors. Once they get there, this receptor sends a special signal to our brains that lets us know what it is we’re smelling. These aromatic compounds are carbon atoms that develop when grapes are ripening, during fermentation processes, and while wine is aging. It’s these different categories that make up the following types of aromas.
Primary (Varietal) Aromas
As we said earlier, primary aromas come from the particular grape variety used to make the wine. As grapes ripen and mature they become more sweet and flavorful. It’s believed that this happens to attract animals that will eat and eventually spread the grape seeds around. So, basically this process is a survival technique that just happens to make grapes particularly delicious.
There are several different types of primary aromatic compounds, some of which you’re probably already familiar with. When you notice floral, sweet notes like rose or lychee, you’re experiencing monoterpenes. Ok, maybe you didn’t know they were called monoterpenes, but if you’ve ever enjoyed a Moscato then you’ve definitely encountered them before.
Less well known, but no less important, are the vegetal notes of methoxypyrazines. While descriptors like green pepper, earthy, or green pea might not sound appealing, they’re actually fairly common in Sauvignon Blanc and Bordeaux. Spicy notes like black pepper come from sesquiterpenes while scents like grapefruit and black currant come from thiols.
That may seem like a shockingly large variety of aromas, but that’s not even everything! There are some primary aromas that are too heavy, which keep them from floating into the air. Trust us when we say that’s a good thing though. If you smelled ALL those aromas at once, they would be super intense for a short period of time. As the wine ages though, these molecules are slowly released into the air. That’s why the aroma of wine can change over time!
Common Primary Aromas
- Black Currant
- Black Pepper
Secondary (Fermentation) Aromas
As the wine ferments, a certain type of yeast (Saccharomyces) accomplishes a few very important tasks. If you weren’t aware, yeast is pretty magical. Not only does it transform the sugar from grapes into carbon dioxide and ethyl alcohol, but it also creates lots of esters.
Ester molecules are particularly aromatic right after the fermentation process and often smell like apples, bananas, red berries, and sometimes tropical fruits. Honestly, there are over a dozen unique ethyl ester compounds, and when combined they can even create totally unique flavors.
If you’ve ever experienced a wine with buttery or nutty aromas, however, that’s another type of secondary aroma that comes from malolactic fermentation. These compounds, known as acetoin and diacetyl, soften acidic wines and are responsible for the creamy, buttery quality of certain wines.
Common Secondary Aromas
- Brewer’s Yeast
Tertiary (Aging) Aromas
Tertiary aromas are where we begin to talk more about the bouquet of a wine. That’s because these aromas only develop during the aging process. Whether a wine is aged in bottles, barrels, or tanks, there are still important reactions happening that will give wine certain scents.
There are three specific types of mechanisms that can determine what flavors the aging process will impart on a wine.
If your wine is protected from oxygen in a tank or bottle, certain aromatic compounds will form as chemicals in the wine react and form new chemicals. Most commonly, alcohols and acids interact with each other to create esters.
If you notice flavors like nuts, caramelized sugar, or even dried fruits, then it’s possible your wine was aged in a terracotta tank or wood. When this happens, the oxidation can create compounds like acetic aldehydes. This is more common in aged wines like Madeira. In fact, it’s unlikely that you’ll encounter a Madeira that’s younger than five years. It’s definitely the type of wine that benefits from aging.
It should come as no surprise that when you age the wine in wooden barrels, you’re likely to notice more woody flavors. You might be surprised, however, to hear that barrel aging can also infuse the wine with coconut, cloves, and even vanilla flavors. It depends on the type of wood used to make the barrels. So, a wine aged in oak barrels will have different wood flavors than a wine aged in chestnut barrels. Sometimes a thermal treatment process called barrel toasting can also influence the flavors.
Common Tertiary Aromas
- Brown Sugar
- Roasted Almond
Don’t Forget To Smell Your Wine!
There’s a reason why sommeliers are so prized for their sense of smell. Without it, they wouldn’t be able to fully experience the many subtle nuances of a wine. Don’t think that you have to be a professional wine taster to learn about wine through its scent. And that brings us to your next homework assignment!
Pssst! You’ll want to stock up on wine before diving in.
The next time you open a bottle of wine, take some time to really experiment with your sense of smell. Delicately swirl the wine around your glass to release the aromatic compounds, and try to determine as much about the wine as possible just from its aroma. No matter what you do, though, you get to drink wine. So, that’s a win for us!
Let us know in the comments how your wine smelling adventure unfolds! And don’t forget to follow us on Instagram for all the latest updates.