Floral. Earthy. Honeyed. Jammy. Tropical. Spicy. Herbal. There are infinite descriptors that wine professionals love to use when describing the way a wine smells. Some might sound a bit abstract, but you can actually find all of these aromas — and about 793 more — pouring out of almost any glass of wine.
It’s amazing though, really, that something as simple as fermented grape juice is capable of expressing the scents of other fruits, spices, plants, and minerals. But what does it matter whether or not we can identify them in a wine? Isn’t the secret to understanding wine acquiring a taste for it? Well… yes and no.
Everybody knows that the key to fully appreciating wine is learning how to taste it. But if you’re not able to sniff out and untangle the complex web of aromas woven into wine, you won’t get very far with the whole tasting process. That’s because aromas are intertwined with flavors. When we drink wine, we absorb its scents through our nasal passage, the space that connects our mouth to our nose. Without your sense of smell, you wouldn’t find the flavors of any food or drink that pleasurable, let alone the taste of wine enjoyable.
Take my stepfather, Jim, for example. He willingly and eagerly participates in my wine tasting adventures, but his poor sense of smell restricts his ability to fully benefit from doing so. “Smells like fruit and dirt,” he says after sticking his nose deep into every single glass of fill-in-the-blank red wine. “What you wine people probably call earthy,” he jokes, unable to narrow it down any further than that. It’s no wonder he’s a complete vodka enthusiast. Without a nose capable of unraveling those complicated aromas, he’s unable to find much pleasure in even the greatest of wines.
For me, the way a wine smells — which wine people sometimes refer to as its bouquet — is often the most telling sign of whether or not I’ll be a fan of how it tastes. Experiencing a wine’s aromas is the most sensual part of the tasting process. That’s because these scents are more than just aromas. They trigger emotions, evoke memories, and sometimes even induce blissful feelings. Science has proven that the nose is an emotional time machine, and a wine’s aromas absolutely play a vital role in your enjoyment of it.
Certain scents in wine are so powerful that when I smell them, I’m reminded of the time and place where I initially experienced them. The buttery smell of an oaky California chardonnay, though unpleasant, brings me back to a sentimental dinner with my mother when she first allowed me to try a sip of her wine. Then there’s the leathery, savory, berry smell of tempranillo, which never fails to induce nostalgia from a memorable trip to Spain. And the telltale aromas of dried roses, asphalt tar, black cherries, and menthol in an aged Barolo will forever transport me to Piedmont in Italy, where I tasted similar wines with winemakers who created them many years before.
But aromas do more than just sing romantic songs about wine. You can actually learn a lot about a wine from the way it smells. Aromas offer insights into the wine’s character, origin, and history. They hint towards which type of grape or grapes it was made from, the place where they were grown, and how old the wine might be. But where exactly do these scents come from? Certainly, a single grape cannot contain the complete range of wine aromas available.
First, there is the grape itself. Every variety has characteristic smells, regardless of where it is grown. For example, sauvignon blanc usually exhibits zesty grapefruit aromas. Cabernet sauvignon often smells of dark fruit, like plums. Pinot noir will almost always have a bouquet of cherries. And carménère often has a distinguishing green pepper scent.
Other factors, like the vineyard’s soil composition, climate, and proximity to water — what is known as terroir — can add to a wine’s aromatic profile, too. That’s where those earthy and mineral scents come from. If a wine smells like wet stones, chalk, tar, limestone, or something herbal, it’s typically attributed to the vineyard’s location. Chardonnays from Burgundy, like Chablis, exhibit chalky and lime aromas from the limestone soils in which they are grown. In New Zealand, fertile, green vineyards produce herbaceous, grassy-scented sauvignon blancs. And Spanish reds from the desert-like Toro region often have spicy and rustic earthy smells.
The development of aromas doesn’t end in the vineyard. Even more are unlocked during the winemaking process. Fermentation techniques, different strains of yeast, and the amount of time a wine spends aging in an oak barrel all influence the final scents a wine expresses. And they continue to evolve over time after being bottled. After many years of aging in the bottle, a wine can smell of leather and cigar, like in an old Rioja, or of truffles or mushrooms, like you might find in an aged Barolo. After many years of bottle aging, rieslings from Germany or Alsace can exhibit a desirable note of petrol — a fancy word to describe a rubbery, gasoline-like scent. And Sauternes, made with semillon and sauvignon blanc grapes, smells more richly concentrated with honey the older it gets.
There are, of course, bad aromas you can find in wine as well. If it smells like wet cardboard or damp newspapers, it’s probably corked. And if it smells more like vinegar than any type of fruit, the wine has likely oxidized and gone bad.
You may be wondering how you will ever be able to identify the hundreds of aromas found in wine. The answer is, you probably won’t. But with a little practice, patience, and repetition, you can learn how to recognize, decipher, and break down a wine’s complicated web of aromas, and even more importantly, learn how to appreciate them.
The best way to build up your memory of aromas is by smelling everything — all the fruits and vegetables in your grocery store’s produce section, the grass and plants in your yard, even the contents of your spice rack at home. But watch out for the cayenne pepper. You don’t want to get too big a whiff of that one.
Over time, you will build a library of scents in your head, and the correct vocabulary to describe what you smell. And don’t feel pressured to agree with what your friends, colleagues, parents, or other wine writers say are the aromas a certain wine exhibits. If a wine smells like tennis balls and apple pie to you, then hey, it’s up to you to decide whether or not you like that in your wine.
Of course, none of this information is important if you can’t sense aromas from your glass. Almost as important as your sense of smell is your swirling technique. You’ve probably seen somebody swirling their wine around in the glass before they drink it before and wondered what purpose the act served. It helps release the aromatic compounds into the air and then out of the glass when you sniff. Don’t believe me? Smell a wine before you swirl it, and then again afterwards, and tell me you don’t notice a difference.
Like developing your own memory for wine aromas, perfecting your swirl takes a bit of practice. It took me several months to swirl without ungracefully splashing some of the wine out onto the table, or even worse, myself.
But once you do get the sophisticated swirl under control and become an experienced smeller, don’t just sniff a wine for its clues. Enjoy the wine’s aromas and wherever they may take you.
I’ve selected a bunch of aromatic whites — white wines known for their characteristic vibrant aromas. Wines made from grapes like gewürztraminer, pinot gris, viognier, torrontés, and chenin blanc commonly produce wines with fresh, fruity, and floral scents that practically leap out of the glass. Their aromas are best showcased when the wines haven’t been greatly influenced by oak or many years of aging. I’ve enjoyed these aromatic whites with spicier cuisines, like Thai and Indian, but also with cheeses and seafood. The selected ones below are pure and pleasant — the perfect introductions to the varying degrees of enjoyable wine aromas. It’s time to get swirling and sniffing.
Alsace, France, 13% ABV, $19.99
Concentrated aromas of lychee and baking spices, characteristic of the gewürztraminer grape. Honey and apricot flavors, with an elegant and stony finish.
La Rioja, Argentina, 13% ABV, $14.99
A tropical and floral bouquet, with delicate citrus and mineral flavors. Totally pleasant to drink.
Willamette Valley, Oregon, 13% ABV, $19.99
A field of white flowers and fresh lemon zest pour out of the glass. Crisp and refreshing. The perfect summer wine.
Alsace, France, 14% ABV, $18.99
Ripe honeydew melon on the nose. Rich flavors in the mouth, like eating a dessert of fresh peaches and cream.
Oregon, 13% ABV, $12.99
A bowlful of freshly cut kiwi and pears meets your nose in the glass. Soft, yet crisp in the mouth with a succulent finish.
Languedoc, France, $14.99
Totally expressive of melon, apricot, and white flower aromas — typical of the viognier grape. Creamy, yet crisp in the mouth with an elegant finish.
Coastal Region, South Africa, 13% ABV, $18.99
Super fragrant, with aromas of honeydew melon, honeysuckle, and fresh green pear. Smooth and flinty in the mouth with a zesty finish.
Vins de Pays d’Oc, France, 12.5% ABV, $13.99
Very fresh nose of fleshy white peaches and flowers. Tastes of green apple, with zingy lime acidity on the finish. 60% terret and 40% vermentino.
Illustration by Claire Jelly