Many sensory elements impact the overall flavor of our favorite wines. When we taste, aroma is the most important sense in the evaluation. Our acute sense of smell is largely responsible for more than 90% of what we perceive in any given wine.

Wine consists of over 200 different olfactory compounds very similar to those found in fruits, vegetables, spices, herbs and other organic esthers.

The volatile essences are then carried by thousands of nerve endings to our brain. In effect, we actually smell flavors.

When I taste professionally, aroma is broken into three categories simply identified as primary, secondary and tertiary, with the latter often referred to as this mystical word bouquet.

We can define a wine’s primary aromas as those smells that are created by the grape variety and/or the environment in which it is grown; referred to by the French as “terroir.” Adjectives that are particular to fruit aromas are often pear, apple, blackberry, and cherry, in addition to cornucopia of all the tree, citrus and stone fruit basket. Terroir aromas can be defined as mineral, earth, flint, limestone and any combination of organic aromas tied into soils and geology.

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Secondary aromas often discerned in wine are created by the effects of wine-making. These are conscious decisions made by the producer to enhance complexity and compliment post fermentation layers of flavor. If a wine has been barrel fermented or aged in oak casks, recognizable accents of spice, wood, smoke, vanilla and caramel are present, often due to the time the wine spends resting in these toasted oak containers. Often Chardonnay wine is allowed to go through an additional molecular conversion where a “good” bacteria will convert high toned, crisp acid called malic, to a softer and creamier textured acid called lactic.

This is the acid commonly found in milk, yogurt and dairy products. Hints of butter aromas are present and the wine on the palate is perceivably softer. Another production technique allows the dead yeast to remain in the tank or barrel for an extended period of time, instead of removing them post fermentation. Called “sur-lie” aging or wine resting on the lees, aromas of yeast, bread dough and baking aromatics are often evident. Keep in mind that these secondary aromas should be subtle and not dominant. It should enhance the aromatic complexity of the wine and not overwhelm or dominate the wine’s personality. 

Oak is the most common of secondary aromas and many premiere quality wineries utilize French white oak in their production regimes.

The Allier, Nevers, and Limousin are three of the famous forests in France strictly regulated by the government which manages this important natural resource. Known as Quercus Alba, these white oaks are allowed to grow to full maturity before they are harvested. The wood has a tighter grain, so the characteristics are extracted much more slowly and impart many of the classic spice and roasted elements such as clove, coffee, toffee and cocoa. American white oak is used to offer a sweeter and enhanced floral aromas of vanilla, coconut or caramel. An experienced taster can often identify the oak regime by utilizing some of these aromatics.

I must say that there are many factors which can influence the aroma in an apparent negative way. Some of the culprits are airborne microbiological spoilers, bad cellar hygiene, overuse of sulfur or improper storage. Some of these negative aromas can be quite off-putting and have clearly identifiable scents most often described as having vinegary characteristics or other distasteful scents such as nail polish remover, rotten egg, onion, moldy or barnyard.

Always keep in mind that good wine smells good and bad wine smells awful.

After several years of bottle aging, some wines develop complexities that evolve over time as youthful, fruit flavors diminish and become subtle and often difficult to describe. These tertiary aromas enhance the evaluation of the sensory experience and allow the taster to delve deeply into the wines aromatic complexity.

Here are some popular wine grapes and some of their aromatic fingerprints:

Chardonnay

Apples, pears, citrus, banana, pineapple, melon, minerals, limestone, river pebbles. Often enhanced by honey, oak, caramel, butter, toast and yeast.

Sauvignon Blanc

Herbs, grapefruit, lemon, lime, cut grass, mineral, flint, cat spray. Sometimes when oak is used similar to Chardonnay with the toasted butter aromatic.

Cabernet Sauvignon

Black currant, raspberry, blackberry, black or dried cherry, blueberry, mint, green pepper. Hints of clove, cedar, chocolate, smoke, toffee, coffee, vanilla, cocoa and cinnamon. Older wines will sometimes exhibit a classic cigar box scent.

Merlot

Red plum, red cherries, tea, anise, vanilla, caramel, smoke, clove and dried leaves.

Also keep in mind that when these grape varieties are blended like in Bordeaux or California an even more complex aromatic explosion can set off your alarm bells and open up a whole new world of aromatic discovery.

So, the next time you are enjoying your favorite wine or discovering one for the first time, swirl, sniff and enjoy the aromatic flavors before, during and after the wine is put to the palate.

“To enjoy wine, what is needed is a sense of smell, a sense of taste and an eye for color. All else is experience and personal preference” – Cyril Ray

PHOTOGRAPHY BY KELLY J. HUFF

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