Wine drinking is an imaginative and sensory experience. Before we taste, we consider where the grapes were grown and the wine was produced. We appreciate and assess its color and notice the way it interacts with the glass.
But we aren’t fully introduced to a glass of wine until we inhale its aroma, put it to our lips, and allow the liquid and its vapors to suffuse our senses of taste and smell. It is the last of these, the sense of smell, which makes the most profound contribution, albeit one that is difficult to describe with any precision.
Writers and critics have struggled to find words to evoke wine aromas for centuries. Today, we use a somewhat standard vocabulary, and in this article, we’ll explore the most common aroma terms, how they are categorized, and the wines in which you are most likely to find them.
What Are Wine Aromas?
Our olfactory sense — the sense of smell — plays a key role in our appreciation of a wine’s aroma and flavor. It’s obvious that our olfactory sense is engaged when we smell a wine, but when we discuss a wine’s flavor, we are often talking about its aroma, too.
That’s because our gustatory sense — the sense of taste — can detect relatively few flavors: sweet, sour, salty, bitter, and umami.
These contribute to our wine-tasting impressions, along with other sensations, like the astringency of tannins. But our sense of smell is vastly more capable. We have over 400 types of olfactory receptors, which can detect tens of thousands of volatile chemicals, some at concentrations lower than a few parts per trillion.
So, when we say that Pinot Noir has strawberry flavor notes, we’re really saying that it contains volatile chemicals that our olfactory system recognizes from our previous experience of eating strawberries.
Describing Wine Aromas
We have no difficulty communicating gustatory sensations. Everyone with working taste buds understands what we mean when we say “sweet” or “salty.” The same is not true of olfactory sensations: They are so diverse that we lack specific words to describe “the smell of strawberries” or “the smell of leather.”
One solution is scientific. We could say a wine contains traces of aroma compounds such as ethyl hexanoate and ethyl cinnamate, with the possible presence of the aldehyde hexanal. That’s useful information if you’re interested in the chemical origins of wine aromas.
But for ordinary wine drinkers, the question remains: What does ethyl hexanoate smell like? The answer is that it smells like strawberries. This is the solution most wine writers and drinkers adopt. Wine aromas are described with similes that compare wine with familiar scents.
Consequently, there is a degree of subjectivity to wine aroma descriptions. You’ll have experienced this if you’ve ever disagreed about whether a wine you are tasting has cherry or strawberry aroma notes, for example. Plus, wine writers can get carried away with their similes.
Describing a wine as redolent of the barnyard or forest floor — both of which have been used approvingly by wine writers — may not be as helpful as the writer imagines. As wine expert Jancis Robinson points out in the Oxford Companion to Wine: “It is in their attempts to find ‘character terms’ to apply to these more subtle, more private olfactory sensations that wine tasters can seem so foolish.”
To overcome the subjective nature of wine aroma descriptors, Dr. Anna Noble, a sensory chemist, developed the original wine aroma wheel in the 1980s. Dr. Noble recognized that while wine experts and enthusiasts sensed wine aromas, they often struggled to find accurate descriptors. The wheel organizes aromas into concentric circles, beginning with the most general categories (like fruity or floral), moving to specific sub-categories (like berries or roses), and then to individual aromas (like strawberry or rose petal).
In practice, the wine aroma wheel, often in more modern versions, is employed during tastings to help identify and describe a wine's olfactory notes systematically. The aroma wheel is not universally used, but it provides a core set of descriptors that many writers use and that are broadly agreed on.
Primary, Secondary, and Tertiary Wine Aromas
Wine aromas are often categorized into three classes: primary, secondary, and tertiary.
Primary aromas emanate directly from the grape varieties and include scents such as green apple in Chardonnay or blackcurrant in Cabernet Sauvignon. These are the inherent characteristics of the grape and are influenced by the terroir and climate where the grapes are grown.
Secondary aromas arise during the winemaking process. These include scents like butter, a result of malolactic fermentation, or the yeasty aroma from lees contact. The winemaker can manipulate these aromas to add complexity and uniqueness to the wine.
Tertiary aromas come into play during the aging process, often in oak barrels or bottles. These include nuanced scents like vanilla, smoke, or even leather. As wine ages, tertiary aromas evolve and become more prominent, adding depth and character to the final product.
Together, these three categories provide a framework that enhances the tasting experience by enabling you to understand and describe the complexity of wine aromas.
Wine Aroma vs. Wine Bouquet
While the terms “aroma” and “bouquet” are often used interchangeably in casual conversations about wine, they may have distinct meanings to wine producers and wine scientists, who are known as oenologists.
Aroma can encompass all the smells associated with wine — that’s how we’ve used it in this article. However, some wine experts use aroma only for the smells that come from the grape itself. Bouquet, on the other hand, is reserved for the complex scents that develop in a wine as it ages.
A young wine’s aroma is largely primary, featuring scents that come directly from the grape variety. As the wine ages and secondary and tertiary aromas emerge, the term “bouquet” becomes more apt. The bouquet encapsulates the wine’s entire olfactory profile, including all the complexities and nuances that come with age.
The Main Wine Aroma Families
A well-aged bottle of wine can exhibit a diversity of flavors that are challenging for even the most experienced wine critic to describe. But, for most wine enthusiasts, it’s useful to be familiar with a dozen or so wine aroma descriptors that capture some of the most important aspects of a wine’s aroma.
Floral aromas are generally found in white wine and rosé. These fragrances can range from subtle hints of rose petals to more assertive jasmine or orange blossom notes. For instance, Albariño often exhibits delicate gardenia aromas, while Viognier may be more robustly perfumed with scents akin to honeysuckle.
The fruit category encompasses a broad array of aromas, from citrus fruits in white wine like Sauvignon Blanc to darker fruits like plum or blackberry in red wine such as Zinfandel or Shiraz. For instance, a Pinot Noir from Burgundy might present red cherry and raspberry aromas, whereas a Cabernet Sauvignon from Napa could showcase blackcurrant or fig.
Vegetables and Herbal Aromas
These aromas often appear in white wine from grapes grown in cooler climates. For example, a Sauvignon Blanc from New Zealand’s Marlborough region might have pronounced bell pepper or freshly cut grass aromas, while a French Sancerre could offer subtler herbal hints of tarragon or mint.
Yeast-derived aromas like fresh bread, dough, or even beer are often characteristic of wines such as Champagne, where extended contact with lees (spent yeast cells) is part of the production process. This contact can add complexity and a creamy texture to the wine.
Buttery or creamy aromas often result from malolactic fermentation, a secondary fermentation process that converts harsh malic acid to softer lactic acid. This is a common feature in oaked Chardonnays, especially those from California.
Almond, hazelnut, or cashew notes may develop in wines aged on their lees. These aromas are often found in vintage Champagnes or older white Burgundies and add complexity to the wine’s profile.
This category includes aromas like petrol in some Rieslings or rubber in certain reds, usually attributed to specific chemical compounds such as thiols or esters. While not universally appreciated, these aromas can add an unconventional layer of complexity.
These aromas, which can include banana, pear drop, or even nail polish remover (ethyl acetate), are often due to specific yeast strains or particular fermentation conditions. Such characteristics are generally found in younger, fresher wines like Beaujolais Nouveau.
Mineral and Earthy
Wines that exhibit mineral or earthy aromas, such as flint or wet stone, are often older and have had time to evolve. These aromas are commonly found in aged Old World wines, particularly those from Bordeaux or Burgundy.
Aromas like vanilla, clove, and cinnamon often derive from aging in new oak barrels. These spicy notes are prevalent in robust red wines, such as Cabernet Sauvignon from Napa Valley or a Rioja from Spain, which have been barrel-aged for an extended period.
With oxidative aging, wines can develop pronounced nutty aromas. Sherry, a fortified wine from Spain, is a prime example, often displaying walnut, almond, or Brazil nut characteristics.
Caramel, butterscotch, or toffee aromas are often the result of both the grape’s natural sugar content and the Maillard reaction occurring during the aging process in oak barrels. These are commonly found in sweet dessert wines like Sauternes or Tokaji.