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Eat & Drink » Wine

Common Scents

What’s that smell? Wine Aromatics 101



I once risked being assaulted and arrested for following a woman around a certain large metropolitan area. Her perfume had me throwing caution and common sense to the wind.

Aromas stab at that deep, dark part of the brain that tells us we need to eat, sleep, hump and not stick our hand into the flame. Fairness and rationality have nothing to do with it. That’s the point: It’s a survival skill. Who among us hasn’t been warned to lay low or made weepy or jelly-legged at an unforgettable scent?

It is for me one of the more mesmerizing aspects of wine: an aroma’s ability to transport me to softer times and happier places. Wine is a visceral experience; it demands a reaction. And if it’s really good—or really bad, for that matter—it will wrench a reaction from us precisely because it appeals to those deep, dark parts of the brain. Aromas tell us things about wine; most of us just aren’t used to paying attention to scent. Think of the housecat that forgets why he likes to catch mice: He still does it but doesn’t always eat his catch.

Technically, aromas are molecular structures absorbed by the mucus linings in the olfactory bulb located in our sinuses and decoded by the brain. Aromas give us specific information, the nature of which is unique to our own brains and experience. During wine-education classes, my students are required to identify small vials of aromas. As the exercise goes on, the students’ answers become increasingly personal. Interestingly enough, the most popular aromatic reference for many Gen X’ers is candy—lots of candy. Jolly Ranchers, Pixy Stix, Swedish fish, etc. Sugar-rotted imaginations? You decide.

I am always amazed at the constant and predictable fear in students, both consumers and waitstaffs alike, that their personal reaction to a wine might be “wrong.” If I ask a group of 30 people to identify a color, 30 different answers follow. The same happens with scents. It’s part of one’s personal survival catalog. We all know of one jerk at the last wine party, the one who tossed off adjectives when sniffing wine, like “sassy” and “spicy” or that the wine is “marsupial, yet pouchless” or some such tripe. Such people are counter to the social nature of the beverage. When it comes to identifying wine aromas, there are no wrong answers, so don’t be intimidated. Just ask yourself, “What the hell does that smell like?”

Aromas reveal much about a wine. With both red and white wines, aroma begins with the sugar in the fruit at harvest. The more sugar in the grapes at harvest, the more developed and layered those aromas become. Early-ripening white varieties such as Sauvignon Blanc and Gruner Veltliner will have less sugar at harvest, and therefore lower alcohol. Thus, the aromas reveal a wine that is less ripe—think citrus fruits such as lemons and limes. Lateripening varieties such as Chardonnay and Viognier require more heat, develop more sugar and create wines with higher alcohol and richer aromas ranging from ripe, sweet apples to peach pie to tropical fruits.

Wine dorks discuss red wines in a similar fashion. There are varieties that reach the peak of their expression earlier rather than later—Pinot Noir versus, say, Zinfandel. Generally the aromatic descriptors for reds fall into two categories: red fruits (those with less sugar such as strawberries and cherries—think tart) versus black fruits (such as blackberry and plum—think jam). The choice of fermentation and fermentation vessel also affects aromas, but it all begins with ripeness and alcohol—whichever sugarhigh, gummy-bear memories they trigger in your particular brain.