Just Follow Your Nose
Last week we went over how to visually exam a wine and gather information by sight. Today we will go over the second step in evaluating wines… searching for and identifying aromas. This is probably the most difficult part of wine evaluation. However, with a little thought and practice, you can open door to a whole new level of wine appreciation.
There are over 150 descriptors that are used for describing wines. Wine aromas are broken down in to three categories, primary, secondary and tertiary. Primary aromas are those that are derived from the grapes. Secondary aromas are derived from fermentation, barrels, and bulk aging. Tertiary aromas are caused by the chemical reactions inside an aging bottle of wine.
Primary aromas can be broken down into several categories, each containing additional sub categories: Fruit, Floral, and Herbaceous/Spice. Many grapes have a typical aroma set that they are known for. For example, Riesling, Traminette, and Gewurztraminer are known for their floral aromatics. Pinot Noir and Frontenac usually have a predominant aroma of cherries. Sauvignon Blanc is known for having grapefruit and grassy aromas that can border on asparagus.
While much of a wine’s primary aromas are based on varietal, vineyard practices and picking decisions can have a major impact on primary aromas. Over cropped vines or vines with shaded canopies tend to have more vegetal aromas that can range from green spices like oregano or mint, all the way up to bell pepper. Grapes that get too much sun or are left on the vine too long lose their varietal character and begin to taste jammy or raisiny.
When it comes to secondary aromas, the microbiology involved in the fermentation is the first to leave its fingerprint. A fermentation can contain several different species of yeast and bacteria from start to finish. The main yeast involved with fermentation, Saccharomyces cerevisiae, has hundreds of commercially available strains that all add their own attributes to whatever they ferment. Depending on the strain, they can increase esters (fruity), terpenes (floral), or thiols (can range from grapefruit to garlic). A winemaker’s selection of yeast can have a major impact on the wine’s style. If the winemaker opts to allow the yeast that are naturally occurring on the grapes to grow and complete fermentation (uninoculated/ “native” fermentations) this can add even more layers to the aroma complexity. In this type of fermentation several other yeast and bacteria populations grow in the fermentation before Saccharomyces cerevisiae becomes dominant and finishes the fermentation.
Post alcoholic fermentation, malolactic fermentation can be used to further change the wine’s aroma profile. This is largely a stylistic choice in white wines, and almost mandatory in dry reds. Our bacterial friend Oenococcus oeni consumes the harsher tasting malic acid and converts it to the much softer lactic acid. In the process several byproducts are produced, the most easily recognized is diacetyl. Diacetyl is the chemical that gives barrel aged Chardonnay its buttery flavors. Just like the helping, friendly yeast S. cerevisiae, Oenococcus oeni comes in a variety of commercial strains that have various impacts on the wine’s aroma and texture.
There are several other bacteria and yeast that can leave less than desirable aromas and flavors in wine: Acetobacter (vinegar), Lactobacillus (sauerkraut), Brettanomyces (wet horse, band aid) just to mention a few. It’s the winemaker’s job to control and minimize the growth of these organisms as the wine matures.
The use of barrels also has a significant impact on a wine’s secondary aromas. The two most common barrel woods are American and French oak. While both oaks are considered white oak, they are in fact two different species. American oak tends to impart stronger aromas of vanilla, coconut, and sweetness, while French barrels are known to provide less aromatic intensity to the finished wines while adding more soft tannins and enhancing fruit. The toast level of the barrel further modifies the wine’s aromas. Lighter toast barrels will offer more vanilla notes, while darker toasts impart aromas of chocolate and coffee as the sugars inside the wood caramelizes.
Bottle aging adds another layer of complexity, tertiary aromas, also known as the bouquet. As wines evolve in the bottle the fruit aromas begin to fade. Earthier notes of leather, tobacco, and spices develop in wines. Well made Rieslings can even develop a petrol note that makes for an interesting bottle.
Now that we know where wine aromas come from, let’s work on getting them out of the wine and into our nose where they can be enjoyed. You’ll need at least an ounce of wine to have enough to release the aromas in the glass. You’ll also not want to fill the glass to the top. I normally do not pour beyond the widest part of the bowl. This allows me plenty of room to give the wine a good swirling. The act of swirling the wine in the glass exposes it to oxygen and volatilizes the aromas we are going to be enjoying. Using a glass that tapers at that top will funnel the aromatics towards your nose, increasing their intensity. If you are not used to swirling, an easy way to start is to leave it on the bar/counter/table. Gripping the glass by the stem, slowly make several small circular motions while keeping the base of the glass in contact with the surface in front of you.
After you’ve given the wine a good swirling, it’s time to take a good whiff of the aromas you’ve released. A winemaker has worked very hard to capture those aromas in the bottle and preserve them for your enjoyment, so don’t be shy about it. Close your eyes and get your nose way in that glass and prepare to be transported to a raspberry patch, or a peach orchard, or a field of lavender or wherever the wine wants to take you. For me several short sniffs provide a much better experience than one deep inhale. I’ll usually repeat the swirling and sniffing a couple times before reaching any definitive conclusions.
Here’s where things can get tricky and unfortunately far too many people get overwhelmed and give up. You nose has just lit up your brain with a slew of information. There should be a couple aromas that stick out as dominant traits. It’s perfectly fine if you can’t pin point exactly what the aromas are (I have a hard time nailing down exactly what flower I’m perceiving), but it’s important to try to break it down the best you can. Ask yourself, is the wine fruity? If so, what kind of fruit? Citrus? Berry? Stone fruit? If you get that far, you are off to a great start. Try to be as precise as possible.
There is no right or wrong here.
Wine tasting (and smelling) are subjective. Due to differences in body chemistry, memory and experiences, no two people smell the exact same thing. It is a very rare occasion that everyone in our tasting panels here will agree 100% on any given wine. The important thing here is that you are thinking about the wine critically and are coming up with your own descriptors.
It does take some time and training to get good at picking out the nuances, but you’ll find it easier and easier every time you try. Just make a conscious effort every time you pop a cork and it will eventually become second nature. If you’re really dedicated to the process, there are several wine aroma kits available. They can be rather expensive (my favorite is the Aromaster Master Kit, found on Etsy or Amazon) but some can be found on eBay for significantly cheaper (I found one for $34 delivered). If you would rather spend your hard earned money on wine instead of aroma kits, you can create your own, or even easier, while you are cooking, take the time to smell your ingredients one at a time. Really think about it while you’re doing it and commit those aromas to memory. You’ll be discovering aromas and flavors in your wines that you previously overlooked in no time.
- The aromas found in a bottle of wine are a complex culmination of the grapes, cellar processing, and bottle aging
- Primary aromas are from the grape varietal in the wine
- Secondary aromas come from fermentation and cellar treatments before bottling
- Tertiary aromas develop in the bottle as the wine evolves
- Wine tasting is subjective and there is not a right or wrong. Your experience is what is important.
Written by Jason Jenkins, Fox Valley Winery Winemaker