Describing Wine Aromas like a Pro in 3 Steps
The toughest part of describing the aromas in wine is first detecting the flavors, but once you have that down, the next challenge is to find a rhythm in spitting out a description that ‘wows.’ Try this flow we’ve described in this post. Check out the color. White wines should point you down one path, say white fruits, stone fruits, citrus, reds another, red fruits like cherry, blackberry. Sometimes white and red wine aromas can overlap with fruits like orange and dried fruit aromas.
France’s Emile Peynaud, perhaps the most influential oenologist of modern winemaking (1912-2004), offered categories for aromas found in wine to fall and if they were not innate of the variety, at which point during the winemaking process or life of a wine they entered.
First, look for Primary Flavors, fruit flavors typical of the grape itself. Below are some examples. These should jump right out when the wine is young. Over time, some of the fruit may give way to tertiary flavors, but should still be detectable. Peynaud described them as fruity in character, derived from the grapes.
HINT! If you’re having trouble closing the gap between what you smell and the fruit aromas themselves, then the next time you make a trip to the grocery store, pick up different fruits and smell them. Close your eyes and try to think of a wine that might give this aroma. Extra points for not laughing.
Sauvignon Blanc – grapefruit, lemon, honeydew
Chardonnay – green or yellow apples, pineapple, lemon
Riesling – peach, apricot, mango
Pinot Noir – black cherry, raspberry, orange
Cabernet Sauvignon – blueberry, cassis, blackberry
Syrah – blackberry, red plum, currant
Now that you’ve got the Primarys nailed, let’s move on to secondary. Have another sniff, look for non-fruit characteristics that may have developed from fermentation and barrel aging. Peynaud’s description of the Secondary aromas as vinous in character, deriving from fermentation. Whether native or commercial yeasts were used will have a large impact on which flavors and aromas develop during the fermentation, and often associated with oak aging and malolactic fermentation. Depending on the source, there may be an overlap of tertiary and secondary aromas, but the point to keep in mind is that secondary aromas come directly from fermentation and (barrel) aging; some of the same aromas can also develop in the bottle, contributing to tertiary aromas.
Sauvignon Blanc – smoke, vanilla, yogurt
Chardonnay – toasted hazelnuts, vanilla, butter
Riesling – clove, nutmeg, lees
Pinot Noir – vanilla, smoke, coca-cola
Cabernet – Coffee, oak, caramel
Syrah – Cedar, grilled meat, smoke
If the wine you’re enjoying is very young, the complexity may stop here. Although after just a couple years of age sealed in oak or bottle, the wine will quickly develop a third layer, called Tertiary Flavors and Aromas. Peynaud’s description of Tertiary aromas results from aging in a reductive environment in the absence of air. Wines that have been manipulated to a large extent will not develop these aromas and won’t see a very long aging potential. These descriptors are a true mark of a complex wine that has been treated with great care from vineyard to bottle.
Sauvignon Blanc – herbal, stone, lemongrass
Chardonnay – chalk, white flowers, earth
Riesling – crushed slate, orange blossom, onion
Pinot Noir – spice box, mushroom, wet dirt
Cabernet – tobacco, truffle, violets
Syrah – forest floor, lavender, black pepper
Instead of “This Riesling smells like…apricots, I think,” you’ll be saying “Wow, I get loads of primary dried apricots and mangoes, complimented with a dash of secondary nutmeg and I really pick up the tertiary crushed slate and orange blossom.”
Or something like that. Happy drinking!