Now that we’ve seen what the structure of wine was made of, let’s focus on another lovely element, its aromas. And to start, we will look at the primary aromas in wine, the ones that originate in the field, at the grapevine level: the aromas from the Terroir.
Find a full-size version of the above chart here
The Concept of Terroir
If you’ve been reading my “Old World VS New World” tutorial, which I would recommend before going any further, you probably know that in the Old World (that’s Europe) was born the concept of Terroir. It represents the different elements affected to a place such as:
Types of soil
Traditions in place
The different types of soil can affect many grapes and lead to specific aromas in the wine. We know that grapes like Chardonnay or Riesling tend to express the character of their soil a lot. In Alsace, where Riesling plays a big role, Sommeliers are able to name the growing areas in blind-tastings just by tasting their specific aromas in the wine. On the other hand, a grape like Sauvignon Blanc doesn’t get affected too much by the soil type and the different aromas expressed in a Sauvignon Blanc from Marlborough and one from the Loire Valley often originate more in the winemaking process, especially the temperature of fermentation (see Aromas from Winemaking Process).
Getting to know the different types of soil and choosing the most suitable varietal to plant has been the long mission of vine growers across Europe, starting with monks. When phylloxera destroyed most of our plantings in Europe, at the end of the 19th century, it was decided that when replanting vines, the best varietals for each land would be picked. In Bordeaux for instance, we find more Cabernet Sauvignon on the left bank of the river Garonne since it is more suited to the gravelly soils we find there. However, on the right bank of the river Dordogne, Merlot thrives on the cold ferrous clay soils. This gave birth to two major styles for red Bordeaux wines, with often the more bodied, drier ones, that needs to be laid down for years, coming from the left bank (majority of Cabernet Sauvignon in the blend) and the fruitier, jammy ones, that are ready for drinking earlier, coming from the left bank (majority of Merlot in the blend).
This influence from the soil can be reduced by viticultural practices. For instance, the older a grapevine, the deeper its roots will go, finding different nutriments in different types of soil on their way down. From these nutriments, complex aromas will be created in the wine. Whereas most Europeans love their complex wines and old vines, some countries prefer to stick with simpler, fruit-forward wines, and they will often replant the vineyards to avoid the complex aromas of old vines.
Climate & Weather
Just like the soil type, the climate plays a big role in the final wine. Before we go any further, let me just make sure that we are not confused between climate and weather. The climate defines the overall common meteorological patterns in a given area. The weather, on the other hand, refers to the brief episodes of rain, heat or cold at a given moment. For instance, we would say that the weather was bad yesterday, with rainfalls, but that the climate is normally good in this area.
Now that we are clear on this, let’s make it even more complicated, with the three different levels of climates used in wine:
That was the concept of Terroir in a nutshell... Now that we are clear on this, let's go straight to the point: The aromas from the Terroir.
1. Fruity Aromas
For something that’s made of fruit (well yes, grapes), it’s quite easy to have fruity aromas. So, we often consider them to be the simpler aromas or “primary aromas”. Funny enough, apart from Muscat grapes, not many have grapey aromas. We often talk of the notes of gooseberries and grapefruit of Sauvignon Blanc, tropical fruit and fig in hot climate Chardonnay, Apricot & Peach in Viognier, Blackcurrant in Cabernet Sauvignon, Cherry in Pinot Noir, Damson & Plum in Merlot, etc…
These aromas are often attached to the varietal, as you can see, and they will be more or less developed, depending on the style of wine that the winemaker intends to make. As you can see on the chart, we have classified these fruity aromas into families to make it easier to remember:
COMMON FRUITY AROMAS IN WHITES
Represented in the chart by lemon, lime & citric, their aromas & smells are often a good indication of high acidity (ex: Sauvignon Blanc, Riesling, Albariño…). Keep these wines in mind for seafood, shellfish and grilled/roast white meat (chicken, pork…) as they usually like a bit of acidity.
By “white fruit” we think of all the white flesh fruits like apples & pears. Either “freshly
picked”, “baked” (with spicy notes), “bruised” (like a cider nose) or even “marmalade” or “stewed” (slightly sweeter, almost confit perfume), there are a lot of declinations. These aromas often complement pork & chicken dishes quite well, but also meaty fish in beurre blanc sauce for the creamier ones (like Chablis)
Peach, apricot, nectarine… all of these delicious fruits are represented in that category, sometimes the texture of wine will remind us of the soft skin of a ripe white peach, sometimes it is down to the aromas, like the famous Viognier grape that is packed with notes of peach, apricots and even honey, delish… These summer-scented hints are lovely with most Asian-inspired dishes and spicy foods.
Cantaloupe, Gallia, Honeydew, Watermelon… there are plenty of varietals and they have
earned their own category. We often find Cantaloupe in New World Sauvignon Blanc (especially New Zealand), but also Honeydew in Chenin Blanc (especially South African ones), even lights melon hints in some Pinot Grigio. Not really playing a big role for pairing with food, the melon-like notes usually come from very ripe grapes and very expressive styles of wines, often perfect for drinking on their own.
Pineapple & kiwi in Marlborough Sauvignon, lychee in some Gewurztraminers, papaya, fig & banana in hot climate Chardonnay…this is a big family of fruits. They pair quite well with aromas of curry and most Indian food, but also Spanish cuisine. A bit like melon aromas, they often belong to wines that can be drunk without food.
COMMON FRUITY AROMAS IN REDS
A fantastic example of that is coming from Chile, with their “flagship” grape Carménère and its aromas of bell pepper and black olives. The chemical compound that is responsible for this aroma is called pyrazine, and it is naturally present in some grape varieties such as Cabernet Sauvignon (especially if picked too early), Cabernet Franc and even the white varietal Sauvignon Blanc. Apart from the very tannic reds, this is usually lovely when paired with ratatouille and other vegetarian dishes.
With mostly blueberry as an example, this aroma is often used to describe a certain
acidity, source of freshness, in a red wine.
Blackberry (the fruit, not the phone), blackcurrant, black cherry… These aromas are often found in the richer reds like Cabernet Sauvignon or Malbec. They are usually present along with earthy & spicy notes.
Raspberry in Syrah/Shiraz, Strawberry in Tempranillo, Cherry in Pinot Noir or Plum in Merlot, these aromas are often juicy & jammy in the wine, not as harsh as the black ones above.
Overall, because the New World wines are often more designed for drinking on their own, there is often an emphasis on the fruity notes. Old Word wines, because their primary role is to enhance food flavours during a meal, often focus on the more complex aromas
2. Non-Fruity Aromas
Spices, herbs, nuts, flowers, plants & honey. That’s pretty much what I’d put in there. You can see them on the chart above but let’s try and define them a bit better.
Sometimes the indication of an ageing period in oak (especially French oak with nutmeg, cloves & cinnamon), some spiciness can originate in either the grape varietal (Syrah is fantastic for that matter, with a peppery finish that can be spectacular. Some Pinot Noir, like the great ones of Burgundy, can have a certain spiciness to them too), or sometimes it can come from the land (the Auvergne region, in the central part of France, grows nuts, vegetables and stunning grapes on a pepperite soil, giving lovely peppery notes to all of them). When it comes to food pairings, certain meats love the spicy notes of wine, such as duck or pheasant, and in general, traditional Charcuterie or a cheese board.
From the rose petal aroma of Gewurztraminer to the violet in Chianti, floral notes are quite common in wine. Riesling will often be full of them, so many that instead of talking about a “nose” (where you can name the main notes), we talk about a “bouquet” (so complex and rich that you are not expected to name them all). Which is funny really, because “bouquet” stands for a “bunch of flowers” in French… The floral notes are beautiful with scallops, sweetbreads and most delicate Japanese cold dishes (sushi, sashimi, maki…)
Quite often considered a good tip for guessing the presence of oak ageing, we often refer to nutty notes in oaky Chardonnay. Some very dry Sherry wines can also display aromas of walnut. It is unusual in reds, apart from nutmeg.
You have to be careful when using this word as it can be hit or miss. Sometimes used for “green” aromas, it might mean unripe grapes and poor quality wine. However, it can also refer to the notes of “freshly-cut grass” of Sauvignon Blanc, and sometimes, if more pungent, it can be reminiscent of cat pee, which is, believe it or not, supposed to be a good thing (in that case, talk about boxwood or pungent green aroma, it sounds better…)
Again this category can take different meanings. We can talk about garden herbs, cooking herbs or medicinal herbs. A great example of garden herbs comes from the Coonawarra district of Australia and their menthol-scented Cabernets. Due to the presence of Eucalyptus near the vines, a certain minty freshness is present in the wines. Cooking herbs can refer to the notes of rosemary and thyme sometimes found in the Provence & Languedoc wines, like Corbieres or Faugères, which remind us of the nearby garrigue, a local mix of wild bush. This garrigue nose can even tend to a more medicinal nose, with lavender & sometimes absinthe-like notes.
Here is one of the great wonders of wine, you can find honeyed notes in something that isn’t sweet! The best examples come from some Viognier or Pinot Gris. However, when there is sweetness, the “honey” notes can be an indication of Botrytis, the parasite responsible for amazing dessert wines like Sauternes or Tokaji.
3. Organic Aromas
As strange as it sounds, some wines display blood-like, meaty, sometimes gamey aromas. It is common for wines made of Pinot Noir in cooler climate areas, but also for Syrah/Shiraz after a couple of years in the bottle. Malbec can display that too (from Argentina or Cahors) and some big wines from the Southern Rhone Valley like Châteauneuf-du-Pape or Gigondas. Often found together with more complex, farmyard-like notes, these are delicious with rich gravy and traditional French recipes for red meat or game.
The earthy notes found in some wines, particularly the ones with a bit of age, led to a wider description of the “soil” notes with compost, potting soil, clay, sand, mushroom, swamp or farmyard… Without a specific relation with the actual soil where the vines are planted, it belongs to the complex aromas of wine.
4. Inorganic Aromas
The smell/aroma of wet rocks. Who’s been eating rocks you say? I knew you were going to say that! Here are two ways of getting a better idea of minerality without smashing your teeth against stones:
rub the blade of a knife against the good old sharpening steel, the smell that comes from it is pure minerality!
If you live in a region where you have lightning storms, don’t risk your life now but go out and breathe just before the storm. The smell that often gets lifted from the rocks when the air pressure is high, this is minerally!
Trying to put a more specific name on it, sommeliers have started to develop a full vocabulary with slate (some Alsace Grand Cru), gunpowder or flint (Sancerre), volcanic ash (Nero d’Avola), Chalk (Chablis), Schistous (some Languedoc reds) and many more… I don’t know how exact one can be for defining a flavour you can’t eat, but perhaps I should smell more stones to increase my mental library… If you are still unsure, check this post.
Thanks for reading guys, time to crack a nice bottle open and practice (responsibly, of course...)!
Certified Sommelier (CMS)