How many of you have read a tasting note such as this one: “Intense and focused, with vibrant Meyer lemon, pineapple and dried apricot notes and a smooth, juicy finish”. Or “Elegant red, with vibrant structure featuring cherry, raspberry and currant notes, balanced and focused.”
So, what is the deal about aromas and flavors in wines? And why when I smell my wine, I don’t find any of these?
Wine aromatics is a very important lesson that I will try to make as simple as possible. First, let me start by saying that wine producers don’t put any of these fruits inside your wine, or spices for that matter. What happens is that many of the aromatics elements/ compounds present in fruits, flowers, spices, etc can be found in wine as the result of several chemical processes.
Basically, aromas are divided in three groups: a) those that come from the grapes (or grape juice). Let’s face it some varieties are more aromatic than others (Riesling), and some are naturally neutral (Garganega, the grape in Soave wines). Winemakers do everything in their power to keep the natural aromas from grapes, in other words to keep the freshness of the fruit. These are known as primary aromas, for example: plum and blueberries in Merlot, passion fruit in Sauvignon Blanc, cassis and green pepper in Cabernet Sauvignon, etc.
b) Then, we have aromas that come from fermentation, also known as secondary aromas, once the grape juice, thanks to the action of yeasts, becomes wine certain aromas are produced. For example banana or bubble gum flavors in Beaujolais, or brioche, yeasty notes in Champagne, butter or cream notes in Chardonnay, etc.
c) Finally we have the tertiary aromas and these come from aging in oak barrels and in bottle. I always say that wine is a living thing that continues to evolve, even inside a bottle with a tight cork, tiny amounts of oxygen pass through that cork and this changes the wine, same thing happen when the wine is in the barrels, depending on the porosity of the wood, oxygen also will pass through and affect the wine, plus in order to make barrels round, the wood in them has to be toasted, according to the toast (light, medium, dark) different flavors will be imparted in the wine. Aging in oak will render aromas of spices, caramel, vanilla, coconut, etc. Also the origin of oak is key, French oak usually provides silker notes, mostly of vanilla, caramel, etc, while American oak will provide creamier notes, mostly of cola, coconut.
Aging in the bottle will render aromas of bacon, meat, ink,etc. For example a young Pinot Noir will smell of red cherry, strawberry, raspberry vs an old Pinot Noir that will smell of mushrooms, white truffle, dry leaves, farmyard.
Climate (weather patterns that repeat every year) and vintages (the weather of a specific year) are important. Remember grapes like every other fruits, need sun to mature/ripen. A green peach will not smell or taste as a ripe peach, so it’s the same with grapes which are the base/foundation of wines. See below a table about climate and its influence on wine aromas and flavors.
Cool Climates will give these aromas:
Whites:citrus (lemon, lime, orange, grapefruit). Pears, yellow apples. herbs,vegetal notes: asparagus, green pepper and mineral notes.
Reds:cranberries, red cherries and raspberries.
Moderate Climates will give these aromas:
Whites:stone fruits: peaches, apricots and melons.
Reds:black fruits: black cherries,plums and blackberries.
Hot Climates will give these aromas:
Whites:tropical fruits: mango, passion fruit, pineapple, papaya
Reds: dried fruits: figs, prunes, raisins.
Many of the aromatic compounds in the grapes need plenty of sun to develop and is best if this happens in a long ripening season. The riper the grapes, the more aromatic compounds they will have, but sometimes, this can also be too much, and you will find wines that smell overripe, cooked, raisined (like made from raisins instead of fresh grapes), California Zinfandels are a clear example of this.
Most times, the biggest and most important decision is when to harvest, that is why some producers spread things and pick some in 3 times: before the grapes are ripe ( to guarantee some acidity), when they are ripe (optimum ripeness) and then a bit later for extra ripeness.
Now, regarding your ability to smell/detect these aromas, all of us are equipped to distinguish them, the thing is we need training, like everything else in life, so the more you smell, the better you will do. Remember smell is the most important sense in wine tasting, since your nose can perceive up to 10,000 aromas, while the palate only 5: salty, sour, sweet, bitter and umami/savory.
Here my March recommendations, hoping you will be able to detect some of these!
Trimbach Gewurztraminer 2015, Alsace $20 (featuring ginger, lychees, baked peach)
Christian Moreau Chablis 1er Cru Vaillon 2016, $55 (featuring apple, green plum and lemon notes)
Conde de Valdemar Crianza 2015, Rioja $15 (featuring: black cherry, dried plum and chocolate).
Charles Smith Syrah Boom Boom 2015, Washington $18 (featuring: blackberry, black pepper, licorice)
Chateau Côte de Baleau 2015, St Emilion $22 (featuring: raspberry, red currant, boysenberry and tobacco notes).