Like white wines, the aromas of reds can similarly be broken up into ‘fruity’ and ‘non-fruity’ categories. Rather than a fruit ‘spectrum’, however, I tend to think of red wines in terms of red fruit and black fruit. Some of the lighter, more ethereal red wines have notes of redcurrant, cranberry, raspberry and strawberry, while in fuller-bodied wines you’ll often find luscious blackcurrant, blackberry and damson. Some wines, notably Pinot Noir can straddle the red fruit-black fruit divide, while I often find cherry and red plum notes specifically in Italian varietals.
I mentioned that with white wines, the position of the wine’s aroma profile along a ‘spectrum’ can indicate the ripeness of the fruit, and thus the climate in which the vine has grown. There is an analogue with red wines, where wine from cooler climes may smell (and taste) more of tart, fresher fruit while wine from wamer places will have notes of ripe, jammy or even baked fruit. Think of the subtle notes of fresh raspberries versus the heady aroma of a pot of homemade raspberry jam on the boil. Grapes from very hot places can have yield wines with dried fruit notes such as raisin, prune or date.
It’s perhaps worth mentioning here, that other than flavouring added by maturation in oak barrels, the flavours and aromas in wine come entirely from the fermentation of grapes. Grapes are not so far removed from other fruits on the evolutionary tree that it should come as no surprise that we might find some of the same chemicals in grapes as we do in apples, cherries or blackberries. Over millennia humans have domesticated the vine and carried out a series of genetic selections to bring forward different characteristics in what we now term different ‘varieties’ of the vine.
On the whole, red wines are more suited to oak ageing than whites. Thus we’ll often get the characteristic vanilla or coconut notes from wines that have seen, respectively, new French or American oak. More red wines will be aged in what is termed ‘old oak’ or ‘second use’ barrels. These are barrels that have already been used for one vintage and have thus imparted most of their bright, toast and vanilla aromas to a previous wine. Their effect on a subsequent wine is thus more subtle, and in such wines you’ll often find aromas of nuts — hazelnuts and walnuts are the two I find more commonly — and also coffee, mocha and chocolate.
Red wines too have a broad spectrum of non-fruit aromas. Wine writers and critics have come up with all sorts of interesting descriptors to attempt to communicate these sensations to their readers, and although they may sound rather rude, they are in fact (usually) complimentary. Some that spring to mind are farmyard, wet wool, horse manure, charcoal, ash and earth.
Spices too are a rich vein to tap for red wine aroma descriptions. Licorice, anise, Chinese five-star, pepper – both white and freshly ground black, juniper, cloves, nutmeg to name a few.
Some red wines have a herbaceous aspect to their aroma profile. Cabernet Sauvignon from a relatively cool climate famously has a note of ‘green bell pepper’. Cabernet Franc can smell grassy and leafy while Pinot Noir can bring forth hints of mushroom or autumnal leaves. Others still have floral aromas.
The most interesting wines will smell of many things; the aroma will swirl, morph and change over time in the glass; with bottle age, even more aromas come to the fore while other recede into the background. And of course different people will notice different things in the same glass of wine. Smell is a very powerful trigger for memory — which perhaps explains some of the more poetic descriptions for wine aromas. The great thing is that there are no wrong answers — nobody else has your olfactory sense nor your memories top draw upon. What can be frustrating to begin with is not to have the right vocabulary for describing what you smell. The best way to solve this is to buy some fruit, or some flowers, or some spices and just smell them! It might seem a bit mad but surely, not to notice what your wine smells like is to miss out on at least half the fun!
James Flewellen is The Rambling Epicure wine columnist. James is a biophysicist at the University of Oxford. Originally from New Zealand, the huge range of wine James discovered in Europe spurred his interest in all things vinous. He became involved in the University’s Blind Wine Tasting Society and has recently completed a two-year term as its President. During this time he represented the University in a number of domestic and international wine tasting competitions, winning several awards. He is currently completing the WSET Diploma in Wine and Spirits. James has a passion for wine communication and education and runs the Oxford Wine Blog and the Oxford Wine Academy.