For me, the greatest tragedy of having a cold is not hours spent in bed when I could be out doing something ‘productive’. Rather, it’s losing my sense of smell with a blocked nose: food simply doesn’t taste the same!
Just like food, the aroma of a wine is very important to our overall perception, and enjoyment, of it. We smell a wine without even trying when we go to drink it. Our taste buds are immediately informed about what to expect and we unconsciously assess the flavour of a wine based on whether it lives up to how it smelled. We even have smell sensors that can be reached from inside our mouth. These are especially triggered by wine, whose alcoholic content helps lift the aroma molecules to reach these sensors even after we swallow. Wine can be such a complex beverage, it’s a shame not to experience fully everything it has to offer, which is why you’ll see wine geeks swirling a glass of fine wine and sticking their noses in endlessly, before even taking a sip!
Given the density of aroma molecules found in a wine and a human’s comparatively poor sense of smell, it can sometimes be a challenge identifying what it is we’re actually smelling in a wine. This is no bad thing — if you can immediately name a single thing a wine smells like, it’s a sign that it’s not particularly complex or interesting wine.
To help simplify things I like to break up the aromas I might be getting in a wine into different categories. Firstly I focus on the ‘fruit’ aspect of the bouquet. Does the wine smell ‘fruity’ or is the nose (wine term for ‘aroma’) dominated by non-fruit aromas? Or perhaps they are both there in equal measure. If fruity, what sort of fruits?
For white wines, I tend to think of a ‘fruit spectrum’. At one end of the scale we have cool climate fruits, such as apples, pears, lemon and grapefruit. We move through to stone fruit — peaches, apricots — and then to tropical fruits — for instance pineapple, guava, mango. This ‘spectrum’ is an indication of the ripeness of the grapes and can give us a clue as to the climate in which the grapes are grown. To generalise, the more towards the tropical end of the spectrum, the warmer the climate.
Of course there are exceptions to this rule, and some wines have distinct aromas of certain fruits — Gewurztraminer typically smells of lychee for instance. It’s interesting to note that very few wines actually smell of ‘grapes’. Perhaps this reflects the reduced variation in table grapes we have available to us in a globalised, homogenised food market — most of the table grapes I’ve seen in supermarkets around the world are Thompson Seedless. Although there is of course the argument that if grapes are fine enough to be made into wine, why would you waste them on a table! Wines made from Muscat are one exception to this rule, and are often described as having a ‘grapey’ aroma.
As far as non-fruit aromas go, we can have vegetal or herbaceous aromas — Sauvignon Blanc is often described as smelling of gooseberry and nettle, or even tomato leaf. Shelled peas, grass and hay are all terms I’ve used more than once too. Wines can smell musty or animally too, which is not always a pejorative term. Loire Chenin Blanc can have an intriguing aroma commonly referred to as ‘wet wool’! And of course we have flowers. Muscat smells of orange blossom; Chablis can be reminiscent of lilies. If you know your flowers you’ll be able to discover all sorts of comparisons with wine.
You’ll often hear the term ‘minerality’ thrown about in wine descriptions. Minerality is more commonly used to describe a component of taste, and exactly what it means is a matter than is hotly debated. As far as aromas go, some wines do have a sort of chemical smell such as flint, gunpowder, kerosene, petrol or wet asphalt. Again, these are not always used in a negative way. The most complex wines will have elements from all categories in varying degrees and over the course of a meal or tasting different aspects of the bouquet will come to the fore, while others will recede in prominence as your nose gets used to smelling them.
The final aspect of the nose of a white wine may be the presence of oak. If a wine has been aged in new French oak, you may expect aromas of vanilla, butter, nuts, spices, or even freshly sawn planks — if the wine is very young. American oak has a more lifted, slightly confected aroma often described as coconut, but also as white chocolate.
As you’re picking up, wine is a complex concerto of hundreds of aromatic compounds. As humans, we’re lucky enough to be able to smell even some of the, though it can take practice to identify what exactly we smell. As with everything though, it is simply a matter of starting to pay attention to what we’re smelling, both in and out of the glass.