Fruits, flowers, spices, coffee, caramel, bread, smoke. Hundreds of aromas appear on labels, technical descriptions, but: Why do we detect these aromas in wine?
How many times have we been reading labels, trapped between surprise and astonishment: Malbec smells like red fruits with hints of vanilla; Chardonnay like hints of pineapple and subtle aromas butter and honey, Cabernet franc like menthol…finally: the power to combine in wine poetry does not seem to end.
After working some years as a winery guide, and listening to winemakers and other professionals, I have some answers to share with you. The first and most revealing is that there is no essence additive into wine. Starting from this transcendental statement and, in order to start this basic explanation about the wine aromas, let me tell you that when you are in front of a wine glass, we may distinguish three types of aromas: primary, secondary and tertiary aromas.
The primary aromas have exclusive relation to the chemical composition of the grape. Each variety has its own and unique complex composition. So much so, that certain chemical elements that compose them are also present in other flowers, fruits or in vegetables and minerals. It is known that Cabernet Sauvignon may smell of bell pepper (green bell pepper) and this happens because of piracine. Logically, in the bell pepper, piracine is much more concentrated, hence its aroma, while in Cabernet Sauvignon it may “remind us” of bell pepper.
Same is the reason for some white flowers and Chardonnay, mint or eucalyptus and Cabernet Franc; red fruits like plum or strawberry and Malbec, Citrics and Sauvignon Blanc (whenever is not cat piss) which tend to appear when the variety is harvested early. In fact there is a New Zealand wine that uses humor to play with the euphemism and it works out fine: “Cat’s pee on gooseberry bush”.
Secondary aromas in wine, on the other hand, are related to the fermentation processes. If the wine smells of bread or yeast, no doubt it is related to the alcoholic fermentation, where the sugar of the grape is turned into alcohol by the action of the yeast. Also, product of this stage, aromas of butter, cream or yogurt. These aromas are related to a second fermentation, malolactic, normally carried out on red wines or structured red wines. In this case, the lactic bacteria eats the malic acid (i.e. the acid of green apples) and transforms it into lactic acid (same one of the milk, cream, yogurt, butter) softening the wine for the palate and adding more complexity. One night, before the crazy laughter of my friends, I declared my wine as “chewable”. We had detected evidence of plum, butter and toast in a bottle of Malbec. And yes, it was aroma wise, chewable.
Last but not least, tertiary aromas have to do with the ageing of the wine in oak and/or bottle. Oak barrels give tannins (astringency) and perfume. Once again we are talking about a natural product that has its own chemical complexity. French oak is characterized for being more tannic, whereas the American oak is more aromatic; Russian or Hungarian oak is considered more herbaceous or “green”. These barrels go through a toasting (soft, medium or intense) which will also rebound in the aroma profile of the ageing wine.
The aromas of vanilla, caramel, coffee, chocolate and toast come from this stage. And, during the bottle ageing time, all these aromas become more complex and integrated, giving birth to “bottle bouquet”.
Personally I believe that, beyond the logical connection that exists between the aromatic characteristics of a wine (its chemical composition and origin), when we drink a wine (always depending on our state of mind) these aromas may establish a sensorial bridge connecting us to memories, surprising us wonderfully.
For example, some time ago I was invited a drink. I apologise for my lack of memory of the precise label…but I can remember that its aromatic complexity took me for a ride to a memory I thought lost or erased. Suddenly, and with the wine glass in hand, I was seven years old. Without making any noise I had taken the hidden key on my mother’s night stand, and I was sneaking towards an old, shiny cabinet in the living room. I was going there to steal chocolate. Inside, there were always two: one of dark chocolate filled with mint (for the adults) and another, that was one of my delights as a child: a white chocolate filled with cherry cream…Committing that crime at siesta time was so delicious!! The living room at my house was always filled with that aroma: the wood of the cabinet, the dark chocolate, the white chocolate, mint and cherry.
My wine glass was overflowing those perfumes that triggered the memory. I asked the server what I was drinking: Cabernet Franc, twelve months of barrel ageing.
By Mariana Gomez Rus