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Since antiquity, aromas have been a part of human experience. Whether it's the sweet scent of blooming flowers in spring, the tempting aroma of fresh coffee, the distinct smell of an old building, the familiar odor of a loved one, or the inviting scent of a deliciously prepared meal, aromas paint vivid memories and enrich our experience.

Rosé wine in a glass against a black background

Ancient civilizations revered scents for their mystical and healing properties. Fragrant incense and perfumes were used during religious ceremonies, and essential oils derived from herbs, plants, and spices were used in early medicinal practices. The addition of luxurious fragrance and flavour to food for the wealthy nobility was also widely prevalent.

Fast forward to today, and the concept of aroma has taken on new dimensions. Famous chefs like Heston Blumenthal and others use aroma as a tool to remind their diners of childhood memories. Other innovations range from aromatic cutlery and tableware to atomizers and fragrant dry ice to maximize the flavors in food.

In the realm of wine, the significance of aromas is equally profound. They are not just pleasant smells but an integral part of the wine experience. Aromas in wine help us understand its journey from the vineyard to the bottle - letting us discover the grape types, the winemaking craftsmanship, and the effects of aging.

Wine aromas in your glass

Typically, wine aromas are classified into three categories: primary, secondary and tertiary. And they evolve over the course of the wine’s life.

Primary Aromas: These aromas come naturally from the grape itself. They emanate from the grape's variety, ripeness, and origin (cultivation area, weather, type of vineyard soil). These are the aromas that immediately greet your senses when you take that first whiff of wine.

Because grapes are essentially fruits, the primary aromas can offer fruity notes (lemon, apple, peach, pear, strawberry, blackberry, cherry, plum, etc). They can also have floral notes (jasmine, orange blossom, rose, lilac, etc), herbaceous or herbal notes (bell pepper, asparagus, mint, etc), spice notes (pepper, ginger, juniper, etc), and mineral notes (chalk, flint, wet stone, etc).

In young wines, primary aromas are predominant. For instance, Sauvignon Blanc commonly expresses herbaceous aromas such as freshly cut grass, and Shiraz is known for its distinctive black pepper aroma.

Secondary Aromas: Once the grape juice begins its transformation into wine through fermentation (interaction between yeast and grape sugars), secondary aromas emerge in wine. In other words, these are aromas that you would expect to come from the production process, where human intervention happens.

Malolactic fermentation, lees aging (process where the dead yeast is left over from alcoholic fermentation), and oak influences, all play a role here. Other factors like the type of yeast used, fermentation conditions, and temperatures at which it is carried out also contribute to the variety of secondary aromas.

Secondary aromas add depth and complexity to the wine's character. Think of scents of butter, cream, toast, brioche, vanilla, cedar, spice, mocha or coconut.

Tertiary Aromas: These aromas (also called bouquet) are a product of the wine's aging process, often seen in wines that spend time in oak barrels or the bottle itself. Aging or maturing wine introduces elements that add or alter the aroma compounds in the wine after it is fermented.

As wine ages in an ideal environment, the primary aromas move into the background, and other notes evolve and become more prominent.

Oak barrels slowly introduce oxygen to the wine as well as add aroma compounds found in oak. So, when wine is matured in barrels for a long period, it can develop notes of coffee, toffee, chocolate, and caramel. On the other hand, when wine spends time in the bottle, it can produce mushroom, truffle, and earthy aromas. Other tertiary aromas include leather, cigar box, tobacco, forest floor, and wet wool, to name only a few.

Use the Wine Aroma Wheel as your compass

Navigating the diverse world of wine aromas might seem daunting. But with the Wine Aroma Wheel as your trusted companion, it can become an exhilarating adventure.

The first Aroma Wheel was invented in 1984 by Dr. Ann C. Noble, a sensory chemist and an enology professor at the University of California, Davis. The purpose was to help countless untrained wine lovers find a common language and improve their understanding of wine tasting and terminology.

A circular disc categorizing the various aromas found in wine
Dr. Ann C. Noble's Wine Aroma Wheel

The wheel is a visual representation of the myriad of scents that can be found in wine. It is divided into sections, each representing a broad category of aroma descriptors. These categories then branch out into more specific aromas. For instance, under the fruity category, you might encounter descriptors like "citrus," "tropical," or "red berries," among others.

So, the next time you stick your nose into a glass of wine, use the Aroma Wheel to direct your senses to the aromatic landscape of your glass. With practice you will be able to expand your sensory vocabulary and enhance your appreciation of wine.
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