Where do the smells come from in wine?
Author: Tom Planer
"Are there actually flowers in the bottle?"
Good smells, bad smells. Smells that make you go “mmmm” and smells that make you go “hmmm 🤔".
Interesting smells (and tastes) are one of the things we love about wine. And with thousands of different grapes, hundreds of thousands of producers, millions of different vineyards - there can be a lot of different aromas.
Some can be tricky to put your finger on, and some that leave you wondering "how the hell did that get in there?"
But if we can smell roses or blossom in a wine, are there actually flowers in the bottle? And if not - where do the weird & wonderful aromas actually come from?
There are a few different roots to these smells:
1. Chemical compounds present in the thing you think you’re smelling can also be present in the wine. Aromas can be made up of hundreds of different compounds and some of these same chemicals can be present in the grapes - and the wine. Cis-rose oxide for example is one of the chemicals that makes roses smell like roses - and this is also present in many grapes. Particularly Gewürztraminer - which is why it sometimes smells like roses, or Turkish delight.
2. Sometimes the thing you’re smelling can actually be in the wine. Some Australian wines have a minty freshness from Eucalyptus - this is actually blown from surrounding eucalyptus trees onto the grapes and it ends up in the wine as a result. The same thing is thought to happen with some blossoms, salt in seaside vineyards or even wild herbs in the south of France.
3. How the wine is made can have an impact too - ageing in oak barrels can add vanilla, smoke & toast. Oak contains a precursor to vanillin (the vanilla chemical) which is created when the alcohol in the wine touches the oak. Plus the barrels are toasted when they’re made - giving all that smoke & toast. Other winemaking techniques can have an impact too and give flavours of bread & dairy.
4. Lastly - faults can play a part. Things that aren’t necessarily meant to be in the wine, but when present in small quantities can actually smell quite nice. Volatile acidity for example can give nice pear drop aromas but too much and it’s like vinegar. Similarly too much oxygen exposure is no good, but a little can add nutty aromas & flavours.
There are hundreds of different chemical compounds that all get into a wine via slightly different routes.
Now you know where at least some of those interesting smells come from you can look out for them in your next glass. Swirling your wine can help release some of the aromas - just be sure to use a glass with tapered sides. This helps to funnel the aromas into your nose & also helps keep the wine in the glass while you're swirling!