Aroma is the gateway to flavor, so take time to enjoy the wine’s bouquet. Don’t skip this step. Most of what we associate with flavor is really experienced through our sense of smell. In fact, the Oxford Companion to Wine notes that humans can detect up to 10,000 different aromas, but the tongue only tastes four things: saltiness, sweetness, bitterness and acidity. The Japanese claim to have identified a fifth taste called “umami,” which relates to the savory quality of food, but that complicated issue goes beyond this discussion.
If the aroma is unpleasant—moldy and/or musty—the wine is likely faulty (see the discussion on “wine faults” at the end of this section). Wine pros describe fault-free wine aromas as “clean,” and then move on to describing the wine.
After swirling the wine to help release aromas, consider their intensity. Are they light and neutral, pronounced or aromatic? An aromatic profile offers an important clue as to the grape variety in a blind tasting. Recognizable aromatic white wine aromas, for example, can range from the intensely grassy and grapefruit characteristics of a Sauvignon Blanc to the peachy, honey sweet aromas of Moscato grapes to the perfumed, floral notes of a Viognier. Less aromatic fruity flavors from citrus, stone fruit, apple, pear and melon might indicate unoaked Chardonnay, Pinot Gris or another more neutral grape. Some wines offer tropical fruits, such as pineapple or banana.
Red wine aromas range from light and fruity strawberries and red and sour cherries to more pronounced smells of black fruit, such as blueberries, black cherries and plum, as well as secondary aromas from oak treatments. Fruit aromas signal potential grape varieties in blind tastings. For example, Pinot Noir is known for a sour cherry profile, while Cabernet Sauvignon tends to express black fruit and sometimes green bell pepper.
Now consider the potential source of these flavors. Do they arise from compounds in the grapes, oak treatments, age or the environment where grapes grow?
Fruit aroma surely comes from the grapes, but how can grapes smell like apples, pears, grapefruit or flowers? Grapes contain compounds called “esters” that are similar or the same as those that naturally occur in other plants. So if a wine smells and tastes like lemon, it may contain some of the same or similar esters found in lemons.
Winemaking techniques also affect wine aroma and final flavor profile (see “Winemaking”). Oak treatments impart various aromas, including toast, char, smoke, butterscotch, vanilla, spice, almonds and other nuts. In reds, oak can add cedar, toast, oak, vanilla, chocolate, tobacco, coffee and many other aromas that may appear even stronger when wine reaches the palate. Malolactic fermentation and lees string (see “Winemaking”) for white wines can add cream, milk, butter, yeast, toast and bready notes.
Aging imparts additional flavors, as chemical reactions change the nature of the wine. In white wines, including sweet and dry versions, nutty qualities can emerge with age, while red wines develop earthy notes that can be described as soil, wet leaves, forest floor and more.