"Definite scents of a decalactone with notes of acetyl, geraniol and hints of paratolymethylchelone". What did you understand? Probably nothing. That is why in the olfactory assessment of a wine we find descriptors which draw analogies with an object normally characterized by that smell.
Finding references in our olfactory memory to describe the aromas of a wine is, therefore, not just a game, but a real way of specifying the characteristics of the scents that are present in that glass.
There are various classifications for cataloguing the smells to be found in wine: using several of these as a basis (Ann Noble at the University of Davis’s Aroma Wheel, Slow Food, the Aroma Tree of the Center for Tasting Studies, etc.) here we offer one of our own.
A sub-classification might distinguish between the scents of fresh flowers and those of dried flowers, with the former very present in young wines (particularly whites) and the latter being found in the bouquet of aged wines.
One often finds in young wines, then, scents of acacia blossom, hawthorn, jasmine, honeysuckle, linden, wisteria, iris, orange blossom, rose, violet, narcissus, broom... In more mature wines, such as those based on Nebbiolo, one is more likely to associate the bouquet with flowers such as dried roses or violets.
This is undoubtedly the group with the largest number of sub-categories, with the general rule - contradicted by many exceptions – that it is easier to associate white wines with pale-fleshed fruits and red wines with red fruits. The classification might therefore be divided up according to the following groups:
- citrus fruits: lemon, bergamot, citron, grapefruit, orange, mandarin
- pale-fleshed fruits: apple, pear, peach, apricot
- tropical/exotic fruits: banana, pineapple, melon, kiwi, lichee, passion fruit
- red fruits (generally slightly acidulous): sour cherry, red cherry, raspberry, strawberry, redcurrant
- black fruits (which tend to be decidedly sweet): blackberry, blueberry, blackcurrant, black cherry, ripe plum
- cooked fruit: jam or marmalade made from various fruits, fruit in syrup, quince
- dried fruits: raisins, dates, dried figs, prunes
- nuts: almonds, hazelnuts, walnuts, pistachio nuts, chestnuts...
Apart from the analogies that we draw, it is important to identify from the wine’s fruity aromas the ripeness of the grapes used and the maturity of the wine itself. We can therefore note a tendency towards sourness (excessive citrus-like sensations, tart fruit), towards freshness (citrus, white and red fruits), ripeness/maturity (white fruits, tropical fruits, red fruits), very ripe/dried grapes (cooked or dried fruit) or a tendency towards oxidation (nuts, if the scents of walnuts and almonds are predominant, or cooked fruit, if the scent of quince is overwhelming).
Here there are many sub-categories and different sensory manifestations: in fact, vegetal aromas can characterize both wines of poor quality (unripe grapes) and, on the other hand, complex, full-bodied wines.
The following groups may be considered:
- fresh vegetal: freshly-mown grass, tomato leaves, bell peppers, nettles
- dry vegetal: hay, straw, tobacco, tea
- vegetables and legumes: asparagus, peas
- aromatic herbs: thyme, rosemary, sage, bay, mint, eucalyptus, aniseed
- woodland and undergrowth: ferns, humus, damp earth, moss, leaves – mushrooms, truffles.
These, too, are to be found in rich, full-bodied wines: they come from maturation in new wood and/or the evolution of the wine in particular conditions. Examples are: noble resins, pine, cedarwood, incense, juniper wood, sandalwood, turpentine, camphor.
With a few exceptions, these are the preserve of more complex, well-structured wines, most of which will have been matured in wood.
One can distinguish between:
- (actual) spices: cinnamon, cloves, liquorice, nutmeg, ginger, pepper, coriander
- pastry-like aromas: vanilla, yeast, butter, fresh bread, brioche
From the Greek empyreuma, empyreumatos, coal covered with ashes for lighting a fire. These are particular smells linked to aging in wood, whose positive or negative qualities depend on the intensity with which they manifest themselves. They include cocoa, chocolate, coffee, roasted almonds, crusty bread, caramel, tar and the sensation of smokiness.
A category of smells that is not easy to classify and which can be interpreted in various different ways. It refers to notes that recall diverse sensations, including flint, chalk, petroleum, graphite, iron, etc., nearly always closely linked with the terroir and its interaction with the grape variety. This is the case with Sauvignon from the Loire with its flinty scents, the petroleum-like notes of Riesling from Alsace or the Moselle or the “volcanic” hints of certain (red and white) wines from the area of Etna.
A category of smells including those of iodine, seaweed and other marine scents, sometimes found in wines produced in areas close to the sea, which also display a marked tangy, saline quality. This is the case with Muscadet from the Loire and with some Grillos from the zone around Trapani.
If these are marked they represent a fault; if they are merely nuances complementing more fragrant scents they may be typical of a particular place or grape of origin or prolonged maturation of the wine. Among the positive aromas (if barely hinted at) we find leather, fur, gamey aromas, ambergris, civet and musk (the last three are secretions from animals often used as the basis for perfumes), whereas cat’s urine, horse sweat, stables, chicken coop and other similar smells may always be considered to be negative.
These are smells that are to be found in wines (especially whites) that have undergone malolactic fermentation, with the formation of diacetyl. They are reminiscent of fresh butter and cheese. In certain cases, they may be confused with animal smells (butyric acid).
These derive from the processes of fermentation and also, especially, from those that the wine undergoes during maturation. Nail varnish, boiled sweets, soap, wax ...
These derive from chemical compounds in the wine such as alcohol, ethyl acetate, sulfur dioxide, acetaldehyde and others.
Sub-dividing them somewhat artificially into categories, because many faults are often present simultaneously, we can distinguish between:
- reduction: smells deriving from the absence of aeration and the presence of sulfuretted compounds. In the former case, they disappear with a brief aeration of the wine; in the latter, they may be permanent, like the odors of rotten eggs deriving from the presence of hydrogen sulfide or mercaptans
- oxidation, identifiable in notes of baked apples or rotten almonds and walnuts
- acetic, because of the presence of acetic acid, acetaldehyde and ethyl acetate
- various other smells, such as the odors of stables and horse sweat because of the presence of ethyl phenols, geraniums due to the degradation of sorbic acid, cork taint from trichloroanisole, odors of medicines, of disinfectant, of celluloid and of plastic, mold, old barrels, etc.