The Aromas of Red Wine

Red wines always surprise us with the complexity of their bouquets and the intensity of their aromas. Unlike white wines, which often have a bouquet characterized by hints of citrus and white and tropical fruit, red wines immediately strike the nose with scents of red or black berry fruit. The olfactory categories of the aromas present in these wines are however numerous: aromas of red and black berry fruit, flower, vegetal, balsamic, spice, wood, roasted, earthy, animal.

The principal aromatic categories of red wine

  • FRUIT. All red wines have hints of red or black berry and fruit. For example: raspberry, blackberry, cherry, black currant, strawberry, blueberry, plum. These scents can recall fresh fruit in young wines, while they lean towards jam and fruit in syrup form in aged wines. Although we often try to correlate the bouquet of a grape with a specific fruit, almost all red wines have more hints of red fruit, even if in different concentrations. In fact, there are various aromatic molecules present in the grape's skin and which contribute to the hints of red fruit. For example, furaneol, which has the aroma of strawberry, is present to an important extent in Primitivo, but also in Pinot Noir, Nero d'Avola and many other wines.
  • FLOWER. The flower category of aromas in red wines is mostly represented by hints of violet, rose and lavender. They are barely perceptible notes but give an unmistakable character to the wine bouquet. The grape variety that more than others expresses wines with marked floral scents of violet and rose is Nebbiolo. Other grape varieties in which floral notes are often present are Aglianico, Merlot and Sangiovese.
  • VEGETAL and BALSAMIC. Vegetal and balsamic aromas unmistakably characterize the bouquet of some of the most important red wines. We can divide this olfactory category into hints of fresh vegetables (green pepper, freshly cut grass), balsamic (mint, eucalyptus, pine, incense, juniper) and medicinal herbs (thyme, bay leaf, marjoram and others). Green pepper, in particular, is a “varietal” aroma typical of Cabernet Sauvignon and Franc, but is also present in Merlot, Petit Verdot and Carmenere. It is a very intense and persistent smell which in young wines risks being intrusive, but which over time “softens” and gives complexity and longevity to the bouquet of aged wines.
  • SPICES. The spice category includes: cinnamon, cloves, licorice, nutmeg, pepper, vanilla. These scents are often associated with wines aged in the barrel and then in the bottle. For example, vanilla and cloves are typical aromas of wines aged in oak barrels. However, some of these scents are characteristic of specific grape varieties. This is the case of Syrah which more than any other grape varietal, has a bouquet characterized by the aroma of black pepper.
  • WOOD and ROASTED. The category of wood and roasting is also very notable in the aromatic bouquet of red wine. Over time, the wine aged in barrels absorbs some of the aromatic molecules due to the roasting of the wood in the barrel's construction. These molecules have different names (guaiacol, syringol, methyl-guaiacol) and recall smells of smoked, burnt wood, ash, smoked provola, pharmaceutical. They are aromas that add complexity and quality to the bouquet when they are barely perceptible, but which become unpleasant, and hence, a defect, if too marked.
  • EARTHY AND ANIMAL. Earthy (mushroom, truffle, undergrowth) and animal (leather, stable, game, sweat, fur) are all seemingly unpleasant odors but which when found in aged wines, add complexity to the bouquet if they are subtle. For example, leather is a tertiary aroma that wine develops while being aged in the bottle. The smell of stable, on the other hand, can derive from the aging of the wine in the barrel.

How then to proceed in tasting to try to identify all these aromas?

The first "sniff" can be done with a clear mind... try to figure out which aroma strikes you first. For subsequent sniffs, we recommend that you proceed by reviewing the olfactory categories one at a time. Try to understand if they are present and, if so, try to recognize the specific aroma. This is because it is often easier to recognize a particular aroma (if it is present) when you are looking for it. Try to follow the sequence here:

  • Is there red fruit? If so, strawberry, cherry, blackberry or currant?
  • Fresh fruit or jam / syrup?
  • Are there flowers? Violet, rose or lavender?
  • Fresh vegetables (Cabernet pepper scent is unmistakable) or balsamic?
  • Sweet spices like vanilla? Pungent spices like black pepper or cloves?
  • … Continue in this way with all the other categories.

This way you will gradually come to create a very detailed map of the wine's flavor profile.

There are some aromas that better than others suggest the nature of the wine we are drinking. This is the case with green pepper (Cabernet Sauvignon and Franc), violet (Nebbiolo), or black pepper (Syrah).

TasterPlace Aroma training kits include almost all of the aromatic categories of red wines. You can also customize your collection of aromas with TasterPlace, choosing what you need from a long list of aromas.

Being able to recognize aromas makes the tasting experience more pleasant and allows you to choose the wine you want to drink with more awareness. By training yourself to recognize TasterPlace aromas blindly, it will be easier to identify them, much more subdued, in the wines you are go on to taste.

Have a great workout!

Click here for Red Wine Aromas by TasterPlace

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