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About Wine

Wine Flavors & Aromas

When you read descriptions of wine, there are usually a lot of references to the wines aroma and flavor, as well there should be. But, some of those references can be a bit surprising. It’s odd the first time, or even the fifth time, that you see a reference to the aroma of tar as a positive thing. Yet it is.


Rather than post an exhaustive, but perhaps boring and worthless, list of every aroma or flavor one might encounter in wine, this page will highlight some of the more unusual essences and provide a bit of background on them to provide you with some context. This page will grow over time as we find interesting new descriptors to share. If you come across a description you’d like us to write about, drop us a line.


Before we launch into the weird and the wonderful though, it should be said that there have been some scholarly efforts at creating and organizing descriptors and aromas. The Wine & Spirits Education Trust has a list of flavors and aromas that they are working to standardize and we have republished it for your reference on NorCalWine.com.


There is also a Wine Aroma Wheel that was developed at U.C. Davis by Ann C. Noble. It’s a pretty useful little thing and you can buy one online from the UC Davis Bookstore for just five bucks. They also have a Wine Aroma Wheel t-shirt which may be the perfect gift for your favorite wine geek. Sadly, it’s not scratch and sniff...


Asparagus - The aroma of asparagus, bell pepper, cabbage and other raw vegetables is often due to pyrazines. This can be considered normal in most cases. For more on that, see  the entry for “Cat Pee” below. 


Excessive amounts may also be  due to the presence of mercaptopentanone. This is an alcohol soluble molecule believed by some experts to result from the decay of thiamin. That is probably more than you want to know. In the end, a little bit of this aroma in wine can be nice and too much is... too much.


Barnyard - You may also see related descriptors such as butcher shop, deli meat,  gamey, and stable. It is a “funky” organic smell. It is very common in both Syrah and Pinot Noir based wines. It is usually, but not always, caused by Brettanomyces (Brett). People have different levels of sensitivity to and appreciation for this aroma. Some find it adds interest to wine and enjoy a certain amount of it. Others find almost any amount unappealing. While that is a personal preference, it should be clear that too much can completely obscure the other flavors in a wine and that is unacceptable.


Brett is something many winemakers seek to avoid because, while small amounts can be good, it is hard to contain and can easily become excessive. And, “Wow, this really tastes like Brett!” is not an exclamation that will win you fans behind the counter at tasting rooms. You might use the word “interesting” to better effect. 


Brett is a type of yeast (which, ironically, may look sausage-shaped under a microscope). It can be spread to a winery either by insects or by the purchase of barrels contaminated with the yeast. Once there, it can quickly spread within the winery through unsterilized equipment or by moving contaminated wine from one place to another. Wineries often try to control it with sulfur dioxide or other sterilizers.


Unfortunately, once Brett gets into a winery or vineyard, trying to get rid of can be like trying to swat flies with a pitchfork. That’s a whole lot of hard work with little chance of success and the risk of collateral damage.


Butter - This is a common aroma and flavor in white wines based on grapes that normally have a somewhat light profile but include a fair amount of malic acid. The buttery aroma results from a strong malolactic fermentation. This is instigated by the winemaker to create a softer and smoother wine. One of the by-products of this fermentation is Diacetyl, a compound that is also present in butter. Some people think a litle goes a long way, others can’t get enough. It’s very commonly found in California Chardonnay.


Cat Pee - We generally encourage the sniffing and licking of all kinds of things to broaden one’s palate. But, we draw the line at cat pee and hope you will as well. That said, you’ve probably smelled it on more than one inopportune occasion. The source of the aroma in wine are pyrazines. 


Pyrazines are organic compounds that occur naturally in grapes and many other things. As a grape ripens, its amount of pyrazines decreases. So, in a grape that is picked just on the edge of ripeness, such as a cool climate Sauvignon Blanc, there may still be plenty there. The aroma can remind us of urine because pyrazine salts are easily dissolved in uric acid. So, when we or our feline friends eat food rich in pyrazines, they ultimately make an aromatic exit in our urine. 


While pyrazines are inherent in some foods, manufacturers actually add them artificially to others for a variety of reasons. Some foods that often include them are baked goods, candies, dark beer, gelatins, ice cream, coffee, peanuts, popcorn, pudding, soy products and tomatoes.


A certain amount of this smell is common in some wines. Too much reflects fruit that just wasn’t ripe enough and can be considered a fault. The amount considered acceptable in red wines is much small than in whites.


Chocolate - NorCal Wine loves it when our wine tastes or smells a bit like chocolate, dark or light. And we’ll happily accept cocoa too. Fortunately, these flavors aren’t uncommon in red wine. They come from the toasted oak barrels that the wine was aged in.


Cigar Box - It probably goes without saying, but we’re talking about the inside of the box, not the outside. And we’re looking for a wood cigar box, not some cheap cardboard job. The aromas you would get are warm cedar with a “healthy” dose of spicy tobacco. To the best of our knowledge, the Surgeon General has issued no warnings on the sniffing of unlit cigar boxes. 


The aroma of cigar box usually comes in red wines that have been aged in oak and then in bottle for some time. It’s a combination of the aroma left from the oak barrels and also the changes to the grape matter itself. The aroma is particular common in the red wines of Rioja, but they don’t have any exclusivity on it.


Coffee - The toasting process that barrels undergo creates compounds that leave wine, typically reds, with aromas of coffee or espresso in wine aged in those barrels. You’ll either like it or you won’t. We do. And it’s caffeine free!


Cooked Fruit - Sometimes, the fruit in a wine doesn’t taste like fresh fruit out of the produce aisle. It smells or tastes more like jam, baked pie filling, stewed fruit, etc.


Earth - Go dig a big hole and then stand in it. Breathe in deeply through your nose and mouth. That’s the smell of earth. Or at least one. You should really dig holes in a bunch of different places. Earth smells, tastes and looks different from one spot to another because of differences in the mineral and decomposed vegetal matter in those soils.


With wine, you’ll see references to many different types of soil and minerals: wet earth, dusty trail, rainy day, salt, slate, limestone, clay, pebble, steel, etc. While the jury is still out on whether or not these things truly reflect the actual flavors or aromas of the soil in which the grapes were grown, there’s no question that one can find these sensations in wine. And it is just as certain that grapes grown in different soils, even in close proximity to one another, do have different tastes and noses.


Petrol - When you see reference to this, it’s really a sort of warm, sweet, kerosene aroma that’s being conveyed. It’s not that of the pungent fuel you pump into your car. If you see reference to petrol aromas in a wine, it’s a sure bet that wine is a Riesling with some age on it. Rieslings wear petrol like one of those “Hi. My name is...” badges.


Tar - Tar, as a substance, is the result of a destructive distillation of some sort of organic material, such coal or wood. It is a by-product of making charcoal. Since wood barrels are toasted (lightly charred) before use for wine storage, it’s only natural that a wee bit of tar essence can find its way into wine. In small amounts, that can be quite pleasant and interesting. Fortunately, wine never approaches the “let’s swab the roof or pave a road with it” level.


And tar is nothing to worry about in wine, since diluted tar is often added as a flavoring agent in a variety of foods from smoked meat to candy. Tar is also an anti-microbial that has been used in some cultures’ traditional medicines. So, drink up and “Here’s to your health!”


Wet Wool - See the entry for “Barnyard” above. Bleeeeeet.