When it comes to wine tasting, deciphering the numerous aromas in wine isn’t necessarily easy for everyone. If you’ve ever looked at a winery’s tasting notes and seen words like ‘pencil shavings’ or ‘grilled plum’ or ‘fresh cut garden hose’ and thought to yourself…what the hell are they talking about? Don’t worry, you’re not alone.
Sense of smell is largely personal. First, not all of us have the same capacity for this sense. Secondly, a person’s sense of smell is essentially based on previous experiences. In other words, we know what things smell like because we’ve smelled them before. This is good news for you, especially if you’re not so great at detecting aromas in wine yet. Start practicing! Smell more things and pay closer attention to the aromas you encounter every day. Doing so will help you build up a sensory memory bank, which will in turn help you distinguish aromas in wine more easily.
Why Learn About Aromas In Wine?
Wine tasting is a personal experience. Aromas of cloves, baking spices, and tobacco in a glass of Cabernet Sauvignon might remind one person of their Grandpa who they adored. While for another person, these same aromas are reminiscent of those Christmas cookies they hate. In this way, we find memorable wines we’re endeared to or those that have the opposite effect.
However, learning about what aromas in wine to expect from different varieties allows us to create some sort of quality benchmark. The same variety also might feature different aromas depending on where it’s grown. For example, Pinot Noir from the Côtes de Nuits in Burgundy often exudes floral aromas of peonies and violets along with red fruits and earthy undertones typical of this grape.
The more we learn about wines from around the world, the better wine buying decisions we’ll be able to make. So, here is a guide to some of the most common aromas in wine you’re likely to encounter to help you do just that.
1. Green Bell Pepper
The green bell pepper, or capsicum, aroma comes from a group of aroma compounds called methoxypyrazines, or pyrazines for short. The specific ‘green bell pepper’ pyrazine is called isobutylmethoxypyrazine.
You’re most likely to find this aroma in the Bordeaux family of varieties: Sauvignon Blanc, Cabernet Franc, Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, Malbec, and also Carménère.
Vineyard management causes this aroma to be more or less prominent in a wine. More specifically, how the leafy part of the vines are pruned.
In warmer climates where grapes become riper, this aroma takes a back seat to other fruit aromas. Whereas in cooler climates, the aroma of green bell pepper will likely be more prominent. This ‘green’ aroma can add desired complexity and interesting flavor. But at times this wine aroma may indicate that grapes were underripe when picked.
Personally, I can always identify a Cabernet Franc by the distinctive green bell pepper aroma.
Other aromas in the pyrazine family include jalapeño, asparagus, green peas, and more.
Macchia is an Italian word referring to the mix of wild shrubs, plants, and herbs surrounding vineyards in dry Mediterranean wine regions.
This can be an elusive aroma to describe, but once you smell or taste this one, you know it forever. Macchia is a prominent aroma in Cannonau from Sardinia. There are tons of wild shrubs and plants covering the gorgeous landscape of this Mediterranean island. Juniper, myrtle, wild sage, and rosemary fragrantly sprinkle the land from the center of the island to the sea. All contributing to the influential terroir of Sardinia.
Macchia is similar to the French term, garrigue. In France, this aroma is often found in the wines from the Southern Rhône Valley.
3. Black Pepper
In terms of aromas in wine, black pepper is an easy one to detect because we’re all familiar with it. Black pepper is a mild, earthy spice. Flavors reminiscent of this spice are found in wines throughout the world.
Black pepper notes are often discovered in earthy, spicy dry red wines like Syrah/Shiraz, Mourvèdre, and Grenache.
Chemistry wise, Rotundone is the principal aroma compound which creates the black pepper aroma in wine. In addition to black and white pepper, Rotundone is also present in other plants like rosemary and thyme.
This aroma typically develops throughout fermentation. Factors like sun exposure, crop load, leaf removal time, vine vigor, and clones all influence the intensity of the black pepper wine aroma.
Distinctive pepper notes are a signature of Syrah from the Northern Rhône Valley in France. Down under in the Southern Hemisphere, Shiraz from Australia’s hot, dry Barossa Valley mixes notes of black pepper with baked or stewed fruits, leather, and earthy characteristics. In fact, black pepper is a great tell for Syrah/Shiraz in blind tastings.
Peppery notes are common in other French varieties like Cinsault and Counoise, two of my all-time favorite grapes.
Notably, black pepper aromas are more common in red wines. Whereas white pepper aromas are more likely to be found in spicy white wines like Grüner Veltliner.
4. Warm Baking Spices
What are warm baking spices? These are spices which generally give a warming sensation. Think cinnamon, allspice, clove, star anise, nutmeg, and ginger. Sometimes a specific spice is pointed out in tasting notes. Otherwise, simply warm baking spices are noted amongst the aromas in wine.
Additionally, some varieties have inherent spice aromas. For example, clove in Pinot Noir, ginger in Gewürztraminer, or star anise in Nebbiolo.
But for the most part, warm baking spice aromas come from oak influence. The aroma compound eugenol is found both in oak and certain warm baking spice aromas, such as clove, cinnamon, and nutmeg. Plus, aromas from oak influence vary depending on the type of oak used for cooperage. French oak offers more warm baking spice aromas whereas American oak will lend sweet notes of vanilla and coconut.
So, being able to distinguish those warm baking spice aromas will give you insights into how the wine was aged. Time to open that spice cabinet and get acquainted with some aromas!
5. Green Apple
Of all the apple aromas and flavors found in wine, green apple is my favorite. I love a nice tart and acidic white wine, which is where this aromas usually shows up.
Just as Gala apples and Red Delicious apples taste different, there are also different types of apple aromas in wine. Do a little side-by-side apple taste test to hone your blind tasting skills for this aroma. You’ll notice when you bite into the green apple, your mouth will water and maybe pucker a bit from the higher acid content of the green apple. That’s malic acid, baby.
Wines with more malic acid will also give this green apple impression on your palate Typically, these include cool climate white wines like Chablis or other cool climate Chardonnay, Riesling, Grüner Veltliner, Picpoul Blanc, and Colombard.
I specifically recall an Anderson Valley Chardonnay from FEL Wines which embodies just that. Though generally speaking, most Chardonnay leans towards a more yellow apple aroma. You’ll also frequently find this aroma in Blanc de Blancs Champagne.
When an apple aroma is perceived as more fruity, it’s often characterized as a red, Gala, or Red Delicious apple. An apple aroma in a more mineral forward white wine is often characterized as green apple.
Citrus is a primary aroma, as it relates to aromas from the grapes themselves and not those developed through the winemaking or aging processes. They’re typically found in white wines with high acidity and fresh fruit flavors. Moreover, a wine’s strong acidic structure reminds us of the crisp aromas and flavors found in fresh lime, lemon, and grapefruit.
These aromas in wine may be characterized in various ways like fresh citrus, candied citrus, or citrus peel or zest.
Candied citrus is typically used when a wine smells both fruity and particularly sweet, perhaps almost caramelized.
Citrus peel or zest can indicate more intense citrus aromatics. This is because the citrus aromas come from a chemical compound called limonene, which is located in the peel of the fruit.
Lime aromas are greener and generally less fruity than lemon aromas. They’re often found in Riesling, Sauvignon Blanc, Prosecco, and cool climate Chardonnay.
While grapefruit aromas are typically present in Sauvignon Blanc wines of New Zealand, Chile, and Bordeaux. And sometimes even Riesling.
Finally, Vermentino, Verdejo, and Albariño are other white wines often exhibiting citrus aromas.
Apricot is another primary aroma found in different types of white wine. They’re part of the stone fruit family along with peaches and nectarines.
The apricot aroma in white wine can often indicate the grapes reached a certain level of ripeness. Though not quite as much as they would in a hot climate, which causes tropical fruit notes to develop in the wine.
Apricot is a typical descriptor for Viognier (especially from the Condrieu AOC in the northern Rhône), along with Marsanne and Roussanne. So, you can expect apricot aromas in the white blends of the Rhône Valley.
Albariño from northwestern Spain, which tends to be a bit richer in style, also expresses apricot aromas. Grapes like Muscat will exude this aroma, too.
Apricot is also amongst the aromas in wine for certain sweet white wines, like Sauternes or Tokaji. Along with fortified wines like Moscatel de Setúbal, Marsala, and Tawny port.
When you see ‘dried apricot’ or ‘stewed apricot’ as a descriptor, this indicates the aroma or flavor is more intense and sweeter. This is frequently the case for sweet or fortified styles.
In dry white wines, this aroma is often more subtle, but one of my favorites, nonetheless.
8. Plum & Grilled Plum
On tasting notes you might see plum, red plum, black plum, and grilled plum. So, what’s the difference between these aromas in wine?
Red plums with red skin and red flesh denote a sweet juicy flavor that’s a bit more fruity. Whereas black plums refer to a sweeter, deeper, richer plum flavor.
I never quite understood what grilled plum described in a wine until I grilled these plums for this photo and ate them afterward. First of all, highly recommend for both the educational value and the fact that grilled plums are delicious! Grilling the plums concentrates the sugars, adds more depth of flavor, and also brings in an almost caramelized quality.
Grilled plum is a common aroma in Grenache, my favorite grape of all the red varieties. Also, look to Carménère, Merlot, Negroamaro, Nero d’Avola, Syrah, and Tannat for black plum aromas. Whereas Dolcetto, Montepulciano, and Malbec are fantastic wines offer the red plum aroma.
Additionally, you might see ‘plum jam’ on tasting notes. Since jams are fruit that’s been heated and cooked with sugar, this wine tasting note refers to a sweeter concentration of plum aromas and flavors.
For aromas in wine, pineapple falls under the tropical fruit family of aromas alongside mango, banana, passion fruit, etc. Think of that pungently sweet, juicy aroma which is so distinctive of pineapple. Sweeter than any citrus, but a significantly fresher aroma than stone fruits like nectarines or apricots.
I’ve experienced this aroma in certain styles of Picpoul Blanc as well as warm-climate Chardonnay. Actually, the tropical pineapple aroma is common in riper white wines. It’s a great indicator of warm-climate Chardonnay like those of New World regions.
Also, you’ll find the pineapple aroma in noble rot (botrytis cinerea) wines like Sauternes or certain late-harvest German Rieslings. Fun fact! Fureanol is one of many chemical compounds that causes fruity aromas in wine as a result of botrytis. This specific compound is also found in very ripe pineapples.
You’ve definitely encountered cherry aromas, as they are present in many wines. Tasting notes may include a range of cherry descriptors, such as red cherry or tart cherry, black cherry, and even stewed cherries.
Red cherry is, of course, part of the red fruit family of aromas. Whereas black cherry is considered a black fruit aroma. Cherry aromas describe a distinctive fruit character, but not as sweet or as tart as other berries in these fruit aroma categories.
I would say Cabernet Sauvignon or Pinotage are good examples of where you’ll find black cherry aromas. While Pinot Noir, Gamay, Merlot, and even Tuscan Sangiovese offer more red cherry aromas. For tart cherry aromas, look to Nebbiolo of northern Italy and one of my top French varieties, Cinsault.
Mango is a primary aroma found in white wines and is part of the tropical fruit family of aromas. Tropical fruit flavors like mango tend to indicate the wine was made from ripe grapes grown in a warmer climate.
To experience mango aromas in wine, look for Chardonnay from warmer climates in California and Australia. Perhaps a Sauvignon Blanc or a Viognier grown in warmer climates will show mango aromas, too.
Lychee is one of the more exotic fruits when it comes to aromas in wine. I mean, just look at these little guys! With their spiky red exterior and a translucent, lucid interior, they’re definitely exotic. In the wine tasting lexicon, lychee are classified in the tropical fruit family of aromas along with others that we’ve covered so far like pineapple and mango.
This aroma is typical of white wines with more subtle fruit flavors coupled with floral or spice notes. For example:
- Gewürztraminer from cool climate regions like Alsace or Alto Adige
- Sauvignon Blanc from Marlborough
- Austrian Grüner Veltliner
- Torrontés from high elevations in Salta
- Pinot Grigio and Prosecco from Northern Italy
Lychee is one of the more subtle aromas for me, but I dig it every time.
Though there are many types of delicious melons in the world, when it comes to aromas in wine, we’re usually referring to the honeydew melon. Though you’ll find watermelon notes in certain styles of rosé! Like those made from Pinot Noir or rosé from Provence.
Melon aromas can be considered amongst the tropical fruit family , too. Think of that fruity, refreshing, sweet melon flavor.
Quick – name a wine with melon aromas and flavors! If you can’t, try these:
- Prosecco made from the Glera grape… and if you’re drinking Prosecco, then drink Conegliano Valdobbiadene Superiore DOCG
- Warm-climate Chardonnay like certain examples from Sonoma and Napa
- Italian Pinot Grigio from Trentino-Alto Adige or Friuli-Venezia Giulia
- Rias Baixas Albariño
- Greek Moschofilero
Strawberry falls into the red fruit category of aromas in wine, along with raspberry, cherry, cranberry, etc. The strawberry aroma comes from an organic compound or ester called ethyl methylphenylglycidate. Some research has shown specific yeast strains used during fermentation can enhance this aroma. Science rules!
The strawberry aroma is found in a range of red wines, from light and fruity to bold and tannic. Depending on the region of production, this wine aroma is present in certain expressions of Pinot Noir – New Zealand, for example.
For me, strawberry is always a tell-tale aroma for Grenache. Also, I love a dry Grenache rosé because those strawberry notes make for an exceptionally refreshing wine.
Additionally, California Zinfandel is a fruit-forward yet bolder example of a wine with strawberry aromas. Cabernet Franc grown in warmer climates, such as in California and Tuscany, will often show strawberry aromas, too!
This aroma can range from fruity and fresh to an overtly sweet aroma. In the latter case, it may be accompanied by words like ‘cooked’ or ‘stewed’.
Blackberry is amongst the black fruit category of aromas in wine, along with blueberries, black plums, and blackcurrants. It’s often considered a primary aroma, meaning the aroma primarily comes from the grape variety.
There are mainly two types of blackberry aromas you’ll find in wine: jammy blackberry & leafy blackberry. Jammy blackberry refers to those rich, ripe intensified fruit flavors and the sweetness found in fruit preserves.
In tasting notes, blackberry coupled with words like stewed, cooked, jam, or dried often describes red wines with developed fruit flavors from bottle aging. Think California Cab, Bordeaux or red blends of Rioja.
Leafy blackberry flavors typically refer to full-bodied, tannic red wines that are not yet fully mature. Or perhaps the fruit didn’t ripen enough prior to harvest. These wines have just a hint of greenness to the aroma.
Moreover, blackberry is a prominent aroma in many red wines. What’s interesting is how this aroma interacts with other aromas and characteristics of a wine. For example, in California Cab with vanilla and cedar notes from oak influence. Or with the spicy, smokey notes in Barossa Shiraz.
Though not necessarily the most common aroma in wine, banana is definitely an interesting one. The banana aroma comes from a chemical compound called isoamyl acetate. This is an ester which is also commonly found in bubblegum and pears.
This chemical compound typically results from carbonic maceration or is byproduct from yeasts during alcoholic fermentation.
Quick, name a region that is known for using carbonic maceration in red wine production! That’s right, Beaujolais. And a subtle aroma of banana (or bubblegum) is often found in Beaujolais wines.
Banana’s flavor profile is amongst those of other tropical fruits – pineapple, passionfruit, lychee. In certain aromatic whites, this aroma is a result of fermentation at cooler temperatures. For other white wines, a warm growing climate enhances this tropical fruit flavor.
Why Do We Smell Fruit Aromas In Wine?
Did you know fruit aroma compounds in wine are called stereoisomers? They chemically mimic real fruit smells. When you smell fruit aromas like mango in a wine it’s because your brain identifies those stereoisomers picked up by your nose from sensory memories of other fruits you’ve smelled before!
So, if you find yourself having a hard time picking out certain aromas in wine, you likely just haven’t smelled those aromas enough outside of a wine glass. To have a richer sensory experience with wine, you can help your brain out. Start smelling more fruits, etc. to stockpile you memory bank with aromas.
Asparagus aromas in wine are divisive. People love them or hate them! Asparagus is obviously a vegetal aroma, which is in the pyrazine family along with green bell pepper aromas. More specifically the 3-isopropyl-2-methoxypyrazine causes the asparagus aroma.
These wine aromas relate to other herbaceous or vegetal descriptors. They bring a much-loved savory complexity to wines for some people. Though for others, this aroma may cause you to cringe and run away.
Asparagus aromas are found in unoaked white wines often described as grassy. I bet you can name one wine that often expresses this aroma…
Particularly those of Marlborough, New Zealand, where you’ll also find those delicious gooseberry aromas. Plus, notes of grapefruit and peas.
Asparagus aromas vary. Think of the difference between lightly steamed asparagus when you open the lid of the pot versus stewed asparagus flavors or canned asparagus flavors. The latter are caused by sulfur compounds while the former are fresher and more preferable. They make for an interesting profile when balanced with other components of the wine
Albariño is another white wine where you’ll potentially find this aroma.
Dill is an aroma most commonly associated with wines aged in American oak barrels. Other common aromas associated with American oak include vanilla, coconut, and sweet spices. The herbal dill aroma is considered by some to be a more intense expression of the coconut aroma.
American oak has a wider grain and tends to impart more obvious, stronger, and sweeter aromas. You’ll often find American oak influence on varieties like Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, and Zinfandel.
Then again, a Rioja Reserva or Gran Reserva is the best place to discover the elusive dill aroma. Here, Tempranillo wines are aged 3 and 6 years respectively, using American oak more often than not.
To understand olive aromas in wine, we first need to look at olive ripeness. Typically, green olives are picked before ripe and black olives are picked when ripe. Polyphenols, or tannins, drop during the ripening process, which is why black olives have a more gentle, earthy flavor.
The wine aroma we’re talking here refers to black olives. It describes earthy flavors with perhaps a slightly bitter edge found in certain red wines.
Syrah is a prime example where you’ll find black olive notes alongside black fruit and black pepper aromas and flavors. Additionally, California Cabernet Sauvignon also shows olive aromas in cooler vintages when the wines are less fruit forward and more savory. You might find this aroma in aged Pinot Noir, as aromas and flavors can become more vegetal and earthy throughout the aging process.
Rose is one of many floral aromas found in wine. In my opinion, it’s one of the more distinctive and easy to place aromas. Maybe because rose is a common flower and an easy sensory memory for our brains to reference. You’ll often see ‘rose petal’ or ‘rose water’ on tasting notes, the latter of which refers to a more musky, perfumed aroma.
There are numerous chemical compounds behind the rose aroma, including rose oxide, beta-damascenone, beta-ionine, geraniol, and nerol.
Rose oxide is the compound commonly found in highly aromatic Gewüztraminer wines, known for their rose and lychee aromas. Actually, lychee fruit also has that same rose oxide compound.
Beta-ionine is the compound behind wines with both rose and violet aromas – like Nebbiolo from Piemonte.
You’ll also find rose aromas in certain Pinot Noir, like those of Burgundy, New Zealand, and even some California Pinots, too.
Ginger is in the sweet spice family of aromas, along with warm baking spices like nutmeg, cinnamon, and clove.
This is one of the more unique aromas in wine. Ginger aromas are commonly found in wines made from a grape that also starts with a ‘G’….can you guess?
Additionally, you’ll find ginger aromas in other full-bodied aromatic white wines with an edge of spice, like Assyrtiko or Viognier. Aged sweet white wines made from noble rot (botrytis cinerea) affected grapes often express candied or fresh ginger aromas with their sweet, spicy, caramelized complexities. Seek out a Sauternes or Tokaji to see for yourself.
Plus, certain orange wines express ginger notes (depending on the variety) due to the extended skin contact.
22. Bread & Toast
There are all sorts of bread related aromas in wine – bread, toasted bread, burnt toast, brioche, pastry, sourdough.
These types of aromas are called autolytic aromas because they are a result of yeast autolysis.
Yeast autolysis is a chemical reaction between wine and the lees. Enzymes break down the dead yeast cells, creating amino acids while releasing proteins and carbohydrates into the wine. This gives wines richness, creaminess, and those bread-like aromas.
Time and age also contribute and enhance bread aromas. While toast or burnt toast aromas come from oak influence, too.
Aromas like pastry or brioche refer to a richer, sweeter bread-like aroma and often indicate bâttonage (lees stirring) or more time spent aging on the lees.
To smell what I’m talking about, try Champagne and other traditional method sparkling wines which spend a lot of time on the lees during their secondary fermentation in bottle. Also try Chardonnay that’s been aged on the lees, or Hunter Valley Semillon.
23. Black Tea
Often times, black tea is a tasting note for pleasantly tannic wines. These tannins are polyphenols found in grape skins, seeds, stems, and oak barrels, as well as in black tea leaves.
If you want to understand the difference between smooth, integrated tannins vs. coarse, harsh tannins, try this experiment. Steep a black teabag in hot water for two minutes and taste the resulting tea. Then repeat the process but double the steeping time and compare the effect of each tea on your palate. The first correlates to smooth, integrated tannins while the second tea represents more coarse, harsh tannins. The latter is more astringent, bitter and mouth-drying.
Black tea is a common descriptor for bold, characterful wines like Nebbiolo, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Sangiovese. Plus, aged red wines often have tea-like aromas, along with other tertiary aromas, like earth, dried-leaves, and forest floor.
Mushroom as a tasting aroma refers to an organic earthy smell, along with aromas like forest floor, truffle, loam, and earth. These aromas in wine are characterized as secondary aromas derived during the fermentation process. They can potentially give clues as to where the wine is from.
I’ve also seen mushroom classified as a tertiary aroma (developed during aging) and read about examples of premium aged Rioja or Sangiovese offering this aroma. Though I personally have yet to experience this in these particular wines.
Pinot Noir often exhibits mushroom and earth aromas. I find this aroma more often in expressions from Burgundy and Oregon than those of California. Furthermore, aged Nebbiolo from Barolo is also known for its mushroom and truffle aromas.
There is a distinct difference between fresh mushroom aromas, which are classified as more vegetal, and cooked mushrooms, which lean towards that elusive umami quality. Think of the difference between eating a raw mushroom in a salad vs. a sautéed mushroom.
Graphite aromas are always intriguing. They’re often seen as ‘pencil shavings’ on tasting notes, too.
Do you remember going up to the pencil sharpener attached to the wall to sharpen pencils in grade school?! (Usually as an excuse to talk to your friends.) Remember that aroma wafting up as you were cranking the handle around and around?
It’s that lead-like aroma which graphite refers to. This aroma is often associated with certain fine red wines. Some believe the aroma comes from oak aging, which would make this a tertiary aroma. Others argue that this is a contribution of the terroir – i.e. slate soils.
Graphite aromas can be found in Spanish wines of Priorat, some of the great red wines of Bordeaux (especially Paulliac), Bonarda from Argentina, Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon, and more.