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Where does wine get its smell? 4 Aroma and Flavor Sources

Have you ever thought about why some wines smell like cherries and some wines smell like butter? Wine aromas are something we’re always talking about but rarely do we find out where those smells are coming from. If wine is just grapes, why am I smelling peaches and pears? Hopefully you don’t have to have an embarrassing moment like I did early on in my career and this guide will help you better understand the aromas and smells of wine and how they got in your glass.

Bottle of wine surrounded by fruit
Where does wine get its smell?

Do they put pears, peaches, and vanilla in the wine?

When I was 22 years old, I landed a job at a wine bar/restaurant outside of  Chicago. I had already decided that I would be pursuing a career in wine, although admittedly, at the time I knew nothing about it other than I liked it. During our extensive training, the wine director taught 3 wine classes. The first class I was very quiet. I clearly knew even less than I thought about wine.

All my fellow new recruits were swirling and sniffing and offering up all these beautiful descriptions about the wine. “I smell pear,” chimed in the guy sitting next to me. I stuck my nose in the glass several times looking for the smell of pear. It didn’t smell like pears to me. Were there pears in this wine? I raised my hand and said, “Everyone is saying they smell pears and peaches and vanilla, do they put pears, peaches, and vanilla in the wine? What makes the wine smell like that?”

My coworkers erupted in laughter. It was embarrassing. How the hell was I supposed to know?? Where did those smells come from if they aren’t putting it in the wine? This was the defining moment when I decided I’d never make anyone feels stupid about wine.

So where does wine get its smell?

Wine is just grapes. It’s what happens to the grape that brings out different smells and flavors. 

Wine gets its smell from four places-

  • grapes
  • yeast
  • barrels
  • winemaker
Sauvignon Blanc vineyard
Different aromas come from the grape itself

1) Wine Gets Its Smell from the Grape

A majority of the aroma of the wine will come from the grape. Each grape variety has a unique taste and smell profile. This is because of their chemical composition. You can’t detect these smells in the raw fruit. The smells only come out during fermentation when the sugar in the grape converts to alcohol. Something about the sugar molecule binding with the aroma compounds and they need to be separated…I don’t know.

Anyway, this is the grape’s aroma. This taste and smell is from the skin and the pulp which contain compounds that are also found in other fruits. For example, Sauv Blanc always smells citrus and grass, that’s because it has the same compounds found in citrus and grass. You can get super nerdy with this stuff but unless you have a chemistry degree, don’t go down that black hole. Here’s an excerpt to make your eyes glaze over. 

“The main methoxypyrazine in Sauvignon blanc wine is normally 2-isobutyl-3-methoxypyrazine (IBMP), while the three main volatile thiols in wine are 4-mercapto-4-methylpentan-2-one (4MMP), 3-mercaptohexan-1-ol (3MH) and 3-mercaptohexan-1-ol acetate (3MHA). Of these, 3MH occurs at the highest concentrations in Sauvignon blanc wines.”

Wikipedia

Like seriously, wtf was that? 

Let’s just say, if a wine smells like peppers it’s because it contains pyrazines which are also found in actual peppers.  

Spoonful of yeast
Winemakers either add manufactured yeast or let the ambient yeast do its thing

2) Wine Gets Its Bouquet from the Yeast

The yeast strain used during fermentation can bring out or impart other flavors and smells. You hear about yeast strains more often with beer but they are just as important in wine. A yeast strain will determine how long it will take to ferment and what smells will come out of that fermentation. Yeast can either be commercial or wild. Commercial yeast strains are reliable and predictable. A winemaker can buy yeast strains specific to each grape variety; there’s a yeast strain for Cabernet Sauvignon and a different one for Merlot. Wild yeast, otherwise known as native yeast, exists naturally in the winery and on the grapes themselves. Sometimes the native yeast strain is the special sauce of a wine and the winemakers wouldn’t change it for all the tea in China. There’s a lot of reasons to choose either. 

The most flavors from yeast come out while the yeasts are active during fermentation. There are two types of smells and flavors: bready flavors like sourdough and milky flavors like sour cream. Winemakers pick and choose different manufactured yeasts strains for the aromas and flavors they will impart in a wine. Yeast can impart tropical, citrusy, or flowery smells, too.

Flames in a barrel
A cooper toasts the barrels to bring out the flavors and aromas

3) What Smells Do Oak Barrels Add to Wine?

Barrels add aromas, body, tannin, and texture to wines. Barrels derive from oak mainly from a couple forests in France, some in Missouri, Slavonia in Croatia, and in Hungary as well.  The cooper toasts the wine barrels to bring out their flavors and aromas.

Aromas from French, American, Hungarian, and Slavonian Oak

What smells does wine get from French Oak?

French oak is the most sought after and therefore expensive type of oak. French oak has a fine grain meaning there’s not as much oxygen exchange. It imparts very subtle aromas like cinnamon, baking spices, and coffee.

What smells does wine get from American Oak?

American oak is coarse grain and allows for more oxygen to pass through.  American oak adds vanilla, coconut, sandalwood, and cedar smells.

What smells does wine get from Hungarian or Slavonian Oak?

Hungarian and Slavonia oak are recognizable by their nutty aromas like hazelnut and toasted almond. They’re also a lot less expensive than French barrels. Slavonian oak is best used to make large barrels that hold more than 500liters.

The amount of toasting the barrel has determines the intensity of flavor and aroma that the wine will absorb. A light toast could give off vanilla and a heavy toast can give off espresso smells. Barrels also add tannins to a wine which affects the body and texture.  

Couple smelling their rose wine
Remember to swirl and smell your wine before tasting it.

4) The winemaker brings the wine’s aroma profile together

Now I don’t literally mean the winemaker’s blood sweat and tears but what she chooses to do to the wine. A wine from the same vineyard and same grape in two different hands can yield dramatically different results. They are usually striving for a particular aroma profile. The process starts even before the grapes are in the winery. A grape harvested early will give more green fruit aromas versus a grape harvested late which will give more ripe fruit and jammy smells.

The winemaker makes the decisions about the temperature that the wine ferments, whether the wine will cold soak or have an extended maceration, and what yeast will be used. A winemaker can make a wine smell like butter by provoking malolactic fermentation or bring out nutty aromas by leaving the wine on the lees. The winemaker decides if the wine will go in barrels. What kind of barrels? What size barrels? For how long? All decisions that greatly affect the aromas in the wine. Winemakers have their signature styles that they have honed over the years through trial and error to get the smells just right. 

What aromas can you find in wine?

There are hundreds of aromas in wine. White wines tend to have citrus smells like lemon, grapefruit, lime, and orange. White wines can also smell like apples, pears, peaches, and apricots. Flowers and herbs are aromas found in both red and white wine. Red wine tends to smell like red and dark fruit like cherries, strawberries, blackberries, and currants. Red wine can also smell like chocolate, licorice, tobacco, and leather.

What’s your favorite wine aroma? Do you dislike any aromas you get from wine? Leave me a comment and let me know.

where does wine get its smell
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Frequently Asked Questions

What is the smell of wine called?

The smell that comes from the grape is called the aroma. The smell that comes from everything that happens after the grape has been harvested in called the bouquet. This includes any yeast smells, barrels smells, or smells that come from fermentation.

Why do we smell wine before drinking?

Smelling is 80% of tasting. When we smell a wine, we are evoking memories, emotions, and flavors. If you do not take the time to smell a wine, you’ll miss out on most of the flavor. Smelling wine is crucial to fully appreciating it. It’s pretty easy to be a good wine smeller.

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1 thought on “Where does wine get its smell? 4 Aroma and Flavor Sources”

  1. Thanks for explaining that the barrel is also one of the sources of the unique aroma of wine. I want to find a good place where I could buy spirit wine because I’m considering to stock up on liquor soon. That way, it will be a lot easier to accommodate guests on certain occasions.

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