What is wine aroma? Let us first tell you that it is much more than just how the wine smells. Simply put, wine aroma is comes from the grape variety and a wine bouquet results from the winemaking process of fermentation and aging, but of course, wine is always more sophisticated than a simple answer. Understanding wine aromas in real life and learning how to describe wine aromas can take some practice but luckily, once you know what to look for, rather smell for, it will be as if all of your wine stars have aligned and things will begin to click into place.
Have you heard the terms Primary, Secondary and Tertiary wine aromas? If so, what’s the difference? Most people would probably do some head scratching over this question, but luckily they are not as difficult to understand or as technical as they sound!
You can theoretically think of these aroma categories as a 3-tiered process that wine can go through, with each step portraying different qualities and that build on each other as the wine ages. Since each stage has different wine aromas, or bouquets, you’ll be able to discover more about the wine than just what it smells like.
Primary Wine Aromas
Primary wine aromas are the unmistakable and fragrant scents that come from the grape variety itself. The fragrances from aroma compounds are found in different levels of each varietal wine. These primary aromas can offer fresh fruit or floral characteristics and tend to be the main aromas that are prevalent in youthful wines. However, as the wine ages this initially fruity varietal aroma becomes less evident, allowing other elements to shine through. Rose, chamomile, apricot, green apple, lemon-lime citrus, violets, black and red berries would all be noted as Primary wine aromas.
Secondary Wine Aromas
Secondary wine aromas are influenced by the fermentation process and reflect decisions made by the winemaker to achieve their goal for the resulting wine. The most universal impact on Secondary aromas is due to the type of barrels the wine is aged in - the most common being oak. Whether the barrels are more absorbent, porous, aged, or even the species of oak can all have different influences on the wine locked inside. The wood can influence both the flavor and aroma of the wine, which can include buttery, toasty, and nutty notes, along with vanilla, tobacco, cedar, and other wood related fragrances.
Tertiary Wine Aromas
Tertiary wine aromas come into play if the wine has gone through the process of aging. These smells are largely due to how long the approach is to aging. Essentially, the more a wine is aged, the more it will affect the wine’s aromatics. Oftentimes this is the stage where you’ll hear a switch to describing these characteristics as the wine’s bouquet rather than aroma. Examples of Tertiary aroma qualities can include coffee, caramel, toffee, and cocoa, or earthy notes like eucalyptus, smoke, leather or mushrooms.
Another aspect to keep in mind is how the wine was fermented and aged, and in which type of vessel. We mentioned that aging in oak barrels is a popular choice; however there are other ways of aging that can equally influence the aroma just as much as oak and therefore, can alter the 3 aroma categories - to an extent. In terms of holding the wine, a variety of wooden barrels, stainless steel tanks, bottle aging, even qvevries (large clay pots buried in the ground!) are used in some areas of the world. Other aging tools can be utilized too, with some winemakers using a mixture of these methods.
In the end, winemaking can be a tricky form of art and intricate detailing is needed to master and produce an amazing wine, which in turn will produce a wide spectrum of wine aromas or wine bouquets. Much planning and vision are needed by the winemaker before harvesting and before each stage of the winemaking process, which can be altered or tweaked to get a variety of results. This is part of why choosing the right winemaker for your wines is crucial! However, it does not all rely on the winemaker; in the end it is a joint effort between what the land has to offer and those who manage the grapes thereafter.
Wines are continuously evolving and changing as time goes by. Many are made to age while others are made to drink young. So, next time you pop open a bottle of wine (aka tonight), swirl the wine in your glass, stick your nose in it, take an inhale and see if your nose can detect which wine aroma stage that wine is in. If you’re feeling adventurous, try your hand at using some of the wine aroma descriptions!
P.S. This post originally came from our Wine Wizard trivia section in our monthly newsletter, The Wine Press which accompanies each of our Gold Wine Club shipments.