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Why don't people just smell grapes?

Updated: Jan 8, 2022

For people not into wine, it’s probably very weird to listen to wine lovers go on about sour cherry, raspberry, forest floor and chocolate in a wine. I mean after all, it’s made of grapes. Why doesn’t it just smell like grape juice. These wine people are nuts.

The short answer is because its “fermented” grape juice. During fermentation chemical compounds are created that are similar to, if not identical to, compounds in other fruits. So what about those earthy, mineral aromas?

Some romanticize that the wine captures these aromas from the ground as the grapes grow, but the scientific evidence is dubious. It seems it may be a combination of unique compounds a type of vine metabolizes naturally and how those compounds change during fermentation. So that typical earthiness in a Cabernet Sauvignon - which does vary a lot - isn’t tiny molecules of earth, it’s the result of the fermentation of a compound that Cabernet Sauvignon typically metabolizes naturally.

But wait there’s more. The aromas in wine are also derived from the wine making process as well. There’s a great video on the INTOVINO website from Cyrus Tschardehi that talks about this. He says that the aromas of wine tell you about three dimensions of the wine. The primary aromas tell you about the fruit, where and how it was grown.

The secondary aromas are derived from the wine making process, giving you clues into what the winemakers did with the fruit. Choices in skin contact, exposure to yeast and secondary fermentations leave their signatures in the wine aromas. So don’t freak out at picking up butter, cured meat or baking spice aromas. They’re common secondary aromas.

The tertiary aromas tell you about the wine’s aging process. Exposure to oak, for example, imparts aromas to the wine, and types of oak, reuse of barrels and toasting of barrels all make an impact. So you’re not imagining things when you sense vanilla, chocolate, coffee or smoke. Even the slight transfer of oxygen through a cork in bottle aging can impart tertiary aromas.

But here’s the biggest caveat. We all sense aromas differently. So if you’re not getting that choke-cherry compote cooked on an iron skillet with nutmeg vibe, don’t sweat it. And if what you get is - wine - then that’s ok too. As long as it’s good wine.

Epilogue: There is a whole area of aromas that indicate flaws in a wine. I might write about that some day, but it seems depressing right now.

Instead check out these links to learn more about wine aromas. I enjoyed these articles:

INTOVINO See the video here

Winespectator Follow article link here

David McIntyre - Follow the article link here

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