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Where Wine Flavors Come From: The Science of Wine Aromas

Why does wine taste the way it does? If you love wine, you’ve no doubt read countless wine tasting descriptions like this one:

“blueberry aromas and accents of camphor, anise and the slightest floral hint…”

Wine Advocate 2010 Penfold’s “Grange” Shiraz

You might also be wondering… are winemakers actually blending blueberries into their wine? The answer is no. The secret lies in aroma compounds.

Where Do Wine Flavors Come From?

From vanilla and apple to soil and chalk, wine flavors can be organized into 3 primary groups: Fruit/Floral/Herbal, Spice, and Earth.

Special thanks to Master Somms’ Geoff Kruth and Matt Stamp who organized the aroma compounds in this guide. You can listen to their free podcast and learn how to apply this to blind tasting.

Fruit/Floral/Herbal Flavors

Esters: Fruit & Flowers

Wine esters come from acids. Esters are used extensively in the flavor industry for everything from essential oils to candy. In wine, esters provide the building blocks of fruit flavors.

Chardonnay, etc
Grenache, etc

Pyrazines: Herbaceous

Pyrazine is an aromatic organic compound that has vegetable-like smells. It’s also one of the fundamental aroma compounds in chocolate and coffee.

Bell Pepper:
Cabernet Franc & Carménère
Sauvignon Blanc

Terpenes: Rose & Lavender

The smell of Christmas trees and desert sage are two classic examples of terpenes. In wine, they can smell anywhere from sweet and floral to resinous and herbaceous. By the way, terpenes are a highly desired trait of hops and beer making.

Muscat Blanc
Grenache & Côtes du Rhône
Australian Shiraz

Thiols: Bittersweet Fruit

A thiol is an organosulfur compound that smells fruity in tiny amounts, but in larger amounts it smells like garlic and is considered a wine fault. Thiols are also a building block of earthiness.

Vermentino, Sauvignon Blanc, Colombard
Black Currant:
Red Bordeaux and other Cabernet Sauvignon & Merlot

Earthy Flavors

Sulphur Compounds: Rocks

Sulphur compounds may be the secret to minerality in wine. Some sulfur compounds smell fantastic, such as the chalk-like aroma in fine Chablis. Some sulphur compounds are bad, like the smell of wet wool, which is a wine fault caused by UV damage.

Chablis & Champagne
Young Freshly Opened Red Wine

Volatile Acidity: Balsamic & Pickle

Volatile acidity (a.k.a. acetic acid) is caused by bacteria that are present in wine making. In high doses, volatile acidity smells like acetone, but in low doses it can add great complexity and is a feature of many very fine wines.

Chianti & Amarone della Valpolicella
Red Burgundy

Brettanomyces: Clove & Bacon

Phenols are a group of chemical compounds that are similar to alcohols. Phenols are naturally occurring in many things including sesame seeds, peppers and even cannabis. In wine, one type of phenol is when a wild yeast called Brettanomyces can add either a lovely (clove and bacon) aroma or a very detestable (horse) aroma to wine.

Châteauneuf-du-Pape & Côtes du Rhône
Paso Robles/Central Coast Syrah, Barossa Valley Shiraz

Geosmin: Earth & Mushroom

Geosmin is an organic compound from a type of bacteria. It might just be the most earthy-smelling compound out there. If you love beets, mushrooms and the smell of potting soil then Geosmin is your friend.

Soil & Mushroom:
Common in Old World Wines and some new world wines

Spicy Flavors

Rotundone: Peppercorn

Rotundone is a kind of terpene that is found in the essential oils of black pepper, marjoram, oregano, rosemary, thyme and basil. It gives that classic peppery aroma that you’ve probably tasted on great red wines.

Syrah, Grüner Veltliner, & Cabernet Sauvignon
Dry Riesling
Pink Peppercorn:
Viognier, Gewürztraminer

Lactones: Vanilla & Coconut

Lactones, and particularly gamma-Lactones are esters found in sweet and creamy smelling foods such as honey wheat bread, peaches, coconut, roasted hazelnut, butter and even cooked pork!

Vanilla & Coconut:
Oak-aged red & white wine
Aged Sparkling Wine

Thiols: Smoke & Chocolate

Thiols can taste like grapefruit pith and passion fruit, but in higher doses will smell and taste like smoky, skunk, tar and chocolate.

Sonoma Pinot Noir
Argentine Malbec

Botrytis: Honey & Ginger

Botrytis Cinerea or ‘Noble Rot’ is a type of fungus that eats ripe fruits and vegetables. You’ve probably seen it before on a box of rotten strawberries! Despite its negative connotation with fresh fruits,it adds richness and a milieu of amazing aromas to dessert wines. There are a few compounds associated with Botrytis that you may have tasted:

  • Sotolon: Honey, Fenugreek, Curry
  • Furaneol: Caramel, Pineapple, Strawberry
  • Phenylacetaldehyde: Rose, Cinnamon, Ginger
Sauternes, Tokaji
Spätlese Riesling

Tasting Wine Smarter

Next time you taste wine think about how the flavor may be one or a combination of the fundamental wine flavors above. If you’d like to know how to pick out flavors better, check out this useful guide on tasting wine.

Pyrazines in food, organoleptic properties
Contribution of Volatile Thiols to the Aromas of White Wines
Identification of Volatile and Powerful Odorous Thiols in Bordeaux Red Wine Varieties
all about gamma-Lactones
Changes in Wine Aroma Composition According to Botrytized Berry Percentage

About Madeline Puckette

I'm a certified sommelier and creator of the NYT Bestseller, Wine Folly: The Essential Guide to Wine. Find me out there in the wine world @WineFolly