Beets, new-mown grass, sage, olives, gardenia, petroleum, strawberries.
These are just some of the hundreds of terms we use to describe wines. Some are easy to understand, some are obscure, and some describe wines that are unappealing.
The above terms are usually connected to specific grape varietals and are as close as we can come to describing wines.
For instance, the floral grape Viognier occasionally has an aroma of peaches, honeysuckle, or roses.
Negatively, the aroma of nail polish remover isn’t related to a grape; it’s a spoilage element that develops during wine production.
Also, different people can view the same elements in radically different ways. In many red wines, some people adore the scents of bacon, chocolate, mocha, and smoke. Others find the same aromas to be irritants because they are not wine-like. (All these terms tend to come from aging red wine in new barrels.)
Frequently, wines are marketed by touting production aromas, not fruit. Chardonnay often is praised for its buttery, toasty, or caramel aromas, which relate to wine-making tactics, not grapes.
Pinot Noir, perhaps today’s most popular red wine, historically has been described as smelling like beets. British writers especially say a great red Burgundy has a classic “beetroot” scent. Russian River Valley Pinots, however, typically have strawberry notes.
The freshness of new-mown grass is commonly associated with Sauvignon Blanc, though some expensive versions of Sauvignon Blanc that are aged in oak carry very little of that element.
Not many expensive Cabernet Sauvignons recently have exhibited the typical varietal Cab aroma of sage, bay leaf, or near-east spices that once marked most Cabs. Nor do we see much olive, green tea, or cherry in most of today’s Merlots.
The basic aromas of gardenias and carnations aren’t that different from one another. Either or both mark the basic aroma in a fine Gewurztraminer.
The slight hint of fusel oil in a Riesling is an element most Riesling lovers like, but it can be off-putting to newcomers. In fact, the aroma is part of the grape’s charm, and is from a chemical called TDN. Additionally, Riesling that develops “noble rot” in the vineyard can also smell like honey.
Rosé wines often smell like fresh cherries or watermelons. Top-rate Chenin Blanc usually has a honeydew melon scent; Semillon’s aroma is more lanolin and fresh fig based.
Syrah can have a black pepper scent (called rotundone). It is a prized component in cooler-climate, later-picked wines, which purists adore. Those who have never smelled pepper in a red wine may consider it an aberration the first time they do.
Most of the terms we use are mere approximations and don’t always do justice to a good wine. A term like “newly tanned leather” can be appealing to one person, but the same scent can, to someone else, smell more like “sweaty saddle.”
Secondary aromas can give a wine complexity, such as cumin, nutmeg, tarragon or thyme. And the sorts of berries we refer to can range from the mundane (blueberry) to the obscure (loganberry).
The nice thing is that there are no wrong answers here. We all differ in how we perceive things, and what you sense as garlic could be someone else’s shallots and another person’s chives.
My grapefruit could be your lime, his tangerine, and her orange peel. But at least we are all talking about some sort of citrus fruit.
Wine of the Week: 2015 Neil Ellis Sauvignon Blanc, Groenkloof ($15)—A cool-climate aroma of lime, green tea, and gooseberries marks the distinctive varietal aroma. Not as assertive as many New Zealand Sauvignon Blancs, this reliable South African producer’s version is soft, still crisp and appealing. Even older vintages (back to 2013) remain tasty. It is screwcapped.