Work in progress … the general consumer, when thinking about buying wine, needs tasting notes that are easily intelligible, unambiguous and uncluttered.
Here I share my efforts in translating, testing and debunking esoteric aromas and flavours currently used to describe wine. Whilst some appear to be misnomers eg chalk, others lack clarity eg graphite, or are not commonly available in UK (NCA) eg white camphor, and so not easily understood by a consumer, whilst some though common knowledge, are infrequently encountered eg daffodil.
It is probably worth repeating, that the only wine that tastes of the grapes of which it is made, is muscat-based. All the others have aromas and flavours that are only developed during alcoholic fermentation, malolactic fermentation, by exposure to oak and whilst ageing. These are like something, eg like guava or like sweat, we just don’t say like all the time.
There is an entry for the truly obscure, where I lay to rest what I regard as such.
Each person providing commentary on wine, has different sensory thresholds for aromas and flavours. So it helps I believe, to be as precise as possible, to be specific rather than generic, and to use commonly accessible aromas and flavours. I have tried to achieve this with the content below.
|11/06/17||allspice||not a spice blend, as commonly thought, rather the dried berry of the Jamaican pepper, or pimento tree. The ground berries show flavours of cinnamon, cloves and nutmeg, with hints of juniper and black pepper. It is probably clearer to simply say spicy.|
|12/06/17||baking spices||too vague. The family includes allspice, anise seed, cardamom, cinnamon, cloves, ginger, mace, nutmeg, poppy seed, sesame seed, vanilla bean and others. So like mixed spice, the aromatic profile is a moving target, though a standard blend may be available over the counter.|
|12/06/17||balsam||too vague. Balsam is a generic term for an aromatic plant resin or sap. There is a wide range of balsam shrubs and trees, notably Balsam of Peru – a small tree from which oil containing cinnamic acid, benzoic acid and vanillin is extracted, so it has aromas of cinnamon and vanilla, and perhaps clove. Then there is the North American balsam fir, its sap shows warm woody aromas of freshly chopped wood, and pine.|
|14/06/17||balsam herb||NCA, Tanacetum balsamita (aka alecost, costmary, mace) is a perennial herb (image), the compound carvone is a dominant constituent, with reportedly aromas of caraway and dill. We have this growing wild, I find the crushed leaves have a low-key peppery-spearmint note, slightly reminiscent of absinthe. Seen in notes for Tuscan IGT varietal sangiovese, Brunello di Montalcino, Sicilian varietal frappato. NCA and simply too esoteric.|
|11/06/17||balsamic||too vague, not commonly understood. This is an umbrella term for the resinous family of aromas, including cedar, eucalyptus, frankincense, juniper, pine, incense, sandalwood, vanillin … It is more useful to use the discrete terms instead.|
|05/06/17||bergamot||NCA, of the citrus family. Oil extracted from the skin smells like lemony-lime, the extremely sour juice tastes reportedly, like grapefruit juice edged with black pepper.|
|05/06/17||black raspberry||NCA, said to be less tart and less sweet than blackberry, with a unique flavour. If and when I can find some, I will comment further.|
|10/01/18||bog myrtle (1)(2)||NCA, a bog and riverside deciduous shrub and tree. My essential oil sample shows aromas of eucalyptus, sweet pine resin, and hints of clove and dried citrus peel – not too distant from Christmas cake. It crops up in tasting notes of Islay whiskys eg Ardbeg, Lagavulin and Laphroaig. It is probably clearer to break the profile down into the dominant notes.|
|15/04/18||broom||very similar in appearance to gorse, with bright yellow flowers, april to june, but no spikes. They reportedly have a delicate vanilla-like aroma – in april the scent is more herbaceous with a hint of lemon; in may and june … TBC. Broom seems to crop up quite a bit in unoaked wines eg Pouilly-Fume. It is a shrub common both in the wild and gardens, throughout the UK and on the Continent, and so easily verified.|
|12/06/17||buttercup||no aroma, and all parts of this plant are toxic. I have seen at least one tasting note referring to it eg Prosecco.|
|12/08/17||chalk||no aroma, crushed or not. It is commonly used in a textural powdery sense, but then it would be more accurate to simply use powdery rather than allude to chalk, as something more than that. See rock family. Some suggest an aroma of blackboard chalk – I tested two examples, which showed differing low-key chemical-like aromas, but these may be additive-based, used in the creation of a solid material from refined powdered chalk, or packaging based. So there is uncertainty in the use of blackboard chalk as an aroma. To settle the question of the use of simple plain chalk, I have sourced natural lump rock chalk – the first sample is from the Cabardes appellation in the Occitanie region of France, it shows no aromatic qualities when pulverised, similarly with a second, from the South Downs in East Sussex, UK. In summary, the use of chalk in any form as an aroma, is either uncertain/NCA in the case of board chalk, or plain wrong where solid chalk is implied.|
|11/11/17||charcoal||a misnomer, lump wood charcoal smells like ordinary coal, albeit with lesser intensity. When used in a wine context, perhaps it is charred wood or bonfire that is intended. But surely the commonly used smoke, from exposure to oak, would be simpler, maybe not so evocative, but at least it is readily experienced. Charcoal was sensed as an aroma on eg 2009 Ch.Leoville-Poyferre 2009 (Wine Advocate, 2017), and as a flavour on Robert Foley Vineyards Claret Napa Valley 2004 (Wine Advocate, undated).|
|14/06/17||cow parsley||cow parsley flowers possess an unremarkable scent, perhaps faintly malty, the crushed delicate fern-like leaves are reputed to have an aniseed-like aroma, but to me they smell like fresh cut grass. Seen in tasting notes for Pouilly-Fuisse, and English still whites based on eg bacchus and ortega.|
|06/07/17||cow parsley (giant)||included for aromatic interest, and to distinguish it from cow parsley, real name giant hogweed, is a close relative of cow parsley, but the leaves are very different, being much larger and solid rather than fern-like. It is an invasive species, which can reach over 3m in height, my example is 2m. Skin contact with the sap can cause burns, so never touch the plant directly. The flower head has a scent like a cow shed, animal, funky, but not horsey.|
|09/04/17||daffodil||an unusual one, which turned up on the nose of a 10 year old Muscadet Sevre et Maine sur Lie.|
|21/08/17||dried rose bud||as an aroma, is analogous to, and could be broken down into, hay with a floral edge. As such it tends to show up in reds with at least some age, say 3-4 years eg Barolo, Brunello di Montalcino, Anderson Valley pinot noir, Chateau Musar, St Emilion.|
|05/06/17||flint||minerality family, a dangerous aroma to attempt to verify, involving a coat, wellies, gloves, safety glasses and a heavy hammer – crushed flint has no aroma, the impact of a steel hammer pulverising a flint pebble has no aroma. In a textural sense, flinty could be used to suggest sharp ie high acidity, but then why not say that? Also see gun flint.|
|12/06/17||forest floor||see sous bois.|
|12/06/17||frangipani||NCA, too esoteric. A member of the Jasmine family of trees, seen in Mediterranean climates, with flowers smelling of the commonly available errr jasmine. So just use that.|
|24/12/17||frankinsense||NCA, quite esoteric. It is the resin extracted from trees of the Boswelia genus, which are native to eg Arabia, India and China. The example tested, as a 100% pure essential oil, was from Boswelia carteri. It has a rich rounded aroma of pine sap and dried lemon peel. Seen as an aroma in a tasting note for Bollinger RD 2002 (Wine Advocate 2015), and as a flavour in a Tablas Creek Esprit de Beaucastel 2005 (Private Collector). Probably more useful to break the aroma down into pine resin and dried lemon peel.|
|20/09/17||funk, funky||an interesting warm rich slightly off aroma or flavour, expressive of the brettanomyces (brett) family, which includes earthiness, barnyard, clove, horse, farmyard, old leather, rancid cheese, smoky bacon, stables, sticking plaster, sweaty saddles, well-hung game. When low-key, brett can add a further dimension to complexity, in for example Chateau Musar, in which sulphur is used sparingly and is generally bottled unfiltered. This leaves the wine open to both brett and VA, which are part of the signature of this iconic wine. I admit to having used funky, and in retrospect it is more useful to at least use bretty, and at best the discrete terms from the brettanomyces family.|
|12/06/17||garrigue||too esoteric. Few will know that it describes the scent of pines and wild Provencal herbs – lavender, rosemary, sage, thyme and others rubbing against one another in a warm summer breeze. Better to use the fairly well-known and readily available herbes de provence, rub a small amount between the palms, and the same aromas arise, albeit more concentrated.|
|12/06/17||geosmin||too esoteric. As with petrichor, it is soil (but also occurs in the form of waterborne algae, which can contaminate a water supply) bacteria known as actinomycetes that are responsible for the aroma, releasing chemical compounds when disturbed by soil cultivation.|
|10/06/17||geranium, geraniol||geraniol is one of the compounds responsible for the rose-like aroma in muscat-based wine. Allowing high yields can lead to high concentrations of geraniol, and the aroma becomes geranium-like and unpleasant. This also occurs in wines that are too old, hence Moscato d’Asti needs to be drunk young (2).|
|15/04/18||gorse||very similar to broom in appearance, but the foliage has spikes, with bright yellow flowers that have a surprising, and delicate, coconut-like aroma. I find this in wine when a coconut note is very subdued, delicate, more floral, with no, or no obvious exposure to oak. I have noted it in Pays d’Oc viognier, Alsace pinot gris, Austrian gruner veltliner, and Menetou-Salon sauvignon blanc. It is a shrub common both in the wild and gardens, throughout the UK and on the Continent, and so easily verified.|
|05/09/17||graphite||a misnomer, there is no aroma from 96% pure graphite powder, when either sitting in a pile, or rubbed onto a neutral surface such as glass or porcelain. It may be that graphite is being confused with pencil sharpenings, which are a wood/cedar aroma combined with non-aromatic baked graphite-clay, from which the pencil ‘lead’ is formed. See pencil ‘lead’.|
|07/06/17||gravel||no aroma, unless by association with organic contaminants eg moss, entrained leaf humus, tar …|
|21/08/17||guava||NCA, one needs to look for them in one of the larger ethnic supermarkets. These were sourced in Nottingham, they are very ripe, the skin exuding a strong, rich, ripe, obviously tropical aroma. Two or three ripe fruits left to their own devices, can create a persistent aromatic atmosphere, which after a week or so takes on a caramelised edge. To eat fresh like this though, with the skin or without, is a thoroughly underwhelming experience – the skin aromatics are only slightly experienced in the taste of the skin, and in the pulp is weaker still.|
|05/06/17||gun flint||minerality and sulphur families, NCA, this really is imaginary, how many have experienced a flint-lock gun being fired? In any event, as far as I can make out, the aroma associated with firing a flint-lock has nothing to do with the steel hammer-flint action, rather the ensuing sulphurous smell of burnt black powder – a mix of sulphur + charcoal + saltpeter, as the weapon is discharged. Modern propellants are smokeless, and slightly acrid. Use commonplace struck match instead. Also see flint.|
|14/09/17||hedgerow, forest and woodland fruit||this family comprises in the main, grouped according to ripening time, first to last: elderberry and black berry; crab apple, damson and sloe plum; rose hips. This is why the 3 umbrella terms are not very useful, and further, one does not encounter much wild fruit in any forest that I know. Better to use discrete fruits instead.|
|03/08/17||herbaceous||I translate this as the subtle fresh aroma of one’s hands, after running them through something green eg long grass, courgette or cucumber leaves, or any not strongly aromatic foliage, the smell in the air of wilted cut grass or of a freshly cut privet hedge, a faint aroma of green pepper, or perhaps crushed nettles. It is a useful umbrella term that suggests a degree of grape under-ripeness or a proportion of berries that were under-ripe. When low-key, the latter can add an extra dimension to complexity, showing up in tasting notes for eg cabernet franc, cabernet sauvignon and sauvignon blanc.|
|14/06/17||hibiscus||NCA, too esoteric. It is only Hibiscus grandiflora and its hybrids that have scented flowers, reportedly with a fruit cocktail-lemon perfume. Seen in notes of New Zealand sauvignon blanc, Carneros pinot noir, and Baja California (Mexico) cabernet sauvignon.|
|10/06/17||iodine, iodine tincture||NCA, inaccurate. Iodine is a non-aromatic solid metallic chemical element. As a liquid at full commercial strength it is non-aromatic, as is the potassium iodide format for internal consumption. Otherwise, iodine is normally encountered as a brown, sometimes clear liquid, povidone-iodine or iodine tincture, used as an antibacterial agent, with an antiseptic-like aroma. Both the latter are now (2017), only available in the UK by specialist mail order, rather than over the counter. One of these, Bell’s iodine tincture, has an additional weak aroma of walnut. Use the more precise iodine tincture, as seen in notes for Oregon and Swiss pinot noir, and commonly in peated malt whisky.
Footnote .. Decanter magazine online, under ‘tasting notes decoded’ (2017), considers iodine to have similarities to a blood-like note. I will evaluate this if and when I have another vegetable chopping accident.
|21/03/18||lanolin||NCA, a misnomer, aroma and flavour-wise. Lanolin is extracted as the oily waterproofing content of sheared wool. Some use it in a textural sense. but smooth, or velvety, are more readily understood. Pure lanolin comes in a tube or a pot, with no aromatic qualities, eg Lanolips, made in Australia. There are instances of it being used as an aroma eg Hartenberg, South Africa, Riesling 2016;
Doisy Daëne 2001, Neal Martin, Wine Advocate, 10/14.
|04/07/17||linden||is the German name for what is commonly called the lime tree in UK and elsewhere in the English-speaking world, and tilleul in French. It refers to the heady blossom scent which saturates its vicinity and beyond, currently, from mid June to mid July. This aroma can be found in eg Loire chenin blanc, Bordeaux sauvignon blanc, Alsace riesling and Chablis GC (3). Better to use the more commonly understood lime blossom.|
|05/06/17||limestone||no aroma, crushed or not. See rock family.|
|05/06/17||mineral, or minerality family||seemingly used as an umbrella term, to convey the likes of high acidity, a lack of fruitiness, smokiness, struck match, a sulphurous note (see sulphur family), wet stones. This is too disparate a group to simply say mineral or minerality. So, with clarity in mind, use the discrete terms instead.|
|12/06/17||mixed spice||a bit vague. It is a blend of ground spices employed in a wide range of cooking and baking. It comprises some or all of caraway, cinnamon, cloves, coriander, mace, nutmeg, and ginger. So mixed spice is a moving target aroma-wise, though there may be a standard blend available over the counter. Better to be more specific, or use generic spicy.|
|05/06/17||mulberry||NCA, though they do grow, non-commercially, in UK. Berries are white, red or black. The latter taste, in my view, like a cross between loganberry and blackberry – there is a sweet and sour character, with high acidity.|
|11/06/17||myrtle||NCA, a Mediterranean berry-bearing shrub. Dried berries sourced from Sardinia show a flavour profile including rosemary, juniper and black pepper. Fresh berries reportedly have an initial aroma af pine and eucalyptus and a taste of juniper-rosemary, but a fresh sample arrives later in the year … similarly the crushed leaves are said to have an aroma of allspice and a taste of juniper. The essential oil smells like eucalyptus. So, on balance, instead, use one or more of allspice, black pepper, juniper and rosemary.|
|10/02/18||neroli (oil)||too esoteric. The oil is obtained by steam distillation of the flowers of the bitter orange tree (Citrus aurantium). It is normally supplied with a base of sweet almond oil. The aromatic profile is of the skins of orange citrus, along with a delicate underpinning of sweet almond. I have mistakenly referred to neroli based on this, in at least one tasting note. Better to break the aroma down into orange skin and almond oil.|
|15/08/17||nettle, crushed nettle||a commonplace weed, but still, a little esoteric. It is the youngest leaves at the growing tip that, when crushed between gloved fingers, have the strongest aroma. Crushing mature leaves gives a similar aroma, but in both cases this disappears quickly, being replaced by a generic faint cut grass, or green herbaceous aroma. So, crushed nettles would be better than simply nettles – but how many have gone to the trouble to experience them crushed?|
|05/06/17||oyster shell||minerality family, crushed old shells have no aroma, if there is any marine nuance, then there is residual oyster flesh present.|
|11/07/17||ozone||inaccurate, ozone has an aroma reminiscent of very dilute chlorine, it can sometimes occur at salt water margins. It is often confused with dimethyl sulphide, see seashore, and shows up in Chablis GC tasting notes.|
|7/06/17||pencil ‘lead’||is made from a baked, non-aromatic blend of graphite-clay; when pulverised, pencil ‘lead’ still possesses no aroma, also see graphite.|
|11/06/17||petrichor||too esoteric. A term first seen in the scientific journal Nature, in a 1964 article by Austrian scientists investigating aromas associated with wet weather. They discovered a yellow oil entrapped in rocks and soils, that when hydrated, was responsible for the aroma. Analysis revealed the oil to be a combination of oils secreted by plants during dry periods, and chemicals released by soil dwelling bacteria known as actinomycetes (5), these are a factor in geosmin too. Not an overly used term, but shows up in notes for Sonoma Coast chardonnay, Anderson Valley pinot noir and Marlborough NZ riesling.|
|25/07/17||petrol||traditionally minerality family, seemingly used with glee by some commentators, but this is a riesling turn-off to a non-specialist audience. I believe that what some call petrol, can be replaced by lime, or broken down into eg lime juice, bees-wax and struck match. The issue at stake is, do you want to sell riesling or not? However, for my more analytical WSET style notes, where I make a conscious effort to rule out lime first, then I do occasionally refer to petrol.|
|30/07/17||petroleum jelly||seen in notes for Californian Napa Valley cabernet sauvignon and Bordeaux blends. Petroleum jelly, on the basis of one sample, has a delicate aroma quite close to that of bees-wax. So use the commonly recognised latter, rather than trying to be different.|
|19/07/17||plantain||aka cooking banana. Too esoteric, and variable in aromatic and flavour qualities, according to ripeness level, green through yellow. When green-skinned, the aromas and flavours are only vaguely reminiscent of banana, more like cut raw new potato with a hint of unripe banana. As the plantain ripens, the profile becomes more banana-like, but not with the richness of a true banana. Seen in tasting notes for Australian and Californian chardonnay, and a South African white blend. Better to use banana – unripe, ripe or over-ripe (as in some rum).|
|05/06/17||pomelo||NCA, has a similar sensory profile to grapefruit, so use that instead.|
|31/07/17||pot pourri||too vague. Pot pourri is typically made of a non-specific blend of scented flowers and petals, fragrant woods, roots and barks, dried herbs, spices, essential oils, and aroma fixatives such as orris root. Whilst one example might be overtly citrussy, another can be peach dominated, or again vanilla and spice … So, as far as aromatic qualities are concerned, it is a moving target. Seen in notes for muscat, Napa cabernet sauvignon, gewurztraminer.|
|06/06/17||reduction||see sulphur family, below.|
|07/06/17||rock family||includes igneous rocks eg basalt and granite, metamorphic rocks eg schist and slate, and sedimentary rocks eg chalk, limestone and sandstone. Rocks, powdered or not, are non-aromatic. If an aroma attends a rock, in whatever state, then it is contaminating superficial organic matter that gives rise to this.|
|19/09/17||rose hip||too vague. One might assume that rose hip oil, typically from wild rose, is being suggested. Otherwise, I start with unripe crushed wild rose hip, which has an aroma like cut unripe cooking apple. Ripe examples from the same bush, in autumn, showed an aroma of waxy unripe cooking apple, edged with hot metal. A cursory web search for rose hip oil suggests aromas of cold tea, earthy, hay, herbaceous, straw, subtly woody, very slightly fishy. My first example, of Rosa Canina 100% organic rose hip seed oil, with neither additives nor carrier oil, at a cost of £20/20 ml, exhibits a delicate linseed oil-like aroma.|
|11/07/17||seashore||the common and distinctive smell of the seashore is dimethyl sulphide (DMS), of the sulphur family. It is a gas released by microbes living near plankton and marine plants, including seaweed and some salt-marsh plants (4).
Seashore crops up in Chablis and Chablis GC tasting notes, as does ozone, which does sometimes occur at the seaside, but is often mistakenly equated with DMS. Ozone is quite different, with a sharp aroma reminiscent of very dilute chlorine.
|12/06/17||sharon fruit||too esoteric, aka persimmon, is the berry of a deciduous tree of the ebony family. Cut fruit are non-aromatic, taste sweet and show a hint of brown sugar. The virtues of this otherwise nondescript berry, are that it is full of vitamins A, B and C. Of no utility in a wine tasting note.|
|05/06/17||silex||French for flint, see flint and gun flint.|
|05/06/17||slate||no aroma, crushed or not. See rock family.|
|12/06/17||sous bois||too esoteric, poorly defined. A French term equating to the similarly unsatisfactory forest floor or dense undergrowth. Better to use commonly understood leaf humus (aka leaf mold), or even better, warm leaf humus.|
|11/09/17||stone||is essentially the same as rock, see rock family. Stone is of Germanic origin, as stein, whilst rock comes from the Latin rocca. Stone is often used to indicate the diminutive of rock, a declining size-wise succession of which might be, boulder, stone, pebble – but they are all rock. Stone, crushed or not, has neither aromatic nor flavour attributes. Nevertheless, a prominent commentator recently describes the aromas of Vina Sena 2013, thus .. “blackcurrant, stone, blueberry and liquorice. Also iodine …”|
|05/06/17||sulphur, sulphur family||volatile sulphur compounds can arise in both oxidative and non-oxidative winemaking (1). They are often referred to, inaccurately, as reduction, reductive or reduced aromas. The family includes: burnt black powder (oft labeled gun flint), cooked cabbage, dimethyl sulphide (see seashore), garlic, leek, onion, rotten eggs, rubber or burnt rubber, struck or burnt match. Better to be more precise.|
|05/06/17||wet stones||minerality family, strictly this should be drying stones, as any aroma is given off by the superficial organic matter, as it first hydrates and then dehydrates, again.|
|12/09/17||wet wool||detected as a light struck fault in a white port, and in French roussanne, Mosel riesling, Loire chenin blanc and Barossa Valley semillon. At a high level, as found in a Domaine Gigou, Loire chenin blanc cremant NV, and at a slightly lesser intensity on their Raisins Nobles 2010, wet wool can take on more of a pine-like note. If this dominates completely, it could be considered a fault.|
|05/06/17||white camphor||NCA, has a similar sensory profile to eucalyptus, so use that instead.|
|04/08/17||white flowers||too vague, and why just white flowers? What innate aromatic qualities do they possess as a family? What about pink, red and purple, are they any different? I have sniffed a wide range of flowers of all colours, and found that whites show no extraordinary aromatic qualities. Anyway to humour white flower users – it is not easy to think of a list of those that are unremarkably scented. I continuously survey the flower population throughout the year here in the East Midlands, and have extracted what I think would create such a white flower family: apple and pear, grape vine, horse-chestnut, potato, privet, pyracantha, white buddleia, white clover. In my opinion it is the ubiquitous white clover that best represents this family. In conclusion, I think it better to be more specific, or optionally more vague, as in eg a delicate floral scent.|
|26/11/17||wintergreen||NCA, too esoteric, wintergreen is the original descriptive term for plants that do not shed their leaves in winter, and continue photosynthesis. Nowadays it refers to the shrub genus Gaultheria, the leaves of which contain a mint-like compound used in flavouring. Seen in tasting notes for Napa Valley and Mount Benson cabernet sauvignon. Use mint instead.|
|14/06/17||woodruff, sweet woodruff||NCA, too esoteric, but interesting. Sweet woodruff is a small-white-flowered plant of the bedstraw family. The leaves have little aroma when newly picked, but when dried, the consensus suggests a strong scent of new-mown hay, and a vanilla-like note, hence the original use as mattress stuffing. It is the compound coumarin which is responsible for this aroma profile. Seen in a tasting note for Pouilly-Fuisse.|
- Goode, J. (2005). The Science of Wine. University of California Press.
- Lewin, B. (2010). Wine Myths and Reality, pp.176:178. Vendange Press.
- Lenoir, J. (2006). Le Nez du Vin 54, supporting text.
- Science Daily (University of East Anglia). (2007). Cloning the smell of the seaside. [online]. Accessed 11/07/17.
- Met Office. Petrichor. [online]. Accessed 11/07/17.
- Douglas R., USGS. (2010). Geosmin in South Carolina waters, what is it? [online]. Accessed 12/07/17.