Wine Nose

Talking about Caramel, Vanilla... and Cat's Pee?


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Wine Nose Ever wonder what the heck wine writers are talking about when they describe the nose of a wine? Like, how about that buttery thing that goes on with some of the wines you love. What is up with that?

Well, almost all of the weird descriptors for a wine's nose have some basis in fact, though I am as guilty as the next guy in using a little bit of fantasy when extolling the virtues of my current favorite bottle, like calling the aromas the nose! While rhapsodic prose might be over the top, and best saved for more intimate settings, some of these wine nose descriptors are worth learning more about!

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  • My Dad always said "never put anything in your mouth you can't get past your nose." I think the same applies here. It may be accurate to describe something as cat's pee, but you certainly don't want to eat it. We try to help our winery visitors with descriptive vocabulary that is appealing to the palate. Food analogues work best.

    Oct 13, 2010 at 6:22 PM

  • In Australia we are being swamped by New Zealand sauvignon blanc. Some are excellent, however the majority smell like cat's pee. Our excellent chardonnay's are suffering from this latest trend.

    Oct 13, 2010 at 8:27 PM

  • Snooth User: dmcker
    Hand of Snooth
    125836 5,000

    I agree, SeaEagleGirl, that NZ could do with a reset of their SB styles. Unfortunately, people who don't really know what SB can do in the Loire and Graves, for example, start with that SB, somehow think it's normal, and keep drinking it. As long as they keep buying it there's no reason for that reset button to get punched. Weird to think I'm actually rooting for the economy to stay bad longer, at least long enough for a few wineries to learn the hard way. And then that bad-NZ-SB virus will no longer jump across the Tasman Sea, one also hopes.

    And Molly, definitely words to live by from your dad.

    Oct 13, 2010 at 8:54 PM

  • Snooth User: dmcker
    Hand of Snooth
    125836 5,000

    Greg, what about leather, smoke/tobacco, licorice, lavender, etc., etc.? Aromas not just from the oak?

    Oct 13, 2010 at 9:02 PM

  • What, no fruit? Surely those are among the most evident fragrances? But let's not stop here. In some of our posts, on, CJ has referenced gas leaks and candyfloss. And what about a legendary British description, "like a wet wool pullover over a hot radiator"?

    Oct 14, 2010 at 7:35 AM

  • Snooth User: dmcker
    Hand of Snooth
    125836 5,000

    Sedimentblog, of course fruit enters to some degree on the nose, but I find it more to be a primary presence on the palate....

    Oct 14, 2010 at 12:24 PM

  • Snooth User: davenbill
    603383 14

    I have cats and I certainly would not put anything that smells like a litter box in my mouth. To use terms like these is repulsive.

    Oct 14, 2010 at 3:31 PM

  • Snooth User: dmcker
    Hand of Snooth
    125836 5,000

    davenbill, just another reason to stay away from NZ SBs... ;-)

    Oct 14, 2010 at 8:32 PM

  • Snooth User: kauri
    135090 6

    Poor Old New Zealand. We are getting a bit of a bashing from the Ockers (Aussies) for our rather unique smelling/tasting Sauvignon Blanc.
    Wonder why they are the top selling white wines in Australia? Just fashion? Surely not. I don't believe that the typical Aussie is such a dedicated follower of fashion.

    I do a lot of wine tasting demonstration work in supermarkets (in NZ we are allowed to sell wine in supermarkets) as well as dedicated wine and liquor outlets. In the last year particularly I have noticed a growing number of women who say things like: I don't like Sav, I'm over Sav, or Sav upsets me and sometimes, I can't stand Sav.

    Lately I have been offering for tasting a NEW Sav from a new wine region in New Zealand, on the west coast of the Wellington region; a place called Ohau (pronounced "or hoe"). The wine smells somewhat of some of Sauvignon's aromas but it is the taste that wows the disenchanted female New Zealand Sav drinker. It is classically dry for an NZ Sav but it has a fruit sweetness and slightly more tropical fruit orientation that has them buying Sav again!

    Interestingly the region produced a Champion Pinot Gris in it's first vintage in 2009. Although the above mentioned Sav (called Woven Stone) is not available overseas the Pinot Gris, Ohau Gravels 2010 and Reserve Sauvignon, Ohau Gravels will be in limited supply in Syndey, Australia through the distributor, Kiwinz. Both outstanding wines and sure to wow those good old Aussies.

    Oct 15, 2010 at 5:17 PM

  • We're all "adults" (I would suppose), but I have to agree with many of the other posts that finishing the descriptors with "cat pee" leaves one with an awfully unpleasant image in an otherwise informative and pleasing virtual wine tasting tutorial.

    Oct 20, 2010 at 4:01 PM

  • Good article, very informative,thanks.

    Oct 20, 2010 at 10:19 PM

  • Snooth User: tbrou13
    548450 27

    I agree with patrick. Several more aromas would have been nice as well. Thanks for putting in the chemical names.

    Oct 28, 2010 at 10:41 AM

  • Snooth User: alblopez
    859506 16

    Never noted the "cat's pee" quality in wine, but certainly in particular beers. To me it's one of the "skunky" notes, most particularly, in Corona. Strangely, in an ice-cold Corona, it's a note I enjoy, and goes well with spicy condiments on Mexican dishes.

    Mar 06, 2013 at 2:43 PM

  • Greg, I am surprised by the title? Aroma generally refers to those smells associated with the grape varietal. It would seem the more appropriate term to refer to the majority of smells in this article is bouquet,which are derived from either fermentation or aging, with the exception being Petrol and Cat's Pee.

    Mar 06, 2013 at 3:17 PM

  • Snooth User: TomG
    40947 44

    I'm not a chemist (and would be happy to be corrected by one), but I believe the caramelization process that happens when oak is fired is different from the Maillard reaction. The latter involves sugar interacting with proteins (as in meat) where caramelization is just the breakdown of sugars. The two processes can result in very similar colors, aromas and flavors.

    Mar 06, 2013 at 3:36 PM

  • I think aroma is the correct term. I once had an unclassified '82 left bank Bordeaux aged about 15 years and it was the first time I've ever experienced real bouquet. Truly remarkable and memorable. Also, FYI, Ravenswood in south Sonoma, used to have a small side room next to their tasting area. In it they had about 40 or so small wine glasses, lined up and labeled, filled with many of the knowns of the wine aroma world.

    Mar 06, 2013 at 10:39 PM

  • One of the most useful things for objectively describing aromas was produced by Ann Noble of Davis University called 'The Aroma Wheel' back in the 1980's. Not once does it mention 'cats pee' :-)

    Mar 07, 2013 at 1:43 AM

  • Snooth User: Saffredi
    729598 151

    A small note on aromas. Yes, the aromas and flavours of barrel aged wines are influenced by the barrel ageing. Of course, the grape variety itself has got its own aromas. However, the thing that might even more influence (alter) the aromas and flavours of a wine is the type of yeast that is being used for the alcoholic fermentation. Most winemakers use cultivated yeast that they buy from yeast producers, such as DSM in the Netherlands (one of the more important yeast producers in Europe). Winemakers can buy customized yeasts: you want banana or pineapple aromas in your wine? The yeast will provide them for you in your wine (!) Especially low budget wines suffer from these artificial flavours and aromas. But do not forget, even at Chateau Mouton Rothschild they order their yeasts from DSM Netherlands (!) The right yeast may allow the winemaker to control better the fermentation process. Whether or not the big names also have other wishes for their yeast (concerning aromas and flavours) ... who knows!

    Mar 07, 2013 at 4:40 AM

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