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!
The smell and, to a certain extent, the taste of butter is present in many wines. How did it get there you ask? In two ways, I’ll tell you.
The reason we smell and taste butteriness in a wine is because there are perceptible amounts of chemicals that give butter its aroma: diacetyl. In most cases, this diacetyl is a by-product of malolactic fermentation: a process whereby the sharp malic acid of grapes is converted into the creamier lactic acid of dairy products.
Another way for that butter smell to get into your wine is via barrel ageing. Most wines spend time ageing on oak barrels. This allows the wine to soften and integrate. In order to bend the wood into the barrel shape, the staves are heated over a fire. The exposure to that fire toasts the inside of the barrel, creating many complex compounds that add flavors, such as a buttery note, to some wines.
Caramel, as you might know, is a mix of toasted sugar and butter. Well, we’ve already covered the butter, so you might not be surprised to learn that the burnt sugar component of caramel also comes from the toasting of wine barrels.
As the wood is toasted, it undergoes the same Maillard reaction that meats, for example, experience through pan-searing. The end result is the formation of toasty or burnt sugar notes!
Personally I prefer my caramel wrapped in Chocolate, dark chocolate at that, but I've been known to suffer through a bag of Rolos!
Vanilla is also a note that barrel ageing stamps on wine, and it seem folks love their vanilla! From Ice Cream to soda pop, vanilla is one of our favorite flavors, so why not in wine?
Oak is rich in many aromatic compounds and vanillin, the aroma of vanilla, is one of those compounds. When a wine spends time in a barrel, many of these compounds leech out into the wine, adding layers of aromas and flavors.
After several years, the layer of wood that interacts with the wine loses almost all of these compounds -- at which point the barrel is referred to as being a neutral barrel, and is generally traded in for a new one.
Spicy! I hear people talking about spice all the time and while there are spicy wine (ever have a cracked pepper filled Shiraz?) a lot of those sweet baking spice you find in wine come from... you got, toasty oak!
When a winemaker orders a wine barrel he can have it custom-toasted. There are significant differences between the flavors that a light toast or heavy toast barrel can impart to the wine it holds. Basically the heavier the toast, the more intensely spicy and smoky the flavors get.
Ginger and clove tend to be fairly common in wine and seem to be some of the most prominent aromas that you get from medium-plus toast barrels -- which, unsurprisingly, is probably the most common toast level.
Say what? Yup, petrol -- sort of more kerosene than gasoline -- is a classic element of the aroma of mature Riesling. The compound responsible for this aroma has been identified as trimethyl-dihydro-naphthalene, which positively rolls off the tongue!
The precursors to this petrol smell are most likely present in almost all wines but the unique character of the Riesling means that only Riesling is capable of consistently accumulating enough of that long-worded chemical to make it count. So be forewarned, if you don’t like petrol in your wine, drink your Rieslings young!
OK, am I freaking you out yet? First kerosene then pee? Yes, cat pee!
I know, don’t blame me, I’m not the guy who first thought of this, but you know what? It’s pretty accurate! Some wine actually contains a particular sulfur compound: p-mentha-8-thiol-3-one. It’s found primarily in the Sauvignon family of grapes: Cabernet and Blanc.
In Cabernet Sauvignon, it contributes to the blackcurrant aromas of the wines. With Sauvignon Blanc on the other hand, it contributes, well, mostly cat’s pee.
And Speaking of Sauvignon Blanc
Just last week we were duscussing Sauvignon Blanc and some of my favorites. Not a lot of cat's pee to be found here, just 12 Top Sauvignon Blancs from California worth buying now!