This wine smells of my grandmother’s attic!

One of the most frequent complaints I hear from those new to wine is ‘but Anne, why do wine experts always list so many aromas when they smell a wine? How can a wine possibly smell of all those things when it’s made from grapes?!? All I can smell is wine!’

Can you identify with this? It’s certainly the case that some wine experts are very flowery in their descriptions (Jilly Goolden was famous for this), and we do have to question quite how much of what they say they’re smelling is really there.

Yet what we also need to understand is that even though wine is made from grapes, during the fermentation and ageing processes it develops a whole litany of other chemical compounds, many of which are the same compounds present in fruits, vegetables and other areas of the natural world (such as the euphemistic ‘farmyard’ – I’ll leave you to work that one out).

Let’s expand on this a little further: during fermentation, when yeast are converting the sugar in the grape juice into alcohol, they are also hard at work creating aroma and flavour compounds, which will differ depending on what’s known as the aroma and flavour ‘precursors’ in the particular grape variety being fermented. For instance, it’s no accident that the Syrah grape variety, when grown in a cool climate, acquires black pepper aromas during fermentation – in the grapes it has precursors for the chemical compound ‘rotundone’ which is the exact same compound as that found in black pepper itself.

The compounds produced will also depend on the yeast strain used. Winemakers can even select a specific yeast strain known for maximising certain aromas. During maturation of wine, whether in barrel or bottle, there is further development of aroma/flavour compounds, and for certain wine styles this is seen as highly desirable, which is why wine merchants will recommend that you ‘lay them down’ or cellar them for a certain length of time.

Broadly speaking, wine aromas and flavours can be categorised into ‘primary’ (those which come from the grape), ‘secondary’ (those which come from any winemaking influences such as the use of oak) and ‘tertiary’, which come from the maturation period and which tend to include more savoury notes such as the fabled ‘grandmother’s attic’ and ‘farmyard’.

The next question, then, is how on earth do you channel Jilly Goolden and start learning how to describe all these weird and wonderful things yourself?

More will be revealed in another post…