Smell is one of the most primitive senses of man, which has enabled him to discern what sort of things to eat and what to avoid. Through evolution, pleasing aromas were discovered and classified. We are able to smell more than 100,000 scents, but not identify them.

Wine possesses more than 900 aromatic compounds, the majority come together and form aromas that we can recognise and identify. Each person will identify the scents that are familiar to them and in sufficient quantity to be recognised. A Mexican can associate a particular scent of a Chipotle chilli, a Chilean, Merquen and a Brazilian, Açaí.

When we smell green pepper in Cabernet Sauvignon, we are recognising the pyrazine, 3-isobutyl-2-methoxy piracina. A name we seldom remember, but it is impossible to forget the aroma of green pepper. Hundreds of thousands of aromas, with scientific names, which we can smell but not fully identify.

When a Torrontés expresses aromas of jasmine and citrus, it does not mean that flavourings or essences have been added, or that the wine has been macerated with those ingredients. It is important to note that “nothing is ever added to wine.” The wine is simply the product of the alcoholic fermentation of fresh grape juice. So where do wine aromas come from?

Wines exhibit two or three types of flavours;

Primary Aromas: come from the grape itself. Depending on the varietal, they will be the flavours that can be recognised, for example, orange aromas, blueberries, strawberries, cherries, plums and other fruits. This shows that the grape is a fruit that smells fruity and aromatic molecules are shared with other fruits.

Secondary Aromas: are caused during maceration and fermentation, normally the yeasts smell or they provoke reactions with glucose or fructose. Among the secondary aromas we find a banana scent from the isoamyl acetate, Maracuyá, or passion fruit translates as Acetate 3-mercapto-1-hexanol. The sharp smell we can usually find in Sauvignon Blanc comes from the 4-methyl-4-mercapto-pentan-2-one.

Tertiary Aromas: are the aromas from the ageing of wine. These flavours will not be found in young wines. Among these we can recognise the odour of caramel, coconut, vanilla and violets, among others. They are scents that can come from wood chips, staves and barrels or the union of different aromatic compounds.

Usually vanilla, coconut, cinnamon and cloves come from oak, whether using chips or barrels. Roasted coffee, smoke and even the smell of bacon are also from wood, not the variety but the degree of toasting that has been chosen for it. Wood is used in wine to create silkiness, body or to give the wine aromatic complexity. The type of wood, whether American or French oak or cherry, influences wine aroma as well as the degree of toasting.

However, black pepper comes from the variety of grape, the same as the aroma of a pepper, a lime or red cherry. Tertiary aromas may be found or not, for example, the smell of vinegar or nail polish remover is ethyl acetate and oxidation occurs similar to a green apple flavour. By no means do these flavours imply the wine is faulty, unless they are the only ones you can smell. But a little smell of apples can add complexity.

Sometimes we detect aromas of butter, cheese or even flan, these come from malolactic fermentation. This is the transformation of malic acid into lactic acid. The first of the two is usually in grapes and is reminiscent of the acidity of green apple, the second is the acid found in milk.

The beauty of wine that can be detected through smell is huge. Smell is one of the most primitive senses, and is related to man in his primate stage and may help us to identify danger at a very special moment in our life.

Some varietal descriptions, expressed in a combination of primary, secondary and tertiary aromas include:

Sauvignon Blanc: A different white, with aromas of citrus, asparagus and freshly cut grass and even passion fruit and grapefruit.

Chardonnay: is one of the most complex whites with aromas of pineapple, pears and green apples along with banana and end notes of coconut and vanilla.

Malbec: aromas ranging from violets and cherries with subtle notes of black pepper.

Pinot Noir: aromas of strawberries and subtle notes of mushrooms and dried leaves.

Cabernet Sauvignon: From ripe harvest aroma reminiscent of roses, with notes of ripe red fruit and subtle notes of cedar. Some notes of pencil lead, eucalyptus and tobacco.

The aromatic universe is infinite and the best that we can do is to continue discovering aromas. For this I propose that every time you go into a kitchen, smell each of the ingredients or if you go to a flower shop, smell and ask the names of the flowers. Go to the central market or the fruit market in your city and smell. Drink wine by paying attention to the flavours and varietal or varietals that they are made of. Gifted noses don’t exist without training and the best exercise is to smell, smell, smell!

Written by Laura Ortiz