1- Primary Aromas
This is the term used to describe the smells and flavors that come from the fruit itself, from the grapes (as opposed to the winemaking).
Different grape varieties (such as Cabernet Sauvignon or Chardonnay) have intrinsically different aromas. If you were to taste the grape berries in a vineyard, you would find scents that would remind of other plants. Red grapes tend to exhibit aromas of red fruit such as berries, white grapes often display herbaceous tones, citrus, tropical or stonefruit characters.
Depending on the climate and the soil, whether it’s a cool climate or a warmer one, the primary aroma profile can vary greatly too.
Many producers try to preserve the integrity of primary aromas of their wine through careful winemaking techniques such as avoiding oxidation or using gravity. Yet fermentation brings additional layers of secondary flavors, as follows.
2- Secondary aromas
Those describe the smells acquired by the wine thanks to the winemaking process.
The natural flavors present in the grapes (primary aromas) combine and interact with the yeasts and bacteria that run the fermentation to create further aromatic complexity.
The alcoholic fermentation run by yeasts and transforming sugar into alcohol creates fruity aromatic compounds called esters bringing notes of pear, apricot, or peach.
The malolactic fermentation that follows, famously brings in notes of dairy products, cream, butter, and/or yogurt.
Furthermore, when a wine is fermented and/or aged in oak barrels, it acquires aromas of smoke, toast, vanilla, and sweet spices.
3- Tertiary aromas
They are developed in the bottle with age, as the wine’s molecules interact with each other and with oxygen, changing their aromatic profile.
Tertiary aromas are also called bouquet, or evolution bouquet because they are acquired slowly over time as the wine matures in bottle.
So, if you’ve been wondering:
“What is the difference between the aroma and the bouquet of a wine?”
This is your answer. The aroma of a wine is the entirety of its aromatic profile (everything it smells like), while the bouquet is the specific part of a wine’s smell that it developed after it was bottled.
The bouquet does originate neither from the grapes themselves, nor from the winemaking process, but from the natural chemical evolution of wine, from the interactions between molecules taking place in the bottle.
Typical tertiary aromas (or bouquet scents) are those of leather, truffle, some spices such as clove, nutmeg, or fennel, forest floor, wood ashes or grilled meats.
Which are the Most Common Aromas in Wine?
The 100 Most-Common Aromas in Wine, Ordered Alphabetically:
The aroma of almond in wine is part of the nut/nutty family, that generally originates from the winemaking process wither the ageing on lees or from contact with oak. It is common in barrel fermented white wines such as Chardonnays, or Méthode Traditionnelle sparklings such as Champagne wine.
The almond aroma or flavor is also commonly described in wine as Marzipan. It is used in typical tasting notes for wines made from Marsanne from the Rhône valley in France (which is generally blended with Roussanne and Viognier).
A sweet and delicate vegetal character, slightly floral at that.
If you’ve ever smelt the leaves of an acacia tree, you would have found a mellowed scent of honey combined with a hint of grassiness. The acacia aroma can also be experienced in acacia honey which has a particularly floral and slightly minty edge.
Star anise or Pastis liqueur are common descriptors for aromatic white wines, especially those of the herbal and grassy type such as Sauvignon Blanc or Riesling.
Star anise aromas are also present in spicy oaked red wines, such as Primitivo in Southern Italy (e.g. Manduria) or its American cousin grape Zinfandel from California, as well as in Shirazes from Australia like the Barossa Valley.
Apple (Red or Green)
An apple aroma is typically found in fruity white grape varieties such as Chenin Blanc, Pinot Gris, Grenache Blanc, Vermentino and many others. When the apple scent is perceived as mainly fruity, it is often described as ‘red apple’.
Green apple comes through in drier more mineral styles of white wines. It is also a character associated with wines in an oxidative style such as Fino sherries (e.g. Tio Pepe), some barrel aged whites and some oak-aged Blanc de Blancs Champagnes.
A primary fruit character present in many white wines, especially those made from grapes that are rich in terpenes such as Muscats or Gewurztraminer.
White wines from warm climates often feature stonefruit characters such as apricot (and/or peach). You will very often find this descriptor associated with wines from the Rhone Valley based on the Viognier grape.
Ashes (Wood Ashes)
The scent of ashes and/or wood ashes is associated with a mineral perception found in oak-aged and matured wines, particularly red wines. The smoky element provided by the ageing in barrel, when some red wine mature turns into a distinctive savory, slightly austere ashy edge.
A typical example is found with old Cabernet Sauvignon-based wines from the Médoc area of the Bordeaux region.
A very common secondary aroma, banana comes from an ester molecule produced during the alcoholic fermentation called isoamyl acetate.
It is commonly found in young wines that are released soon after harvest and fermentation, such as Beaujolais Nouveau and other Primeur wines.
The same molecule produced by yeasts during fermentation, especially at low temperature also gives some banana aromas to some beers.
Floral and slightly spicy citrus character, typical of some white grape varieties such as Muscats (Alexandria, Petit Grains, Bianco or Giallo) and other terpene-rich grapes (Gewurztraminer, Riesling).
For what it smells like, think of a bergamot tea or Earl Grey.
A similar aroma descriptor often-used is also Kumquat.
The smell of biscuit in wine comes from the combination of a toasty character originating from a contact with oak, and the buttery element acquired through an ageing on lees (e.g. lees-stirring).
A biscuity profile can be typically found in oak-aged Chardonnays and sparkling wines such as Prestige Cuvée Champagnes.
Blackberry is a typical aroma of ripe and rich red wines produced in warm climates.
It comes through fruity red wines made from dark sweet red grapes from many different grape varieties, Syrah, Zinfandel, Grenache, Argentina Malbec, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and many more.
Blackcurrant (Cassis or Blackcurrant Bud)
Much like blackberry (just above), the aroma of Blackcurrant is found in many rich red wines from around the world.
Blackcurrant however, is a very distinctive trait associated with the Cabernet Sauvignon grape. Try a Chilean Cabernet for an examplified version. I have also found that the wines from the Faugères AOP have a particularly pungent smell of cassis.
Cassis bud is an aroma both fruity and grassy given by molecules called methoxy-pyrazines (see also the capsicum entry) typical of both Sauvignon Blanc and Cabernet Sauvignon wines.
A delicate and fragrant red berry aroma, found in many red wines and especially cool climate ones (e.g. Pinot Noir, Gamay, Barbera).
As described above (blackberry and blackcurrant), reds from warmer climates tend to exhibit berry notes of darker and riper berries than the acidic fresh blueberry.
The aroma of fresh brioche is aquired by wine during and after fermentation, particularly during the ageing on lees of white wines in barrel or in tank.
The breakdown of yeast cells after fermentation —a process scientifically called autolysis— liberates a combination of buttery and yeasty notes (the famous French Brioche bun is essentially a buttery yeast bread), especially when in contact with oak whose nutty and caramely tones amplify it.
Brioche is very common and typical of oak-aged Chardonnay wines, but also in sparkling wines made using the Traditional Method such as French Crémants (e.g. Crémants de Bordeaux, Crémants de Bourgogne, or Crémants d’Alsace) and oak-rich Champagne.
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But let’s go on with our list of the 100 most-common wine aromas:
Like boxwood, broom is a plant with a vegetal/herbal character typical of the expression of Sauvignon Blanc especially in Bordeaux and New Zealand.
This descriptor is particularly versatile, as virtually any fruit can be candied (berries, tropical fruits, stonefruit). It can therefore be used for a variety of aromas whenever a wine smells both fruity and particularly sweet and almost caramelized.
Capsicum (a.k.a. bell pepper, red or green)
Capsicum or bell pepper aroma originates from a family of herbaceous compounds common among the vegetal world called pyrazines (also found in tomatoes or potatoes to name just a few vegetables that contain them).
A form of pyrazine (methoxypyrazine is its name) is found on the skins of grapes before they reach full maturity, Pyrazines are therefore often considered a marker of ripeness of grapes, especially red grapes and winemakers try to let grapes ripen until the level of pyrazines has reached an undetectable level (especially on Merlot which can contain high levels of green capsicum character on unapropriate terroir).
However, bell pepper notes form a typical and expected part of the aromatic profile of certain grape varieties such as Cabernet Sauvignon. They also play an important role in the typical grassy notes we enjoy in crisp white wines such as Sauvignon Blanc.
Capsicum aroma come either as the clearly-vegetal feature given by notes of green capsicum, or the fruitier and less distinctive red capsicum.
Caramel aroma is most-often found in wines marked by the toasty character of oak. You will hear in tasting notes references to blond caramel —as in lightly colored and mild caramel— or its opposite version: smoky/nearly-burnt caramel.
But the most typical component in the aroma of the Merlot grape, called furaneol, also has a distinctive smell of caramel at high concentration when the grape are very ripe (the molecule smells like ripe cherry otherwise).
The aromatic seeds of cardamom, an exotic spice from a plant member of the ginger family, have been used as a condiment to spice up dishes in many Middle Eastern countries as well as in India, and in the preparation of medicines or perfumes all around the world.
Cardamom gives a relatively sweet but very pungent spicy aroma, limey and floral as well as slightly green and vegetal. In wine, the cardamom odour comes from the combination of a greenness character coming from the grapes, and the spiciness originating from both the ageing in barrel and the wine’s bouquet.
Cedarwood is a rather speciﬁc (some would say esoteric!) example of the more general class of woody odours. But is very often quoted as a characteristic aroma of the Cabernet Sauvignon grape, along with blackcurrant, spices and tomato leaf.
Cedarwood trees traditionally came from the Mediterranean region and the Cedar is the iconic emblem of Lebanon. It has a characteristic resin scent that was appreciated as an insect repellent, and its essential oil has been used in perfumery for many centuries. Some red wines including Pinot Noirs and Nebbiolos also feature the aroma of cedar which is amplified by a maturation in oak.
Cherry (Dark Cherry, Morello, Griotte)
A noticeable and important component of wines aged in oak barrels.
Often combined with vanilla, caramel, or coffee, chocolate or cocoa are part of the torrefaction smells family. They add a sense of sweetness, darkness and depth to wines.
The term chocolate would be used for wines that are more sweet-smelling/tasting, while dark chocolate or cocoa generally describe more profound, savorer, and more bitter wines.
While we’re only talking about natural wine flavors here, it is interesting to note that some wines are infused with chocolate flavors.
Other naturally feature such intense chocolate notes that they use it in their wine names and marketing like South Africa’s Darlings Cellars Chocoholic Pinotage.
Eugenol is a molecule found in toasted oak —and therefore in oak barrels— and that is also the main aroma compound found in cloves.
This secondary character is therefore infused into the wine during the barrel maturation but is only perceived strongly when combined with the primary notes of certain grape varieties, such as Pinot Noir or Merlot.
Cinnamon is a pungent sweet spice, generally found in oak-aged wines, especially old rich aged wines such as Portuguese Ports, Banyuls, or Maury.
You may also occasionally find it in other ripe high-alcohol reds.
Coconut (Bourbon Whiskey)
Aroma of coconut are infused in wine through ageing in American oak barrels.
The White Oak species (Quercus Alba) originating from Northern America is indeed much richer in a compound called whisky lactone than European oak tress (those generally called French oak such as Quercus robur and Quercus petrae), giving wines and many spirits an aroma/flavor of coconut.
Coffee is an aroma of torrefaction generally associated with the contact of wine with oak (ageing in oak barrel or in oak vat).
Heavily-toasted oak, American oak in particular, imparts dark toasted scents such as coffee, caramel, or dark cocoa.
Lifted aromas similar to those of mint, with a distinctive edge reminding of the typical Australian bush’s gumtrees.
Those are found in wines outside of Australia too, such as in some California Zinfandels, but you will also typically find them in Aussie wines made form vineyards that are, more often than not, surrounded by Eucalyptus trees.
Earthy and slightly vegetal character, found in aged wines, particularly reds. See the ‘forest floor entry’ below.
An aromatic component in between spicy and vegetal character. The scent is close to the one described as star anise, but with a fresher, mintier and more lifted grassy edge.
Fennel is indeed a bulbous vegetable with a fresh slightly bitter taste, also commonly found all around the Mediterranean Sea in Southern Europe and Northern Africa and the Middle East.
Fennel is found in dry and slightly grassy white wines such as those made from Verdejo in Spain (Rueda), the Rolle-based (Vermentino) wines of Provence and Italy and some Chardonnay-based Champagnes.
In reds, fennel may come through the aromatic profile in Sicilian Etna Rosso wines, (Nerello Mascalese), some Nebbiolos (Barbaresco and Barolo), Rhone Syrah, or Gamay Beaujolais.
Being a rich and ripe fruit, fig most often comes in wines from warmer climates made from generously ripe fruits, in both reds and whites.
‘Fresh fig’ is the descriptor used when the aroma remains fresh and fruity. While ‘dried fig’ comes through in many rich and sweet dessert wines, such as Sauternes wines, Ports, Pedro Ximenez Sherry, or Fortified Muscats.
A mineral character found in dry styles of wines.
The aroma comes through more obviously in white wines but can be perceived in dry reds as well. It is commonly associated stwith wines from grapes grown on pour limestone or stony soils such as the Sauvignon Blanc from Sancerre or Pouilly.
Flint can also be associated with a light reduction in wines that have been vinified with very little contact with oxygen. While a hint of flinty reduction can be appreciated in wine for providing a sense of minerality, if the reductive character is too pronounced, edging on cabbage or garlic, it is considered a fault.
For the background, Silex is form of ground stone, a nearly pure form of silica or silicate, also called flint.
Forrest Floor (Undergrowth)
If you taste with French people any aged wine, you will always hear them talk about a ‘sous-bois’ character, which translates into forest floor.
Common related descriptors in English include mushroom, earth, humus, or earthy. These aromatic characters are found in aged wines that have developed a bouquet with evolution in bottle.
Earthy aromas may also be related to the presence of a molecule called Geosmin on the grapes during harvest, if the bunches were affected by the Botrytis fungus. It was a common fault in Sauternes wines. But modern winemakers are particularly cautious and are now effective at avoiding it.
An animal character acquired by wines through ageing in bottle, part of the bouquet. Imagine the smell of a furry animal such as a bear (don’t get too close of one to find out what they smell like) or a goat.
It could be a negative attribute as a dominant note and even be qualified as a fault in wine, but as part of a complex evolution bouquet, the fur aroma can add depth.
Grapefruit is obviously part of the citrus primary fruit characters.
Its aroma is very typically found in Sauvignon Blanc wines such as those of Bordeaux wines, Chile or New Zealand. As far as white wines, you will also commonly find a grapefruit character in Riesling.
Many dry rosé wines, those that are not overly sweet and fruity like in Provence, France, openly exhibit this character too.
Cool climate Pinot Noirs (Burgundy, Germany, New Zealand, Russian River and Carneros, or Champagne Blanc de Noirs) sometimes feature notes of pink grapefruit.
Fun Fact: I would argue that the aroma of grapefruit is in fact, and generally speaking, a very welcome and pleasant companion to wine, hence its common use for making sangria, and its success as an additive for making rosé-flavored wines (called rosé pamplemousse in French, hugely popular in France).
As in freshly-cut grass. This character can remind of a spring meadow and appear quite floral. Or, it literally can smell like a lawnmower after the job. Tomato leaf is a related aroma.
They are both common in some crisp and acidic white wines such as Sauvignon Blanc or Portugal’s vinho verde.
Honeysuckle is a delicate floral aroma similar to the scent of jasmine, but one giving a sense of both sweetness and a hint of grassiness to wines. Because it is a discrete scent, it is only detectable in white wines that are not too aromatic to which it adds a floral finesse.
I have found honeysuckle featured in Chardonnay-based wines, as well as in subtly-flavored dry rosés, but you will find it many styles of restrained white wine grapes such as Grillo, Roussanne, Sylvaner, or Glera (Prosecco bubblies).
Iodine is a natural chemical element (atomic number 53) especially present in sea water, and in sea salt as far as our nutrition is concerned. Most of the world’s iodine is found in the ocean, where it is concentrated by sea life, especially seaweed.
This is why the term iodine is often used to describe a wine somewhat reminding the smell of a sea breeze or a coastal mist, or the mineral slightly-fishy odor of sea water.
Many would say that the minerality provided by an iodine aroma comes from the terroir vines are grown on rather than the type of grapes.
Limestone, slate, volcanic or flinty soils, as well as environmentally-friendly viticultural practices aimed at expressing the genuine terroir are generally considered to provide such mineral character.
Many would argue that iodine tones are more often found in wines that are organic, made from biodynamically-grown grapes, or from coastal vineyards.
In the wine descriptors vocabulary, the juniper note is classified as a botanical and/or herbal character (like thyme, rosemary, lemongrass, sage or basil).
The aroma come from a natural greenness and spiciness originating from the grapes themselves in wines that are not overly ripe and opulent. The scent can be amplified by the spiciness provided by an ageing in oak.
You will typically find juniper in Syrah wines such as those of Northern Rhone, Sonoma County or New Zealand’s Hawkes Bay. Some Nebbiolo wines from Piedmont, Italy may feature it, as well Portugal’s Douro Valley reds.
Part of the tropical fruit family, the Kiwi fruit has both an upfront fruity character and a grassy edge. Most common in dry and crisp white wines such as Riesling, Sauvignon Blanc, and Albarinho.
Lemon: lemon liqueur (limoncello)
A subtle and delicate floral and slightly vegetal aroma, most commonly found in gently flavored white wines such as Soave (Garganega), Roussanne, or Vermentino.
Lychee (also spelled “litchi”) is a tropical fruit native to southern China.
The aroma of litchi reminds somewhat of a fresh and fragrant grape, think of a white grape juice with mild blond sweet flavors and a floral touch like a rose would smell.
Lychees are rich in compounds called terpenes, which are also found in many flowers as well as in aromatic grapes such as Gewürztramialner and Muscats. The fermentation augments the pungency of these primary fruit characters thanks to the yeasts hydrolyzing some of the terpenes in the grape juice and making them available to our senses.
Many white dessert wines such as Sauternes, white port and all the fortified Muscat wines (Rivesaltes or Lunel in France, Pantelleria in Italy, Rutherglen in Australia) have scents of litchi.
Mineral is an elusive term that’s been the subject of many discussions and controversies over the past decade or so, since many wine connoisseurs are looking for wines that are more authentic and expressing genuine terroir characteristics therefore somewhat revealing more the soil they were grown on.
Mineral might be more of a flavor or an overall sensation provided by certain wines, a combination of acidity, saltiness, savoriness and grip from the phenolics rather than an actual ‘aroma’.
You know what mint smells like right?
Some would call it peppermint if that helps.
But you may be wondering is which wines smell like mint?
The answer is that many (relatively) do, but mint is always a subtle lifted spicy sensation going on in the background of the aromatic profile. No wine pungently smells like mint!
Examples of wines that tend to be minty include California Zinfandel, some aged Cabernet Sauvignon (like in Bordeaux’ aged claret or Napa Valley’s Meritage and Malbec), Australian reds, or Carricante.
Many of the aromas/flavors infused into a wine from oak are listed in separate entries on this page, such as vanilla, clove, caramel, coffee, sandalwood, pepper, toast, tobacco, hazelnut, or coconut.
Olive (black or green)
Part of the tropical fruit family of aromas, passion fruit is a primary character mainly found in ripe white grape varieties.
It is very typical and pungently smelt in Sauvignon Blanc wines, particularly from New Zealand, but can also be detected as a component of Chardonnay or Riesling.
Pepper (black, white, or green)
Pine (pine needles or pine resin)
Raisin (dried grapes, sultanas)
Smoke/Smoky aroma is generally caused by the wine being in contact with oak during the maturation barrel (secondary aroma). Occasionally, it may be considered coming from the grapes themselves when grown on dark volcanic soils such as the Sicilian wines grown on the Etna volcano.
Toasted Bread (Toast)
Much like walnut, wax is an aromatic trait acquired and particularly present in aged white wines.
If you notice a waxy character in a relatively young white, it may have been affected by premature oxidation. But it is a common component of the bouquet of evolved white wines or of any wine submitted to oxidation over time (Sherry, an aged Hunter Valley Riesling, old Burgundy Chardonnay, etc.).
The term beeswax indicates a more floral, and arguably more enjoyable waxy aroma in a wine that can blend in harmoniously in the complex nutty and spicy profile of a mature white wine or an aged Champagne.
Other random relatively commonly-used descriptors for wine aromas include:
macadamia nut, cola nut, elderflower, verveine tea, lemon grass, papaya, whipped cream, parsley, candy floss, boysenberry, oregano, coriander (seeds and leaves), sweat, wet stone, turpentine, curry, pawpaw, guava, agave, and many more…