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When it comes to wine tasting, the nose has it
By Ruby Gao

SMELLING and decoding aromas in wine can bring a lot of fun to tasting, sometimes as much as the drinking itself.

Smell, often referred to as the nose, acts as an indicator, making a strong statement about where the wine comes from and what it tastes like. However, it can also be illusional, smelling as sweet as chocolate yet tasting totally dry.

Wine critiques and educators prefer using aroma and bouquet to distinguish two kinds of smell in wine. Aroma refers to smell associated with grape variety and producing area, mostly in young wine, while bouquet describes smell developed after wine aging and bottling.

There are wide ranges of smell identified in wine — from flower and tobacco to leather and spices, depending on people’s perceptions and memory of smell. Various fruit aromas are the most common and recognized. Interestingly, those fruit aromas are generally unrelated to grapes, the ingredient of wine.

In red wine, aromas of blueberry, blackberry, strawberry, raspberry, black currant and cherry are common while in white, notes of mango, peach, lychee, apricot, apple and lemon are easily identified. White wine made from muscat is an exception, with a distinctive aroma close to grape.

Renowned Chinese wine educator and Master of Wine candidate Stephan Li points out that it’s the volatile and nonvolatile compounds in grape skin and juice that make wine aromatic.

“Those nonvolatile compounds turn volatile after fermentation, which explains why grapes smell and taste like grapes but wine doesn’t,” says Li.

Each grape variety has its own compounds so that different varietal wines smell differently.

Sometimes a grape variety can taste totally different from the same one if it comes from a different wine region. Take Chardonnay as an example. The wine from a cool region such as Chablis features aroma of green fruit while those from comparatively warm regions such as Chile feature note of tropical fruit, Li says.


Though there are typical aromas in wine, such as lychee in Gewurztraminer, raspberry in Pinot Noir and blackberry in Cabernet Sauvignon, most varietals don’t have a single aroma. In addition, many wines are blends of different grape varieties.

For understanding and sharing wine more easily, wine professionals worldwide popularly use a Western wine vocabulary, categorizing fruit aromas into red, black, tropical and green.

Red fruit mainly refers to aromas of raspberry, cherry, cranberry, strawberry and red currant. These can be easily found in Beaujolais reds made from Gamay; Burgundy and New Zealand reds made from Pinot Noir; some Spanish reds made from Tempranillo; Italian Piedmont wines made from Barbera and Nebbiolo; and Tuscan reds made from Sangiovese.

Black fruit generally refers to black currant, blackberry, blueberry and plum. Most of the red wines made from Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrah have black fruit note. But the fruitiness of wines made in the New World is generally more direct and bold while that in the Old World seems comparatively restrained.

When talking about white wine, especially those made in places with a warm climate, wine critics love using the word “tropical fruit” to describe the nose.

Tropical fruit is a big category, covering pineapple, melon, mandarin, papaya, mango, peach, lychee, guava, banana, apricot, passion fruit and banana.

Those fruits are often found in aromatic New World Chardonnay.

Passion fruit is often found in New Zealand’s Sauvignon Blanc. Peach sometimes appears in ripe Old World Riesling, especially in some off-dry wines.

Peach together with pineapple are often an indication of noble rot (a sweet dessert wine made from botrytised grapes), such as Tokay (a kind of noble rot sweet wine made in Hungary) and Sauternes (a noble rot sweet wine made in Bordeaux from Semillon and Sauvignon Blanc).

Smell of banana can be found in wine that has undergone carbonic maceration, such as Beaujolais nouveau.

Green fruit basically includes lime, green apple and green pear. Such aromas are typical in white wines from cool areas, represented by Chardonnay from Chablis, Sauvignon Blanc and Chenin Blanc from the Loire Valley in France and Riesling from Australia.

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