It All Smells

I got a primer the other day in how a seemingly simple wine term can acquire a hopelessly muddled meaning—in this case, the term aroma, and to a lesser degree, bouquet. I thought I knew what these terms meant, incidentally: I thought a thing’s aroma was the way it smelled, and I thought that bouquet was just a froofy word that seemed to capture the whole suite of aromas a wine might emit. But I was talking with Fred Holloway (shown here), winemaker at Justin Vineyards & Winery, and he explained it like this:

“In a winemaker sense, aroma is all about the fruit, what the grapes bring; bouquet is something that is developed through processing, fermentation, barrel aging, malolactic, stirring, and racking, so the aroma is about what the grapes taste like on that first day, at harvest, and bouquet is all the things the winemaker did to it. On the first extreme, a Pinot Noir guy might just put the wine in a barrel and let it stay there until he bottles it, disturbing it as little as possible to encapsulate all that he can of the fruit characteristics, or the aroma. He might not do any racking at all because aroma comes from esters, which oxidize easily. On the other extreme is your Cabernet guy. Pinot Noir is all about what’s inside the grape, rather than in the skin; Cabernet is more about what’s in the skin. Now we’re at a Cabernet guy who extracts and ferments huge amounts of tannins and he needs to volatilize them, so he’s going to do more racking, even though it’ll cost him some fruit esters.”

Feeling good about myself, like I’d gotten that pretty well sorted out, I looked up the term aroma in Jancis Robinson’s Oxford Companion to Wine and learned that aroma is sometimes used to distinguish the relatively simple smells of young wines from the more complex bouquet of smells in bottle-aged wines; that Australians often use it Fred Holloway’s way, to distinguish varietal character from the effects of winemaking; and that tasters schooled at the University of Bordeaux use the term differently from Burgundians, who sometimes speak of “grape aromas as primary aromas, fermentation and oak aging aromas as secondary aromas, and bottle ageing aromas as either tertiary aromas or bouquet.”

This sort of thing makes me want to stick to the English language, and the relative comfort of knowing that an aroma is a smell, but it also makes me wonder what it would be like to be able to distinguish—really distinguish, with my own nose—which aromas in a serious Burgundy were from the grapes, which were from the fermentation and oak aging, and which were brought out by bottle age. It probably wouldn’t increase my enjoyment of the wine, but it sure would be fun.

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