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Wine Aroma: A Missed Opportunity?


The Nose Knows with Wine

Expert Editorial

I once heard a sports car aficionado guy say-if a car looks sleek today it will probably be impressive forever. Maybe, when it comes to sleek aromas in wine-a great aroma experience will be remembered and sought after for a long time. Aroma sensations have a palate of thousands and taste only has five (salty, sweet, bitter, sour and maybe what is known as umami). The nose can define hundreds (some say a thousand) of aromas that can take the drinker to many pleasant experiences of smell.

It has been decades since my wife and I visited the then new Robert Mondavi Winery in Napa. The facilities weren’t quite finished at that time but had already started producing some wines. The first wine we tasted in a makeshift tasting room was a Chardonnay and still, to this day, we remember the aromas of that Chardonnay; I became addicted to that aroma. I remember the aroma of that wine vividly and the place. I have said and written often, I would rather smell a great wine than taste it; well, maybe some of the time. Wines without distinct aromas are a waste of time, calories and money.

A sampling size of two (my wife and I) attesting to the power of aromas and years of enjoyment of Mondavi’s Chardonnay does not constitute sound research. So, let me quote some other’s viewpoint about aromas. Look what a Winetech Technical article by Dr. J. Marais says, “Wine aroma probably accounts for the most important component of the quality and enjoyment of wine.” Ambius US says, that studies have shown people can recall a scent/aroma with 65% accuracy after 1 year while visual memory sinks to 50% in a matter of months. I can be unequivocal when I say, I can still recall the aroma of the Mondavi Chardonnay 40 years later.

“A smell can bring on a flood of memories, influence people’s moods and even affect their work performance. Because the olfactory bulb is part of the brain’s limbic system, an area so closely associated with memory and feeling it’s sometimes called the “emotional brain,” smell can call up memories and powerful responses almost instantaneously,” says Sara Dowdey-How Stuff Works. If you have doubts, consider this–do you have a favorite smell/aroma that you remember and almost instantly remember when and where that exciting aroma/nose came to you?

Many industries today spend a great deal of effort to create an: emotion, memory, and even improve productivity using aromas. Healthcare treatments do employ elements of aromatherapy that have positive impact on patient health.

Promoting wine aromas should be a top priority in selling wine, especially in tasting rooms. I wonder why more tasting rooms and tasting events conducted by wineries don’t highlight the exotic aromas in their wine? Maybe even on labels some space could be for aromas. New RFID or QR code labels would be a great way to go deeper into the subject.

My experiences at winery tasting rooms is that people belly up to the bar, slap down $10 (or more) and are entitled to a flight of wines to taste with a focus self-evaluation of only taste; nothing is said about aromas. I know customer contact time is expensive, but to some degree the customer is paying for that time anyway. Are wineries missing an opportunity to sell wine and build brand loyalty based upon the significance aromas have in projecting quality-here is a quality wine, use your nose and enjoy it fully?

Dr. J. Marais writing in “Wineland Magazine” said, “Wine aroma probably accounts for the most important component of the quality and enjoyment of wine.” Well, isn’t the enjoyment of quality wine number one on your list? What he is saying is, aromas are a primary indicator of a quality wine. Science Daily, November 2006 agrees, “Aroma is a highly important aspect determining the quality of wine. Primary aromas are those belonging to and characteristic of the variety of grape used for the elaboration of the wine.” If aroma leads a wine consumer to quality wines, would not aroma be a top priority in wine making.

In an August 13, 2018 article in Wine Business Ted Rieger reported, “California State University, Fresno have (sic) begun a study to better understand human sensory responses on wine quality based on bodily responses to wine aromas and flavors.” Again, aroma is central to defining a quality wine experience.

Most of us want to buy wine that has attributes oenophiles/oenologist/viticulturalist define as quality. Aromas alone are not the only signs of quality but there seems to be a preponderance of information from researchers in that direction. For example, in an article by Dr. Tim Martinson and Raquel Kallas of Cornell University, quality starts in the vineyard with meticulous monitoring of the three stages of berry growth, especially what happens from veraison to the fruit reaching the winery. The third stage of berry growth is where compounds come together to add aromas. In the winery the fermentation process adds elements of aromas and then the barrels add the magic of oak. As reported by Ted Reiger in his report with California State University, Fresno, the phrase “good wine is made in the vineyard undoubtedly has its basis in the development of the flavors and aroma compounds in the fruit. All else being equal, these are arguably the most important players in determining quality and expressing the typicity of a wine.”

With approximately 800 compounds in wine it is no wonder wine is such a complex and mystical experience. These compounds can be manipulated in the wine making process that produces aromas. Again, I wonder why wineries in their effort to sell wine don’t stress the “aroma” aspect of their products in a way that is memorable and promotes the experience to potential consumers in front of them. As the CSU-Fresno study is showing, it is easy for someone to watch the facial expressions of someone smelling the aromas of wine to see if they are pleased or need help understanding what the winemaker is trying to produce.

Understanding aromas is important in selling wine. “Wine industry knowledge of human sensory ability to detect specific aromas can be important for wine producers making decisions to enhance certain aromas for certain markets. If humans can’t perceive a wine quality characteristic, then it has no meaning for many consumers,” said Dr. Pedroza, CSU, Fresno. He said it well: a producer needs to market specific aromas to specific consumers. Without an emotional identity it is hard to sell wine effectively.

Some researchers say the nose can distinguish thousands of scents; some pleasant some not so much.

What can affect the nose/aromas developed by hundreds of compounds in wine:

  • Ripeness of the fruit at crush
  • Terroir
  • Varietal
  • Winemaking processes employed-
    • Fermentation
    • Yeasts
    • Use of oak or lack of oak
    • Ageing-tertiary effect
    • Blending

Speaking as a consumer I think winery tasting rooms and events could do better branding with aromas; but, who am I? I once heard someone say, everybody is an expert at airlines, sex, and advertising; let’s add wine drinkers to that list. One glass of wine and we now have a new expert. However, that new expert is a consumer that is looking for a quality wine and emotional bond with a wine they want to really like.


Steven LayExpert Editorial
by Steven Lay, owner, Image of Wine

Steven Lay has spent 30 years in the travel exhibition industry holding C level positions in Marketing and Product Development. Most recently Mr. Lay was the Chief Marketing Officer for a major on-line travel company. Currently, he owns a company that produces wine related gift/award products for large corporate events and a produces a tour program to New World wine areas.

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