Wine Characteristics – The Scent of a Wine

Red Wine Tasting Man

image courtesy of The Chopping Block

Wine Characteristics – The Scent of a Wine
Written by Wine Correspondent Debra Meiburg MW
Hong Kong



Don’t be cowed by experienced wine tasters who seem to discern every scent on the planet in a glass of wine. While you can let your imagination run wild with such descriptions as “sweaty gym socks” or “Angelina in a Jacuzzi,” most wine aromas fall into a modest number of categories. When fumbling to comment about wine, here’s a tip: skip subtle descriptors like truffle, spice, vanilla and leather. Instead, think like a fruitarian: all wines exude fruit aromas.

Identifying exactly which fruit might seem daunting, but you can bluff your way through the fruit bowl by detecting clues from the wine’s colour, origin or grape varieties. Most grape varieties are consistently associated with one or two fruit families. For example, a glass of Riesling will always have a citrusy scent, whereas Chenin Blanc will always have an apple-like scent. Pinot Noir has a raspberry note, whereas Sangiovese, the variety used to produce Chianti, tastes of cherries.

You can memorize these standard characteristics, or you can play fruit detective based on climate or colour. When it comes to colour, red wines smell only of red or purple fruits, such as strawberry, cherry, plums and blackberries. White wines, on the other hand, call to mind the non-purple fruit classes. When sipping white wines, look for aromas found in green, yellow or orange-skinned fruit. Examples include apple, pear, mango, pineapple or the citrus family.

The climate of the wine’s origin provides more clues. White wines from cooler climes are likely to smell of green-skinned fruits, such as limes and green apples, whereas temperate climates evoke thoughts of delicate yellow-skinned, white-fleshed fruits such as pears, white peaches and yellow apples. White wines from warmer climates resonate with yellow-fleshed fruits such as pineapple, papaya, nectarines and mango.

Thus, Chenin Blanc from a cool climate like France’s Loire Valley smells of tart green apples, whereas Chenin Blanc from a temperate climate, such as in California’s Sonoma County, smells like ripe yellow apples, whereas when from warmer South Africa, it smells of nectarines.

If red wine comes from a fairly cool climate, it is likely to reflect red-skinned fruits, such as strawberry, raspberry and cherry. Red wines from warmer climates are likely to smell of ripe, dark-skinned purple fruits, such as blackberries and plum preserves.

Wine colour can also provide a fruit aroma clue. With white wines, the lighter the colour, then the more likely it is from a cool climate whereas deeper-hued wines are most likely from warmer origins. Thus, wine with a light, almost watery hue, will probably have a citrus or green-skinned fruit theme. White wines with moderate colour suggest a temperate climate and call to mind apples, pears or white peaches, whereas white wines with a golden hue are likely to smell of ripe yellow fleshed fruits such as peach, mango and papaya.

Fruits are never added to wine, of course, but their esters – or scent molecules – are remarkably similar in structure to wine esters. If the above clues are too fruity to remember, simply announce “loads of ripe fruit” or if you can’t smell a thing, use your most sophisticated voice to pronounce “such subtle fruit.”


Wine Characteristics – The Scent of a Wine
Written by Wine Correspondent Debra Meiburg MW
Hong Kong


  1. Barb says:

    Love the last line……….thanks. B

  2. Marvin says:

    Great !! viva el vino

  3. Demetri says:

    Dear Debra,
    I liked your article, which I sent to my new PA to read.
    However, we shall have to agree to disagree on the quintessential olfactory characteristics of Pinot Noir, which I would suggest are more closely associated with strawberry aromas.
    Of course, in an article of this nature, your comments are naturally generalised, but to say that “a glass of Riesling will always have a citrusy scent” is rather misleading and inaccurate. Some of the greatest Rieslings are, of course, the sweet wines, like Trockenbeerenauslese, which are invaraibly affected by Botrytris or concentrated on the vine, and they have other aroma profiles.
    I would also argue that cold-climate Chenin Blanc from the Loire is more akin to quince than tart green apples.
    But hey, wine is heaven scent (sorry) and one woman’s cherry is another man’s jacuzzi. Salut Demetri

  4. Hi Demetri,

    Thank you for your comments and thanks for sharing with your colleague! Of course, the aromas must be generalised and there are always exceptions, which is why we love talking about wine so much! And then there is the question of culture. For example, I appreciate that Chenin is quince for you, but as most people in Asia have never had quince, this would be hard to imagine. Anyway, the scents are simply a starting place to build aroma memory and experiences. Let’s hope that the wine selection in our markets continues to broaden and so that we can keep the discussion rolling!

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