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Simplify your wine tasting vocabulary

Wine tasting vocabulary becomes confusing when we mix aroma perceptions and technical interpretation. We then taste with our brain, not our senses.

Published July 9, 2021

I always thought of “aroma” as one concept; it’s the sensory perception evoked by one or several volatile aroma compounds that you may call aromatics. We detect an aroma with our sense of smell.

But, I was challenged in class the other day to explain the difference between wine aroma and bouquet. The question puzzled me because 

  1. I never use the word bouquet, except when I speak French (bouquet translates to a bunch of flowers) and,
  2. I have rarely heard professionals in the wine industry use this term. 

So I turned the question back to the students. Some did an online search. They reported that Wine Folly defines a wine bouquet as “derived from the winemaking process of fermentation and aging”(1). In contrast, they explained that a wine aroma was “derived from the grape variety.” This article also started like this, which made me smile.

 “The terms wine aroma and wine bouquet are not exactly scientific, but they can be useful to classify the origin of where the smells come from in wine.” 

Useful, how?

Is classifying wine aromas by their origin (grapes or process) beneficial to enjoy wine?

I think it’s more confusing. 

It raises another barrier preventing people new to the wine world from starting to enjoy their wine discovery. They think they have to learn these classifications before expressing what they like or don’t like about a wine. That’s wrong.

And there is also this other grouping of primary, secondary, and tertiary aromas. Where does it fit?

In his book Wine Tasting, Ronald Jackson explained why these classifications are confusing, and I would add, not helpful. 

“ Similar and identical aromatics may be derided from grapes, yeast, or bacterial metabolism, or by abiotic chemical reactions.” (2) p.63 

In other words, when you smell chocolate in a wine, you have to explain if it comes from the grape variety or wine aging in oak barrels. 

Let’s keep it simple.

Describe wine like a sensory scientist

I train wine lovers to describe wine by analogy to products that have a typical aroma. 

As a sensory taster, you will describe wine aromas by referencing the product sources familiar to you. “This wine aroma reminds me of...a cooked apple or kerosene.” 

And yes, you have stored this information into our olfactory memory; it’s available to you already. There is no need to go to school.

Describing wine like a scholar makes you interpret the aroma you smell with your cognitive memory, not your perceptive memory. It becomes an intellectual exercise requiring long hours of prior study, indeed. 

An aroma is an aroma

We may call it an odor or a smell or a scent, or a fragrance. 

An aroma can be pleasant or disgusting, and all gradation in between. It can be produced by nature or by flavor chemists.

An aroma is a sensory perception evoked by one or several volatile aroma compounds you detect with your sense of smell.

My challenge to you

Next time you open a bottle of wine to taste, describe its aroma like a sensory taster.

Be mindful of what your nose detects. Think of what the smell reminds you of, not if it comes from the grape or the yeast metabolism. 

  • Does the aroma remind you of a fruit or an animal, a spice or a vegetable?
  • Or is it a color that comes to mind or is it a place?

Indeed, our ability to memorize aromas of all sorts is reinforced when we remember at the same time the place where we have encountered this aroma and how we felt. 

Are you up to this challenge?


(1) Tips on Tasting: Wine Bouquet vs Aroma. Wine Folly, March 2016

(2) Wine Tasting. A Professional Handbook. Ron Jackson, 2002. Elseview, Academic Press.

Categories: Tasting education, wine aroma

Isabelle Lesschaeve

Principal, Blog author, and Wine Tasting Coach

Internationally renowned wine sensory scientist, Isabelle demystifies wine tasting and helps serious wine lovers sharpen their tasting skills and tasting notes in a supportive community.

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