You pour yourself a glass of crisp white wine, but before you can even get your nose in the glass for a good sniff, the aromas are already leaping out at you: peach, grapefruit, melon, honey! You, my friend, have just experienced an aromatic wine. Aromatic wines refer to a category of white grapes that produce wines with leap-out-of-the-glass-and-smack-you-in-the-nose aromas. These wines are often light and refreshing, although their aromas can be so complex and beguiling that they demand the kind of concentration usually reserved for red Burgundies and astrophysics.
These pronounced aromas come from the grape itself, and not from other factors like oak. A wine’s smell comes from alcohols and acids combining during the fermentation and maturation processes to form smells that are familiar to us, like strawberry, cherry and leather. Aromatic wines are often described as having tropical fruit, exotic flowers and perfumed characteristics. Classic aromatic grape varieties include riesling, viognier, albariño, torrontés, and the king of aromatics, gewürztraminer. Gewürztraminer’s tropical fruit (lychees are often invoked) and floral (think rose petal) aromas can be so powerful that you can smell the wine before your nose gets within a foot of the glass.
There are also semi-aromatic varieties, whose aromatic intensity varies according to where they are grown. Pinot gris (or pinot grigio as it is called in Italy) often produces a rather neutral white wine, except when it’s grown in France’s Alsace region, where it develops intense honey, nut and floral characteristics. Other cool climates such as Germany, Austria and northern Italy can also tease something special from this grape. Another semi-aromatic variety is sauvignon blanc, which in warm or moderate climates (like Napa Valley’s) is often subdued. But put sauvignon blanc in a New Zealand frame of mind, and your glass explodes with heady green and tropical fruit aromas.
And finally, some varieties are non-aromatic. This doesn’t mean that they don’t have an aroma, just that the aroma isn’t very pungent. Chardonnay is a classic example of a non-aromatic wine. Depending on where the grapes were grown, chardonnay can have faint aromas of apple, pear and white blossom, but these flavors hardly jump out of the glass. The aroma that most people associate with chardonnay, however, is fairly strong, but it doesn’t come from the grape itself; it comes from oak barrels.