As we always say, everyone’s experience with wine is different, and what you smell or taste does not have to be exactly the same as what the person next to you with the same glass experiences. If you think a wine smells like grapes and only grapes, then damnit that’s what it smells like. That being said, throughout the years, many people have tried to bring order to the madness of wine aromas, categorizing the wide variety of nuanced smells drinkers experience. Most famous of all of these aroma categorizations is The Wine Aroma Wheel created by Ann C. Noble, a sensory chemist who worked in the UC Davis Department of Viticulture and Enology. There have been several copies of Noble’s wheel since its creation, but hers is regarded as the original and best.
But even on the aroma wheel, not all of the smells are straightforward and pleasant. That’s because sometimes what we smell in wine can be pretty weird. Recognizing that our wine can occasionally smell a bit odd helps us recognize not only when a weird smell could indicate that something is wrong with our wine, but also when the odd smell could help us tell if there is something wonderful going on it our glass. Here are 11 of the oddest aromas you can find in wine and what they mean:
Moldy Towel/Moldy Sponge
You know the smell a towel can develop when it doesn’t dry completely? It’s similar to that of an old moldy sponge that needs to be thrown out, and it’s a smell, when present in your wine, that’s a pretty good indicator that your glassware isn’t very clean. Perhaps you used the offending sponge or towel to clean the glass. Whatever the reason, it doesn’t indicate something is wrong with your wine, but does indicate you should ask for a new glass.
The smell of gas is said to be present in very high quality German Rieslings. While this smell may not sound appealing, Riesling collectors love it.
Believe it or not, cat’s pee is an aroma many people believe helps to identify a high-quality Sauvignon Blanc. It’s a funky and tangy smell that, if you are a cat person, can be eerily similar to another odor with which you often come in contact. It’s worth noting that some people claim the smell isn’t positive, instead identifying the wine as poor, but we haven’t encountered that claim to be true for us.
Canned Green Beans
If you smell this aroma in your white wine, especially Sauvignon Blanc, chances are it was poorly made. You may want to find a different bottle to drink.
This is a smell that can occur in many young red wines, especially Syrah. What you’re really smelling here is sulfur compounds. While it may not smell that great, they’re harmless, so if the wine tastes good, you’re safe to keep on drinking. If you do hate the smell though, one solution is to get rid of the smell by dropping a clean piece of copper, a penny will do the trick, into the glass. The copper will create a chemical reaction that won’t hurt the wine, but will cause that smell to go away. Just make sure if you use a penny that it is older than 1982. Since 1982 we’ve made pennies mostly with Zinc and thus the trick won’t work.
This is sulfur rearing its ugly head again. While not harmless, it can make the wine unpleasant to drink. This smell can often occur when the winemaker has used reductive winemaking. Reductive winemaking is a process where the winemaker tries to protect and preserve the primary fruit flavors and aromas by using sulfur dioxide to prevent oxidation. However, use too much and you get the rotten egg smell. Most times the smell will blow off, especially if you let the wine decant, but if that’s not working, you could also try the penny trick we mention above, or just open a different bottle of wine. No use drinking something you don’t enjoy.
The smell of wet dog is one of the surest signs your wine is corked. Take the wine back and open a different bottle.
This is a smell most often encountered in Bordeaux blends and it occurs when you combine the smell of Cabernet Sauvignon, which can often smell like tobacco, with the aromas of Merlot, Petit Verdot and Cabernet Franc, plus the oak in which the wine was aged. The result is a smell that to a lot people resembles a box of cigars.
This is another aroma folks often smell in powerful red wines like Bordeaux. It is very desirable.
Also sometimes referred to a “forest floor” this rich and earthen smell is associated with mature, full bodied red wines.
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