Ever wondered why wine experts are always detecting floral notes in wine such as rose petals or elderflowers in their Sauvignon Blancs? Well there is a science behind it, and you can learn the tricks too. Top wine writer Henry Jeffreys explains…
Like most people of my generation, my first experience with the strange world of wine tasting was watching Jilly Goolden and Oz Clarke on Food & Drink on BBC 2.
It was the highlight of an otherwise rather worthy programme to see the delight Goolden and Clarke took in outdoing each other with elaborate wine comparisons. Jilly usually won with something like “old gyms shoes strewn with rose petals.” As a child I assumed that they were a sort of comedy turn, making stuff up as they went along.
But the truth is that they really do know their stuff. Certainly Oz Clarke is one of the most astounding tasters out there. The Daily Mail once put on a blind tasting where professionals tried to tell cheap wines from expensive. Some in the test couldn’t, but Clarke got them all right. He even managed to deduce the exact Chateau and vintage of the better wines.
Jilly and Oz in their heyday (Image credit.)
And those outlandish descriptions beloved by Goolden and Clarke weren’t metaphors. They weren’t as the American writer Adam Gopnik said “a series of elaborately plausible compliments paid to wines” – rather, they described something that was actually there.
When Goolden said “Hmmm… summer lawns in the Home Counties” when smelling a Sauvignon Blanc she was referring to organic compounds present in some wines called pyrazines which provide a characteristically grassy taste. You don’t just get them in Sauvignon Blanc but also in slightly under-ripe Cabernet Sauvignon. This flavour in small quantities is an important part of the characteristic flavour of traditional claret.
How to spot floral notes in wine
Floral notes in wine are provided by a variety of compounds such as monoterpenes. One such is rose oxide (chemical formula for those interested C10H18O), which occurs in the Alsace grape Gewurztraminer and provides that characteristic heady rose petal flavour. Some Alsace tastings can be like wandering into the Sicilian garden from Lampedusa’s great novel The Leopard:
“. . . . the carnations superimposed their pungence on the formal fragrance of roses and the oily emanations of magnolias drooping in corners; and somewhere beneath it all was a faint smell of mint mingling with a nursery whiff of acacia and the jammy one of myrtle; from a grove beyond the wall came an erotic waft of early orange blossom.”
Ahh, just like when the Freddie’s Flowers man arrives!
Syrah especially from the Northern Rhone has a floral scent reminiscent of lavender that comes from a compound called linalool, a type of terpene alcohol which also occurs in cannabis. In fact this compound can become particularly pungent in California. Syrahs from Sonoma often smell sweetly of weed.
If you think I’m talking nonsense, try a bottle of Muscat, probably the most floral of all varieties. You cannot miss that scent of orange blossom.
Once you start detecting floral notes in wine you start to notice them all over the place. Bordeaux especially from Margaux is often floral. Grenache and Chardonnay sometimes have a scent of wild flowers.
It’s often a good way of guessing where a wine is from: wines from Greece and Turkey often have a heady almost Turkish delight type quality. English wines especially those made from Bacchus smell of elderflowers. Riesling from the Mosel smells of apple blossom, Nebbiolo from Piedmont smells of rose petals and tar.
When people first get into wine, they tend to look for fruit, but flowers and herbs are often a more enlightening way to think about wine. So don’t be afraid, next time you open a good bottle of wine take a deep breath and channel your inner Jilly.
Six wines to sniff out:
Lavender: Syrah Jaboulet £8.49 – Majestic as part of a mixed case
Made by one of the top producers in the Northern Rhone but from fruit grown further south, yet it does have that characteristically Northern Syrah floral note.
Violets: Fleurie Bouchard Pere et Fils 2015 – Waitrose £11.99
Some wines sell on their flowery connotations. One such is the aptly named Fleurie from the Beaujolais region. It’s made from Gamay grape and offers ripe summer pudding flavours.
Rose petal: Dopff & Irion Gewurztraminer La cuvée Rene Dopff 2014 – Slurp £10.95
Gewurztraminer is the most distinctive grape variety in the world. Floral notes in wine can be a little too strong, like flowers that have been kept too long, but this is fresh and well-balanced.
Apple blossom: Loimer Riesling Lenz 2014 – Buon Vino £13.50
This wine is drier and fuller bodied than you’d get from a Riesling from the Mosel in Germany yet it still has that intoxicating scent of apple blossom.
Honeysuckle: Domaine du Biguet St. Péray ‘Nature’ 2014 – Yapp Bros £18.10
An unusual wine, a sparkler made in the Northern Rhone from a grape variety called Marsanne. This has a rich texture with notes of hazelnut and lemon rind alongside those floral aromas.
Orange blossom: Muscat Beaume de Venise 2009 Domaine des Coyeux – Corney & Barrow £9.75 half bottle
Another one from the South of France, a gentle sweet fruity wine with a distinct orange blossom taste that would be lovely with goat’s cheese.