The Wine Smells Like Cloves


photo courtesy of Taekwonweirdo on Flickr

 Question from Chris: I can’t usually pick out flavors like strawberry or chocolate in wine but the other day I had a glass of Pinot Noir that smelled just like cloves. It was so strong I couldn’t notice anything else about the wine. Is that common? Maybe I could pick it out because I like to bake? 

Reply: Hi, Chris. Thanks for writing! Clove is, indeed, a very common descriptor for oak-aged wine. Evidently, there’s a compound known as eugenol found in oak and it’s the main aroma compound found in cloves. Don’t you just love that? Stuff like this a one of the many reasons why wine is endlessly interesting! 

Very occasionally I get a question about whether things like strawberry or licorice are actually added to the wine. If they were, the bottle would have to say “strawberry flavored wine.” It couldn’t simply say “wine” – it would have to be qualified in that way. So, all those descriptors you see in the wine ratings are derived from the grapes, the barrels, fermentation, environment (like exposure to air) and/or time. Except, of course, for the obscure descriptors used by wine writers who simply want to impress – oh, brother… So, I’d guess there was a fair amount of new oak on that Pinot you drank. Barrels are like tea bags – they give up their flavor with use. Research has shown that eugenol character is increased as the wood is air dried, usually over 18 to 36 months. Toasting is said to accentuate it, so a pronuounced clove character may indicate that the barrels were somewhat dark on the inside, or at least most of them were (the barrels are bent into shape around a small fire and then spend some extra time toasting; the flavor profile changes as the wood gets darker.) 

That’s not to say that eugenol can’t be found in some grape varieties. The origin of certain flavor characteristics can be elusive, a maddeningly enchanting part of wine. 

You’re probably right, that it was easy for you to pick it out because it’s such a familiar aroma for you. They say cooks make excellent wine tasters!

As to your ability to pick out other flavors, don’t worry. For most of us, when we’re relatively new to wine the fermentation aromas and flavors are so overwhelming that wine simply smells like wine. It just takes practice, and really tuning into the wine, for the more subtle flavors and aromas to gradually emerge. It sounds like you’re well on your way! Cheers! 

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