Earthy-aroma wine emblem made of polymer clay by Melanie Wynne

This wine emblem, which I created from polymer clay while simultaneously enjoying a Carménère from Chile, depicts earthy aromas commonly detected in medium-to-full-bodied red wines. I considered it an excellent excuse to make a tiny saddle.

If you’ve ever sniffed a bold red wine — let’s say a Cabernet Sauvignon from Napa, a Shiraz from Australia’s Barossa, or a Syrah from the Rhône —  and had an aromatic impression of any of the items pictured in my wine emblem above, congratulations: you have an excellent sense of smell.

The following are the items pictured above, alongside the stuff that causes them to (pleasantly) stink up your wine:

Autumn leaves/forest floor, mushrooms and potting soil. It doesn’t get earthier than this, folks. Let’s say you have a vineyard with damp, rich soil. It’s extremely likely that this soil will host industrious bacteria called Actinobacteria that help break down dead organisms into various organic compounds that can be used to nourish grapevines. One of these organic compounds is called geosmin, which imparts mulch-like odors to grape skins. Yay, nature!

Leather. When I smell leather in red wine, it makes me think of a saddle — when really, this smell is caused by the tannins in the grape skins used to make that wine. Tannins are naturally occurring organic compounds called polyphenols that live in grape skins, seed, and stems, and are released when these grape solids soak in grape juice during fermentation. In the resulting wine, we perceive tannins by their fresh-leather scent and a sense of astringent dryness on our tongues. A scent of old leather — worn-saddle leather, if you will — can be attributed to the presence of a yeast called Brettanomyces (“Brett” for short). Brett is sometimes found in old and/or unclean barrels, and often highly desired by winemakers and wine enthusiasts. Go figure.

Tobacco, smoke, ash and wood. Speaking of barrels, if your red wine spends about a year or more in standard 225-liter barrels made with new French oak, chances are good that it’ll exhibit these woody, smoky aromas. Wood scents in particular also tend to show up in red wines that have been bottle-aged for a few years. If you swoon over these scents, uncork a Bordeaux blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, and Cabernet Franc.

Chocolate and coffee. These rich, dusky scents are sometimes produced by pyrazines, organic compounds that are also responsible for green, vegetal aromas in wine (e.g., green bell pepper, grass). More often, though, these cozy smells are produced by sulfur-containing compounds called thiols. 

Nutmeg, cinnamon and anise. Again with the thiols. However, these comforting scents — often described collectively as “baking spices” — can also be the result of aging in barrels made from French or Hungarian oak.

Steak and charcuterie. Red wines that have been bottle-aged for a long while will often evoke the rich, sweet, oily scents of rare steak and cured meats. The cured-meat scent, as well as gamey aromas like those of wild boar and venison, can also be attributed to low levels of Brettanomyces. If you like a little meat in your wine, try Rhône Syrah, Aglianico from southern Italy, and Burgundy Pinot Noir.

Truffles. This pungent, heady and mushroom-y scent is the result of low levels of volatile-sulfur compounds (e.g., hydrogen sulfide) that are sometimes produced during alcoholic fermentation. If it’s present in your wine, you can catch a whiff as it warms in your glass, but tends to burn off within 30 minutes of exposure to air — so dig deep.

Earthy-aroma wine emblem displayed with the cork of a darn earthy Joseph Drouhin Cote de Beaune. (Artwork by Melanie Wynne)