17 Compounds Determined Most of a Red Wine's Aroma, Study Finds

Only one red wine was tested, but this "fingerprint" could help enhance wine aromas in the future.

Some wine notes we can all get on board with: lemon, raspberry, vanilla… sure. But then you also have those infamous phrases that leave casual drinkers wondering what they're missing: baby diaper, pencil shavings, horse blanket. You don’t even have a horse… or a baby! Are people really getting all these odd aromas? Well, though the words are still in the nose of the beholder, a new study suggests that wines may have a distinct amount of compounds that contribute to the majority of their scent. For the wine in this research, it was 17 to be exact.

Red Wine Aroma Compounds
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Using gas mass chromatography, a team of scientists from Spain and Romania analyzed at over 80 volatile compounds that contributed to the aroma in a Romanian red wine and found that only 17 of them accounted for 95 percent of the wine’s detectable scent. For the chemistry-curious, those compounds were ethyl propanoate, ethyl butanoate, ethyl octanoate, ethyl acetate, isoamyl acetate, isobutanol, 2-methyl-1-butanol, 2-phenylethanol, E-2-hexenol, octanal, nonanal, decanal, γ-nonalactone, furfural, 5-methylfurfural, 2-methoxy-4-vinylphenol, and cis-whiskey lactone… and now you know why people use words like lemon and horse blanket instead!

According to an announcement from the University of Cordoba in Spain—where two of the researchers are based—the findings in this study can’t necessarily be extrapolated to all wines, since only one type of red wine was tested. (Frustratingly, the specific type of wine isn’t mentioned. I’ve reached out to the authors for clarification.) However, the research was able to create a so-called “fingerprint” of this wine, and further work could “help guide a wine's organoleptic profile by making certain aroma combinations stronger.” This study’s primary goal was actually to look at how wine ages, so nailing down the 17 specific compounds was somewhat of a secondary finding.

And regardless, these results can make for interesting conversation at your next wine tasting. Aromas are almost certainly subjective based on whoever is doing the smelling, but a paper like this would seem to imply that, though how a wine is perceived and the words we use to describe it may be individualized, the chemical profile coming off a glass of wine is far more defined.

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