Vinography's Alder Yarrow on the seven most curious flavors and aromas he's found in wine, from lilacs to bubble gum.

By Megan Krigbaum
Updated May 23, 2017

Describing what a wine tastes like with words is a little like trying to describe the ocean to someone who's never left the cornfields of Iowa, but these are the challenges we wine writers face. In his astoundingly beautiful new book, The Essence of Wine, Alder Yarrow, the man behind wine blog Vinography, faces this task head on. He points to 46 different flavors and aromas that he’s discovered in his years of wine tasting. And then he muses on them, reminiscing about childhood summers by way of watermelon flavors, and the “razor’s edge between danger and deliciousness” that exists in the aroma of licorice. For each scent, Yarrow gives a list of wines where the flavors can be encountered. “Finding amazing aromas in wine is like a treasure hunt, of sorts,” he says. “You never know when you’re going to run across something astonishing.”

The book, shot by talented still-life photographer Leigh Beisch, is visually transporting in the same way that it’s palate-pleasing, an excellent gift for anyone who loves to really mull over a wine.

We asked Yarrow to tell us about the seven most surprising flavors or aromas he’s found in a glass and here’s what he had to say:

1. Lilacs
“One of my favorite flower scents in the world – lilacs lilacs—rarely appear in wines for me. But recently, on a visit to the Perrin Family in Châteauneuf-du-Pâpe, I got a chance to taste a bottle of their 1991 vintage and fresh lilac blossoms burst from the glass with a perfume that took my breath away.”

2. Cucumber
“Certain white wines, can sometimes edge from the more common grassy and green apple quality into a more vegetal space, and that’s exactly what I encountered in a glass of 2013 Sauvignon Blanc from Umathum in Austria’s Burgenland region this past summer. It was a wonderful, cool flavor that was utterly refreshing on a pretty hot day.”

3. Toasted Sesame
“Those of us who love Champagne are used to tasting warm bread and yeasty flavors in sparkling wines that have aged for a long time on their lees. I can recall, however, one bottle of 2005 Bründlmayer Sekt sparkling wine that was a blend of Pinot Blanc, Pinot Noir, Pinot Gris, Chardonnay, and Grüner Veltliner that smelled of toasted sesame paste and tasted of sesame oil. It was a remarkable sensation, and coupled with the faintly saline quality of the wine, it made the wine positively gulpable.”

4. Bubble Gum
“I occasionally find aromas of classic pink bubble gum in some Japanese sakes, but I came across it recently in wine with a glass of 2013 Chateau Beaubois “Expression” rosé from Costieres de Nimes in France. This Provencal rosé was a blend of Syrah, Grenache and Cinsault and had a wonderful mineral and cherry quality to it, in addition to that unmistakable flavor of pink gum that had me looking around for baseball cards or Archie comics.”

5. Cannabis
“Some winemakers in California are known to be making small batches of wine infused with marijuana these days. I’ve never tried them but they tend to get rave reviews. I have, however, smelled Pinot Noirs that possess the character of resiny marijuana buds. One of the more recent bottles was a 2011 Adelsheim Vineyards Pinot Noir from their Ribbon Springs Vineyard in Oregon’s Willamette Valley. The combination of fresh raspberries and sinsemilla was striking and delicious.”

6. Tapenade
“There are two things I would eat even if they were spread on cardboard: One is fresh goat cheese. The other is tapenade. So when I find that flavor in wine I’m liable to drink more than my share. One of my favorite such experiences was tasting back through some vintages of Matthiasson Cabernet Sauvignons from Napa this year. At the moment the 2009 has a fantastic savory tapenade quality that is really compelling.”

7. Juniper berries
“One of the most unique smelling wines I’ve had in recent memory was on a trip to Sicily. I was going mostly for the red wines grown on the slopes of Mount Etna, but at the urging of my guide, I took a side trip to a tiny village in the interior of the country called Castelluccio. There, a small cooperative winery known as Castellucimiano has been making pretty tremendous wines for more than a decade. They are best known for their white wines, but one of their reds, made from the grape Perricone and called “Perricone” was incredible. It smelled of a combination of crushed juniper berries, carob, and orange bitters and tasted like boysenberries and mulberries. It was exotic and delicious.”