All arts have as their foundation some kind of structure or order–the color wheel or a system of spatial coordinates in painting, harmonic relationships between notes and the temporal spacing of beats in music, etc. Wine too has structure, the elements being fruit, acidity, tannins, and alcohol and the way they unfold which is usually described in terms of front, mid-palate and finish.
But what about aromas? Do the aromas in wine have a structure or are they just an unordered assortment. Many tasting notes suggest the latter in that they just list a collection of aromas that can be detected without indicating any relationship between them.
In thinking about how aromas contribute to wine quality, the type of aromas don’t seem to matter as long as they’re typical and inherently pleasing. No one says that they prefer wines with peach rather than apple notes. Whether a Riesling exhibits peach or apple notes might tell you a lot about the conditions under which the grapes were grown and where the wine comes from. But which aroma a wine exhibits tells us nothing about quality, as long as the apple aroma isn’t showing up in a Cabernet Sauvignon which would be atypical and may suggest a flaw. Furthermore, it seems like almost any mix of aromas is acceptable as long as they are typical and not unpleasant. A Pinot Noir that smells of cabbage can be rejected but any mixture of cherry, berry, floral, herbaceous or earthy aromas in a Pinot Noir will be acceptable since these are typical of Pinot Noir. But their presence tells us little about quality. Tasting notes that simply list aromas are giving you some information about whether the wine is typical of its type but tell you little about whether the wine is good or bad.
What does matter, however, is the clarity and precision of the aromas, and how many nuances there are. In quality wines, some of the aromas stand out from the background, they pop, and appear cleanly cut, as if someone had carefully sculpted them and put them on a pedestal. Great wines also have a frame—less prominent, yet identifiable, aromas that provide contrast with the main show but stay on the sidelines, quietly conditioning how we sense the more prominent aromas . And then finally quality wines have a background of fleeting nuances that can’t be quite identified or fixed. The role of these aromas is to provide a sense of depth, a sense that there is more here than “meets the eye” so to speak.
So aromas do have a structure of foreground, frame, and background that help determine the style and quality of a wine. Unfortunately, only rarely do inexpensive wines exhibit this structure. Most affordable wines, even the good ones, have murky aromas that barely emerge from a flat background lacking nuance.