Unpolished Grape 101: What Makes a White Grape “Aromatic?”

White wines can be placed into two broad categories: “aromatic” and “non-aromatic.”

What is an Aromatic Grape?

“Aromatic,” stemming from the root-word “aroma,” describes grapes that have pronounced fruity and floral flavors and aromas. For these wines, the aromas are so intense that you can often smell them as soon as you open the bottle or pour them into the glass. The beautiful notes are sometimes so strong that they jump out of the glass and dance around the air. Some examples of aromatic grape varieties are Sauvignon Blanc, Riesling, Torrontés and Muscat.

Non-Aromatic Grapes

On the contrary, most other white grapes fall into the non-aromatic grape category. These grapes are more neutral, with subtle aromas and less pronounced flavors. If you were to pour a glass of non-aromatic wine, you may have to sniff a lot harder in order to smell the aromas. Some examples of non-aromatic grapes are Chardonnay, Pinot Grigio, Viognier, and Chenin Blanc.

Whether a grape is or isn’t aromatic is not indicative of its quality. There are famous and prestigious expressions of both. The differences factor in to how the grapes are handled in the winery.

Aromatic and Non-aromatic Grapes in the Winery

Many winemakers prefer to preserve the natural fruity and floral notes of aromatic grapes without using heavy wine-making techniques that could mask their natural flavors. Therefore, the grapes are carefully handled in the winery in a “reductive” manner, limiting their exposure to oxygen and other agents that could interfere with their delicate aromas. Winemakers will also make sure the grapes have little contact with their skins, use careful clarification techniques to ensure the wine is clear and pure, and avoid the MLF (Malolactic Fermentation/Conversion) processes that add a buttery taste to white wines.

Non-aromatic white grapes give winemakers more room to play and experiment in efforts to add flavor complexity to the more neutral grapes. For example, the wine may be exposed to oxygen to introduce new flavors and prepare it for long-term aging. Or, the wines may be mixed with its lees (dead yeasts) after fermentation to add pastry notes and a thicker texture. Furthermore, some of these lees and matter could remain in the wine to later form sediment in the bottle. White wines could also undergo MLF to add creamy and buttery notes. Or they could even sit in oak barrels for a period of time, picking up additional tannins and spicy flavors from the wood.

Both aromatic and non-aromatic grapes are delicious for different reasons!


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