“W hat I need most are flowers, always,” said French Impressionist painter Claude Monet, who masterfully captured blooms on canvas. The green-fingered painter poured as much love and attention into his elaborate gardens at Giverny in northern France, which were filled with climbing roses, long-stemmed hollyhocks and weeping willows, as he did his paintings, turning his water lily pond and Japanese-style bridge into icons of Impressionism. Affordable and immediate, flowers allowed the Impressionists to experiment with colour in a freeing fashion, depicting them in blobs, dapples, daubs and flecks of colour.
Breaking free from the austere moralism of the Victorian age, Impressionist artists – from Renoir and Manet to Cassatt and Morisot – revelled in the sensual hedonism of the visual world, using flowers as a conduit for artistic expression in their quest to capture the fleeting nature of life happening in real time on canvas. While winemakers may be equally inspired by nature, floral aromas in wine are rooted in science rather than achieved by design. Both white and red wines can offer a kaleidoscope of floral aromas, from roses and violets to geranium, lavender and citrus blossom via lilies, lilacs and peonies.
These floral notes come from chemical compounds called terpenes, which are responsible for the floral aromas and flavours we perceive in wine. If you detect notes of geranium and roses in your glass then it’s due to the terpenoid geraniol working its magic. Certain wines give off the same aromas as some of our favourite flowers. These floral notes come from the grapes, as terpenes reside in grape skins. Linalool is a terpene that creates delicate notes of lily and orange blossom, while ketones and diketones imbue lavender fragrance to a wine, and hints of elderflower and linden blossoms come from the terpene hotrienol.
Additional floral notes can spring forth during the winemaking process, as fermentation causes aromatic compounds to be created and released, and certain strains of yeast can be used to bring out the floral notes in a wine. In addition to terpenes, esters, which are compounds created by the reaction between acid and alcohol, can also create pretty floral aromas in wine, namely white blossom scents.
Floral characteristics are most commonly associated with white wines and are heavily dialled up in Gewürztraminer, which brims with exotic notes of rose petals, lychee and Turkish delight. Other flower-filled whites include Pinot Gris, Pinot Blanc, Chenin Blanc, Muscadet, Fiano, and Argentina’s flagship white grape, Torrontés, known for its heady scent of jasmine, rose and geranium. In Riesling, Chenin Blanc, Viognier and Chardonnay you’ll find subtler citrus blossom and honeysuckle aromas in your glass.
There are also plenty of red wines that display a delightful floral character, from northern Italy’s Nebbiolo – which is revered for its dried rose petal aromas – to France’s Pinot Noir and Gamay via Syrah, which can charm in the Northern Rhône with its seductive violet aromas. Proving what grows together goes together, you’ll often find hints of lavender in the GSM (Grenache, Syrah, Mourvèdre) blends from the south of France, where the shrub grows in abundance.
Burgundy’s flagship red grape, Pinot Noir, is prized for its delicate floral aromas, which lend an ethereal quality to the wines from Domaine de La Romanée-Conti. Often found dancing in the glass with juicy fruits, such as black cherries, raspberries and plums, alongside alluring spices like cinnamon, nutmeg and liquorice, DRC is celebrated for its elegant floral notes, which are more prominent in younger vintages when the primary aromas are at their peak.
According to Burgundy expert Allen Meadows, in the 2011 vintage of Domaine de la Romanée-Conti, Romanée Conti – a three-bottle lot of which will feature in Sotheby’s Finest & Rarest Wines sale in Hong Kong (23 January – 2 February) – you’ll find sumptuous notes of rose petals and spices amid the pure Pinot fruit. The 2002 vintage, meanwhile – a Jeroboam of which will be going under the hammer at the same auction – displays detailed notes of dried rose petals, kirsch and plenty of spice, according to Meadows.
Winding the clock back further, Vinous critic Neal Martin finds violets and plums in the 1999 vintage of DRC, a single bottle of which will be on sale at the auction. As for La Tâche, the 2003 vintage – two magnums of which will be making an appearance at the auction – displays notes of violets, roses and chocolate-covered black cherries, according to The Wine Advocate, which described the wine as “immensely noble” with “massive amplitude and a velvety texture”.
While intensely floral aromas in wine may not be to everyone’s taste – no one wants to feel like a bridal bouquet has landed in their glass – if handled skilfully, winemakers can use these delicate floral notes to their advantage, to give an appealing lift and aromatic elegance to their wines, elevating the tasting experience to exquisite new heights.