Rosemary: A Southerner With A Northern Terpene Profile

  • By François Chartier
  • 13 Jan 2021
  • 5 MIN
  • Level 201
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Rosemary and Lemon - Credit : CHARTIER "Créateur d'harmonies"

Let’s start with a bit of Chemistry 101... The volatile compounds found in rosemary belong to the terpenoid family, substances in plants which, in the case of vines, help typify the aroma of certain wines. This is especially true with Muscat, as with Gewürztraminer and Riesling (all of which are endowed with terpene aromatic molecules). In short, white wines, yet in most cases rosemary is used to enhance dishes when cooking, especially with meats such as lamb, which is then paired with red wines.

In the Mediterranean region, where rosemary is ubiquitous, it is used as a seasoning for vegetable or fish dishes. We naturally think of a white or rosé wine from Provence or one of the many white-grape varieties of the Mediterranean basin, in harmony with its regional provenance.

Yet, Riesling and Gewürztraminer are rare in the growing areas of the south of France. Muscat, native to this region, is more than abundant but usually vinified as a naturally sweet wine (sweet and rich in alcohol). It is not readily adapted in harmony with salty dishes, except, of course, for the refined dry Muscats from Alsace.

You may believe that hints of fresh rosemary are rare in a Riesling or a Gewürztraminer, but it may help if you remember that the scents of herbs and spices, along with those of plants and animal products, are characterized by more than one aromatic compound.

The next time you have a sprig of fresh rosemary in your hands, take the time to smell it thoroughly and repeatedly. You may discover woody and floral notes, then notes reminiscent of conifers, cloves, and eucalyptus.

So, we find ourselves with aromas closer to those found in Riesling or Gewürztraminer. It is common to detect floral and coniferous scents in a Riesling, just as we often find spicy hints of clove, eucalyptus, and floral notes of rose in a Gewürztraminer wines. These wines are a symbiotic match with rosemary, not only in theory, but also on the nose and the palate!

The So-called "Terpenic" Grape Varieties

Varieties of the Muscat family may have the strongest component of terpenes, but other grape varieties and wine types are also dominated by linalool (floral scents), one of the important active ingredients of the terpene family.

With the exception of Black Muscat, terpenes are only present in white grape varieties. They have aromatic characteristics that are also found in the needles and bark of conifers and peels of citrus fruits. They are characterized by fresh tones of spruce, citrus, flowers, and green leaves.

As we have seen, terpenes are responsible for the floral and citrus aromas that dominate in the Muscat family as well as in Gewürztraminer and Scheurebe, its molecular twin (see chapter Gewürztraminer, in my Taste Buds and Molecules book). The family of hydrocarbons, with aromas of spruce, pine, fir, spruce, and oil, is also present in Riesling wines.

Other grape varieties also develop terpenic notes in a more or less pronounced way, sometimes very subtly. These include the Spanish Albariño and Viura, the Austrian Müller Thurgau, and the very French Chardonnay, Muscadelle, Roussanne and Sauvignon Blanc.

These terpene tonalities express themselves by volatile compounds such as linalool (floral/fruity), geraniol (pink/woody/spicy), nerol (floral/citrus), hotrienol (linden/lavender, ginger/fennel, and honey) and a-terpineol (citrus).

Terpenic aromatic molecules are extremely volatile, making them the first molecules perceived both on the nose and in the mouth when tasting a wine. Just think of the very immediate notes of hydrocarbon in some Rieslings, as well as the rose notes of Gewürztraminers. Moreover, their volatility makes them disappear quickly when cooked, both with wines and aromatic herbs (rosemary), citrus fruits, and flowers used in cooking.

Cooking With Rosemary: Lamb

What should you serve with red meats prepared with rosemary? You need only dare to cook lamb as a pot-au-feu (boiled), perfumed with a few sprigs of rosemary, and surprise your guests by pairing this red meat with an Alsatian white wine. 

Whether the Riesling is dry or sweet makes no difference because we are dealing with aromatic harmonies, which take over the wines' so-called "physical" structure. 

Here, the balance is achieved thanks to two poles of harmonic attraction (for more details, see the chapter on Beef in my book Taste Buds and Molecules).

Firstly, the blood drains from meat cooked this way, it pulls apart more easily and takes on the fragrances of the broth allowing for a harmonic match with a dry and very aromatic white wine.

Secondly, the presence of rosemary's active ingredients creates an almost perfect union with those of Riesling.


By better understanding the common elements of the aromatic molecules in ingredients such as rosemary and wines, the aromatic science of molecular harmonies is now opening new avenues for harmonic studies. 

Rosemary and Lemon - Credit : CHARTIER "Créateur d'harmonies"