If you’ve ever caught a whiff of warm, woolly sweater in your wine, perhaps a bit musty from rain or sweat, you’ve experienced what’s described as a lanolin note.
Along with other seemingly unpleasant wine descriptors like “petrol,” “barnyard” or “rubber,” a touch of lanolin can lend complexity to straightforward, fruity flavors in wine. A touch of lanolin can be that quirk that makes it just a shade more mysterious and intriguing.
Lanolin is a waxy substance secreted by sheep that’s often added to moisturizers and cosmetics. The substance isn’t added to wine but is a common term to describe aromas reminiscent of wet wool or wax or an oily sheen in certain wines.
Predominantly, lanolin is used to describe characteristics of wines like Chenin Blanc, particularly Old World expressions from the Loire, but also some from South Africa, too. Lanolin’s waxy, wooly aromas and viscous mouthfeel are also used to describe Sémillon, a white wine that lends heft to Bordeaux’s great white blends and is increasingly popular in Australia. Mature examples of Riesling and white blends from Rioja or the Rhône can also suggest lanolin.
Juxtaposed against notes of fresh or preserved apple, citrus and honey, lanolin’s earthier, savory nuances can lend an earthy appeal to wines. While typically subtle in young wines, lanolin can gain prominence as a wine ages.
As with barnyard or petrol, individual tolerance for a wine’s savory accents varies. Wine that’s pleasantly rustic to one person can be considered faulty by another. Unlike petrol or barnyard notes that can be tied to specific compounds or faults in wine, however, lanolin notes are often more nebulous.
Waxy or wooly notes can be attributed to aromas and flavors derived from fermentation and maturation. White wines, particularly Chenin Blanc, Riesling, Sémillon and Grenache Blanc, are prone to oxidation, where alcohol is converted into acetaldehyde due to oxygen exposure. Oxygen is vital to winemaking and some oxidation can contribute pleasant notes of pressed apple, nuts, wool or wax to wine.
When aromas of wooly sweater gear more towards wet, dirty dog or even sewage, it’s more likely that light strike, or light damage, is suspect. Exposed to blue or ultraviolet light from the sun or fluorescent lighting, amino acids in wine are transformed into numerous sulfur compounds including ethyl methyl sulfide, a compound known for its particularly wooly, feral odor. White wines are especially vulnerable to light strike, which is why they’re typically bottled in protective green or amber glass.