Wine, Roses & the Science of Aroma

The gallica rose (rosa gallica) goes by many names – the apothecary’s rose, the crimson damask, the red rose of Lancaster – but a rose by any other name would not smell as sweet as this prized specimen. This particular species has been revered throughout history for its fragrance, a fragrance that also inspired the label of Rosemary Cakebread's elegant Gallica wines. This week on All the Swirl, CCA explores the history of this alluring flower, as well as the parallels between the study of perfume and wine.


 Naturalist's illustration of the  rosa gallica . Image courtesy of jimtheobscure.com.

Naturalist's illustration of the rosa gallica. Image courtesy of jimtheobscure.com.

Roses are one of the most historic of cultivated flowers, their first recorded plantings dating back 5000 years in China, and as such they are considered an emblem of civilization along with grapes, olives, and wheat. In fact, in the 17th century the rose was in such high demand in Western Europe that royal families considered rosewater as legal tender. It was not until the 1800s that rose plants were brought from China for cultivation in Europe thanks to the French Empress Joséphine de Beauharnais (wife of Napoleon I), who amassed the largest collection of rose specimens in the world at the time, all housed in her greenhouse outside of Paris.

The gallica rose (rosa gallica) goes by many names – the apothecary’s rose, the crimson damask, the red rose of Lancaster – but a rose by any other name would not smell as sweet as this prized specimen. Native to Europe and Western Asia, the gallica rose has been used for perfumes and medicinal tonics due to its cooling and astringent qualities for millennia. While roses have long been prescribed therapeutically, they are not scientifically proven to have medical benefits. The rose hip, or the ‘fruit’ of the rose however, contains very high levels of vitamin C and has been historically used in times of food shortage to promote health.

 The  rosa gallica officinialis . Photo courtesy of das pflanzen forum.

The rosa gallica officinialis. Photo courtesy of das pflanzen forum.

The origins of the rosa gallica in particular are unclear. Some believe it was first cultivated by the Romans, while others claim that it was brought to Southern Europe from Persia by a noble Crusader. In any case, the rose first appears in historical records in the 12th century, where Persian poets lauded it as a symbol of love, and by the 15th century it became the sigil for the House of Lancaster in the English Wars of the Roses. It is one of the oldest rose species in existence, and ancestor to many of the common garden varieties we grow today.

The gallica rose is treasured above all for its fragrance. As one might expect, the secret to a rose’s aroma is locked in its petals, but the science behind this phenomenon has only recently been discovered. Roses are unique among flowers in that their aromas are produced via a chemical reaction, wherein a specific enzyme acts on an unscented monoterpene (or aroma molecule) in order to produce a scented one. The relative presence of these aroma compounds (or esters) in a given species determines that species’ aromatic characteristics, and therefore, its aesthetic and economic value. The unique aromas of the rose family have so captivated humanity that NASA has even conducted experiments on the rose in space, gauging whether the rose would smell as sweet in low gravity as it does on earth. They do in fact still smell sweetly, but roses release fewer volatile aroma compounds in lower gravity and therefore the aroma produced is markedly different.

 Rosemary Cakebread on her Saint Helena estate. Photo courtesy of Meg Smith.

Rosemary Cakebread on her Saint Helena estate. Photo courtesy of Meg Smith.

As a dedicated student of aromas, winemaker Rosemary Cakebread has always been inspired by this ethereal flower. Only once-blooming, the gallica rose lasts for a mere three to six weeks in a year, however to walk through a gallica garden in bloom is to be immersed in an aromatic ambrosia. It is this rose’s sweet, delicate fragrance that inspired Rosemary to name her wine label, GALLICA, after it.

Rosemary's fascination with aroma began early in her career, when she organized cuvee-blending trials at Napa’s Mumm, tasting dozens upon dozens of wines. She was a fly on the wall, completely in awe of blending masters Guy Devaux and Perrier Jouet’s chef du cave, Michel Budin. It was then that Rosemary recognized the importance of understanding aromatics as a winemaker. 

 Gallica Cabernet Sauvignon. Photo courtesy of Meg Smith.

Gallica Cabernet Sauvignon. Photo courtesy of Meg Smith.

Rosemary’s dedicated study of aroma has since greatly informed her winemaking. She credits the seminars she has taken with Berkeley perfumist Mandy Aftel for informing the way in which she coaxes her signature nuanced aromatic profile from her flagship Cabernet Sauvignon, as well as her Grenache, Petite Sirah, Syrah, and the newest edition to her portfolio, the Gallica Albarino. Rosemary continues her studies of Wine & Olfaction with classically trained French perfumer, educator, and writer Alexandre Schmitt as often as she can.

For Rosemary, smell is a matter of precise calculation and sensory immersion, subtlety and evocation; a balance that she strikes with elegance throughout her Gallica wines.


All the Swirl is a collection of thoughts and opinions assembled by the staff and industry friends of Charles Communications Associates, a marketing communications firm with its headquarters in San Francisco, California. We invite you to explore more about our company and clients by visiting www.charlescomm.com.