Rosemary: A Southerner with a northern terpene profile

Dec 12, 2020

@All rights reserved. 

By François Chartier “Créateur d’harmonies”

« Non cogitat qui non experitur. » No thought without experimentation.
(Marguerite Yourcenar)

This phrase from the famous Belgian author confirms that in science, as in gastronomy, experimentation stimulates thought, leading to creativity, then to various pleasures. In this chapter, you will discover the heart of my harmonic research, specifically on the trail of the sunny and woody aromas of rosemary and wines, which, more than ever, should be in perfect harmony with this iconic Mediterranean herb.

Chemistry 101

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 and, to a lesser extent, Gewurztraminer 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 varietals of the Mediterranean basin, in harmony with its regional provenance.

Yet, Riesling and Gewurztraminer 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). So, it is not readily adapted in harmony with salty dishes, except, of course, for the refined types of dry Muscat from Alsace.

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

In some cases, one compound dominates the others; this is the case for clove, cinnamon, star anise and thyme. But for 99 % of plants, it is the whole of the compounds contained in each herb and each spice that gives them their aroma. Coriander seeds, for example, are both floral and lemony because of their many molecules from the floral and citrus families. Rosemary is no exception and is, in fact, very complex. 

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.

These aromas, which make up its unique and unmistakable bouquet, come from its various volatile compounds of the terpene family. The chemical molecules are naturally generated to repel the animal predators of the plant.

So, we find ourselves with aromas closer to those found in Riesling or Gewurztraminer. 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 Gewurztraminer wine. These wines are a symbiotic match with rosemary, not only in theory, but also on the nose and the palate!

Finally, there are also aromatic differences between several rosemary varieties: Corsican rosemary is richer in borneol (camphor smell, woody, tonic and almost medicinal), with soft and fruity scents and a hint of incense. Rosemary grown in Provence, southern Rhône and Languedoc-Roussillon, is marked by verbenone (scent of Spanish verbena).


Terpenes, the category to which most volatile compounds in rosemary belong, are complex aromatic compounds that tend towards floral nuances. They are a category of hydrocarbons produced by many plants, including conifers. Terpenes are also mainly responsible for the aroma of flowers and citrus fruits that dominate in the Muscat family and Gewurztraminer and the family of hydrocarbons found in Riesling wines.

More than 4,000 terpenic compounds have been identified, including, among others, 400 monoterpenoids and about 1,000 sesquiterpenoids. These are hydrocarbons extracted from essential oils and vegetable resins. The most important terpenes are a-pinene, b-pinene, delta-3-carene, limonene, carotene, and lutein.

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. 

In 1956, Robert Cordonnier discovered the existence of terpenes and their role in the Muscat grape variety’s aromatic signature. Since then, many researchers and oenologists have studied these volatile compounds to better understand their impact on wines from the vast Muscat family and other white grape varieties. 

It is essential to know that the volatile substances typical of all the grape varieties cultivated for wine belong to two large families of volatile compounds. Therefore, they are aromatic molecules: terpenes and pyrazines. 

As we have seen, terpenes are responsible for the floral and citrus aromas that dominate in the Muscat family as well as in Gewurztraminer and Scheurebe, its molecular twin (see chapter Gewurztraminer). 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.

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).

The most frequent terpenic aromas:

citrus fruits, sweet peach, camphor, eucalyptus, pine, spruce, petrol, rosemary, thyme, sage, mint, nutmeg, woody and spicy character, ginger, lemongrass, rose, rosewood, rose water, bergamot, cinnamon, ylang-ylang, lavender, lily of the valley, hibiscus, saffron.

Grapes and wines contain more than 70 terpene compounds. Most of them are monoterpenes, some sesquiterpenes and the corresponding alcohols and aldehydes. 

Muscat and botrytis cinerea

Muscat grapes attacked by botrytis cinerea (noble rot) lose their typicality at a certain intensity level (because the quantity of terpenes decreases considerably). Most winegrowers do not want botrytis to develop on their Muscat grapes since they lose their singular floral character. 

Terpenic aromatic molecules are very 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 of some Rieslings, as well as the rose notes of Gewurztraminers. 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: prawns

Try sauté diced pineapple and red bell pepper with a few sprigs of finely chopped fresh rosemary in a frying pan, then deglaze with white wine (the wine you will serve with your meal). Then pan-fry the prawns in the mixture and add a little cream. If you have deglazed with a dry Riesling, serve the Riesling with the dish. If it is a dry Gewurztraminer, you could accompany this dish with a small spoonful of chantilly cream enhanced with a pinch of curry, which pairs beautifully with the Gewurztraminer; this will create an even more vibrant harmony.

Rosemary steam Hammam

To create an even more obvious aromatic link between the various aromas of rosemary and wine try this: Serve this dish in bowls placed in larger soup plates to which you have added a few whole sprigs of fresh rosemary. When serving, pour boiling water into the soup plates in front of your guests. Thus, as in a rosemary steam hammam, its fragrances will rise towards the olfactory lashes of your guests, who will find themselves guided by its aromatic principles towards the wine served in their glasses. You will thus achieve the scientific and gourmet union between rosemary and Riesling or Gewurztraminer dry white wines.

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 the 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. 

From cheese to desserts

Finally, when it is time for cheese or dessert, you can enjoy the union of the same aromatic molecules. Serve a washed rind cheese, such as muenster, having allowed finely chopped rosemary to macerate in the center for a few days. Accompany it with a late harvest Alsatian Gewurztraminer. In this way, you will make a modernist nod to the classic regional combination of “Gewurz” and muenster with cumin. 

Xérès Fino is also rich in terpenic floral notes (linalool, nerolidol and farnesol), making it a good companion for rosemary. It has the aromatic power and presence in the mouth on a par with the expressiveness of rosemary. It should therefore be served, for example, with a dry goat’s cheese salad marinated in rosemary-flavoured olive oil.

Then, for dessert, the same type of wine will cause a sensation with a rosemary-flavoured pineapple and strawberry soup or a strawberry and pineapple shortcake topped with rosemary-scented chantilly cream. 

“Siphon” pie

Why not make a “siphon” pie, a contemporary version of the classic lemon pie? Here, the meringue is flavoured with rosemary and prepared with a siphon, making it airier.

For the experience, here is a dessert orchestrated only from terpene compounds:

“Pomegranate seeds with Muscat, citrus confit, and eucalyptus ice cream” (see recipe in Spain Gourmet magazine, No 62, page 124). When assembling the plate, rosemary and flowers such as jasmine and lemon verbena are added. 100% terpenic! A made-to-measure harmony for a late-harvested Riesling, like Gewurztraminer or Muscat. 

Pineapple, strawberries, and cloves in the aromatic range of rosemary!

It is interesting to note that pineapple, strawberry (especially when the two are very ripe), clove, and rosemary contain plenty of eugenol in their molecular composition. This makes them similar to clove and wines that go well with it (see the chapter Clove). 

Logically, a dish dominated by strawberry, pineapple, rosemary, and clove should find an interesting harmonic path with wines containing eugenol (see the chapter Pineapple and Strawberry). 

Sage, turmeric, laurel, eucalyptus

Sage and turmeric are as rich as rosemary in terpenic notes; therefore, they are also in harmony with Riesling, Muscat, and Gewurztraminer.

Eucalyptus and laurel essential oils reveal only minute differences in their active ingredients. They can be considered “molecular twins“, like pineapple and strawberry. Cineole (or eucalyptol) and borneol, two active ingredients, set the tone in both. These two volatile compounds can also be traced in Rosemary.

Hence the union of dishes scented with eucalyptus, laurel and/or rosemary with red wines marked on the nose by eucalyptus, as are some Chilean Cabernets and Californian and Australian Cabernets.


By better understanding the aromatic molecules that bridge ingredients such as rosemary with wines, science is opening new avenues for harmonic studies. Once tests have been conducted in the kitchen and in tasting, amateurs and professionals can discover new pleasures. Unexpected, of course, sometimes even enhancing the harmonic accord, provided that the results of these encounters are conclusive in the mouth. You are now on the trail of molecular harmonies. As the famous astrophysicist Hubert Reeves says so well: “Science delivers its knowledge to those who seek it.” 

Rosemary in a few harmonic recipes

  • Shrimp fricassee with pineapple and sweet bell pepper topped with rosemary flavoured chantilly cream (recipe in À Table avec Chartier)
    German, Alsatian or Australian Riesling 
  • Shrimp fricassee with pineapple and sweet bell pepper topped with curry flavoured chantilly cream, rosemary aromas
    Dry Alsatian Gewurztraminer 
  • Rosemary flavoured pot-au-feu style lamb
    Dry Riesling Alsace Grand Cru 
  • Rosemary-flavoured washed-rind cheese
    Warm pineapple and strawberry soup with rosemary
    Late Harvest Gewurztraminer  
  • Strawberry and pineapple shortcake with rosemary-flavoured chantilly cream
    Muscat de Rivesaltes (or other natural sweet wine made from Muscat) 
  • “Siphon” pie (a lemon pie with rosemary-flavoured siphon-whipped meringue)
    Late Harvest Riesling 

François Chartier Créateur d’harmonies

@All rights reserved.