Now we move on to using our sense of smell in assessing a wine. It’s estimated that as much as 80% of taste sensation is actually derived from our sense of smell, and indeed, to me, this aspect of wine appreciation is nearly as pleasurable as the actual tasting. I have been blessed with a fairly sensitive sense of smell, and so exploring a new glass of wine in front of me can be a sensual exploration of pure bliss.
When I am doing a blind tasting of more than one wine, I never move to tasting any of them until after I have smelled them all and taken detailed notes. The moment a wine goes into my mouth, it seems to “pollute” my ability to detect subtle nuances thereafter. And that would be a real shame. Once you train yourself (through practice practice practice!) to be able to identify certain smells in wine, you truly will want to understand all that is being offered to you in every new wine you encounter. An addictive process! All this to say: don’t ever dismiss the power of the nose in the enjoyment of your wine! There are a thousand stories told by each and every wine, and many of them will be whispered to you when you shove your shnoz into a glass and inhale deeply!
Is there a horse in my glass?
When I teach my classes, students will often ask me what the deal is when wine aficionados go on about being able to smell things like leather, barnyard, minerals, cheese, or even cat pee in their wine. “That’s all BS, isn’t it?” Well, in fact it’s not. And this never made sense to me either until it was explained to me like this…
Grapes are very rich in phenolics – highly reactive chemical compounds that make up colour pigments, tannins, and flavor compounds in fruits and vegetables. Different grape varietals have varying concentrations of these various phenolics – which is why Riesling smells and tastes different from Semillon, for example. And many of these phenolics are shared with other items we eat. Thus, grapes can feature many chemical compounds that we find in greater concentrations in other fruits and veggies. This is how Riesling smells like green apples, Gewurztraminer smells like lychees, and Cabernet Sauvignon smells like black currants. These are considered the primary aromas found in wines.
Other influences on grapes, such as soil conditions and winemaking techniques, also determine what we smell in our glass. The unique impression of almonds in Chardonnay grown in Chablis, for example, is thought to be an expression of the soils of that particular region. White wines that go through a second, malolactic fermentation express buttery or creamy aromas. And once you learn how to identify it, there is no mistaking the vanilla/brioche/butterscotch scents that new oak can bring to the wines that are fermented or aged in it. These are called the secondary aromas in a wine.
Finally, certain aromas only develop in a wine after some time. For example, the smell of honey in a Sauternes, gasoline in a Riesling, or the barnyard smell of Pinot Noir express themselves more the older the wine becomes. These are considered the tertiary aromas in a wine. Together, all these scents combine as a wine’s particular “bouquet”.
So with that background information, what should we actually do with the wine in our glass, after we have examined it thoroughly by sight?
Let’s Go For A Swirl
In order to allow the wine to express its best to us, it needs to be exposed to oxygen. This is why we swirl wine in our glasses – to throw around the wine up the sides of the glass and get as much of it exposed to air as possible. If you haven’t really swirled your wine before, you may want to practice with water first (spilled wine is such a waste!) It’s important to only pour an ounce or less in the glass when you are first assessing it. It’s impossible to swirl wine in a glass that is nearly full. This is about the right amount in this photo:
It’s also easier, I find, to swirl the glass when it’s on the table. In fact, I still aspire to be able to do a “Standing Swirl” elegantly, without splashing myself or others. MORE PRACTICE REQUIRED!!
Once the wine has been sufficiently spread around your glass, bring it to your nose and take a whiff. Any first impressions? Give it another swirl, and this time, really dig your nose down into that glass. Don’t be shy! Inhale deeply and completely. Come up and breathe, then go back again – this time, take a series of small, sequential sniffs.
So what’s in there? The first thing you want to be able to determine is the condition of the wine. Far more than visually, smelling a wine is usually the quickest way of determining if a wine is “off”. There are numerous faults that could be presenting in your wine – more details in a later post. But quickly, the most common faults are cork taint (musty, wet cardboard – this is what we mean when we say a wine is “corked”), too much sulphur (presenting as a rotten egg smell), or a yeast infection called brettanomyces (making the wine smell like a barnyard, a sweaty saddle, or rancid cheese).
Assuming you do not encounter any of these faults – and these days, they are more and more rare – we say the wine is “clean” and get on with the second step: assessing the intensity of the wine’s aromas. Does the smell of this wine reach out from the glass and slap you in the face? Now that’s an intense bouquet! Is it hard to even get the most basic fruit profile from the wine? That’s a very subtle bouquet. The vast majority of wines lie somewhere in between – with bouquets of moderate intensity.
Now the fun part – what do we actually smell in the wine?
If it’s a white wine, we might find things like apples, pineapples, lychees, gooseberries, lemon, lime, grapefruit, peaches, pears, grass, minerals, yeast, roses, butterscotch, vanilla, stone, petrol, cat pee, grapefruit, or elderflowers…
In red wines, we can find strawberries, raspberries, blackberries, black currents, cedar, mint, eucalyptus, leather, smoke, barnyard, earth, mushrooms, candied fruits, meat, pepper, nutmeg, violets, plums, coffee, chocolate, or cherries…
So again, it can be overwhelming! But there is a systematic method of analysis that can help. The most common aid to making sense of wine aromas is the Wine Aroma Wheel that was developed at the University of California at Davis.
In essence, using the wheel helps you to get more specific in identifying the aromas you encounter. You smell your wine. It’s fruity! Find fruity on the inside ring of the wheel. What kind of fruit? Tree fruit? Tropical fruit? Narrow it down further by moving from the inside of the wheel to the outer rings. Making use of this as a tool is absolutely indispensible as you start to familiarize yourself with the different aromas that you encounter in your favorite wines. As you make those connections in your brain – matching certain scents to their identities, it becomes easier and easier to identify them again in the future. Again – practice makes perfect!
A more thorough explanation of the U of C Wine Aroma Wheel can be found at: http://www.winearomawheel.com/.
And a good video explanation of the Aroma Wheel by one of its creators can be found here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=L5PykTa4U_A
As I detail my studies to come, I will be discussing the typical aroma and flavor characteristics that present in the most common grape varietals. But the best way to get familiar with different aromas is to practice aroma identification at every possible opportunity you get…
What does this tennis ball smell like?
The first step to getting better at identifying different scents is to start smelling things on a regular basis. Yes – whatever you happen to be holding in your hand at any given moment, bring it to your nose and give it a whiff. We won’t think you’re weird. Really. Every time you cook, smell every ingredient that you use. Close your eyes and inhale deeply. Try to memorize the scent – imprint it in your brain. Start buying organic produce if you can, so that every ingredient you cook with has more scent to offer to you! Smell every spice before you throw it into the chili pot. Just get familiar with what things really smell like. Smell the grass after it’s been mowed. Smell the pavement after a rainfall. Smell the gas as you put in your car. Smell the litter box after Fluffy has just peed (well, only if you’re really dedicated…!) The point is to start really embracing this aspect of your humanism. It will make you so much better at identifying what’s in your glass.
As last, the next post will discuss what we’ve all been waiting for – actually getting that wine into our mouths! Stay tuned!