Wine Tasting & Collecting (Part 2: Smell)

Wine Tasting Tool Box

Part 2: Smell

Smell is the second and most important tool in the tasting process. The human sense of smell is capable of detecting more than 10,000 different odors, with a “trained” nose capable of recognizing more than 1,000 specific aromas. The human sense of smell is also considered to be the strongest trigger for memories, especially “taste” memories. After examining the wine, the next step is to smell the aroma of the wine, again looking for clues about the wine.

The keys to fully examining the aroma of a wine are simple.

  1. One, gently swirl the wine in the glass before smelling. The action of swirling exposes more wine surface area to the air directly above it in the glass, which in turn causes the volatile odiferous elements to be released into the glass.
  2. Two, once the wine is swirled it is important to place your nose into the bowl of the glass and sniff deeply to ensure that these odiferous elements are pulled into your nasal cavity.
  3. Three, spend at least 45 to 60 seconds smelling the wine before proceeding to taste. Some wines will noticeably change after repeated swirls, so spending the time to note these changes is important. Some tasters find that beginning with smaller sniffs, gradually building to more aggressive inhales, after repeated swirling, works best. Again, the key is finding the process that works for you. However, no one will dispute the vast amount of critical tasting data acquired through intensive nasal analysis.

While the human olfactory can detect more than 10,000 different odors, it takes training and practice to be able to increase the number of smells that are recognizable. The level, or concentration, at which a person detects smells, is called their “detection threshold.” Detection threshold is typically something we’re born with and cannot necessarily be improved.

The level, or concentration, at which a person recognizes smells, is called their “recognition threshold.” Recognition threshold is something that can be improved through training. The degree to which a person can improve their recognition threshold depends on one important factor: memory. Through practice you can teach yourself to recognize aromas. However, without the ability to link these recognizable aromas to the characteristics of certain grapes, wines and regions through memory, a person will be at a disadvantage during a critical tasting for assessment.

For me the way I improve the linkage between recognizable aromas and specific grapes, wines and regions is through copious note taking during wine tasting. While this process works for me, be mindful that it may not work for you. The key is finding a way to cement those linkages. Some pointers to keep in mind when smelling wine:

For All Wines

Often times the aroma of a wine is where you will find many of the varietal characteristics of a particular grape. For instance, noting that Sauvignon Blanc exhibits “grassy” hints will probably be more evident in the aroma, than in the actual taste. For this reason, rely more on your nose to provide varietal data about a particular wine.

I can’t emphasize the issue of time enough. Spend enough time sniffing the wine, even returning to it after having tasted the wine to ensure that each minute characteristic is picked out. As I stated previously, most poured wines will change significantly over time, some quicker than others. A wine that changes for the worse more quickly in the glass may not be one with a very long cellar life. The process that causes a wine to change in the glass is an accelerated version of the process that is occurring in the bottle.

Learn to recognize the difference between a flawed wine and a problem that is due to bottle variation. On the Society of Wine Educator’s web site there is an excellent article on Teaching Yourself How to Identify Faults. While it may seem impractical, the exercises listed in the article are an effective way to self-educate on the subject of fault identification. Practicing fault identification is also a good way to build more objectiveness into your tasting process as well.

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