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Wine Tasting - what can you smell?

Wine Tasting - smellOur sense of smell is the most powerful of all our senses. Just behind the bridge of the nose is the only part of the brain that is not covered by skull. The olfactory sense goes straight to this spot so when we smell we can be instantly transported back to a time, a place, a person in a split second and then just as quickly, it's gone again. When we smell wine our imagery plays a big part. Some people can easily tell you what the scent is whereas others need the power of suggestion to 'remind' them what they perceive. Wine tasters almost have a memory bank of smells to call on and it really is just practice making sense of the scents around you. Being aware of what things smell like and drawing on it when you need it. Remember, you can only smell something that you are familiar with. For example, one of the textbook tasting notes for Semillon is Quince. Unless you have smelt or tasted quince it is impossible for you to identify it. Quince is a fruit that is generally described as having a smell and flavour somewhere between a pear and a mandarin (a guest at a recent wine tasting thought a quince was a small rodent like a hamster!).


When smelling wine a good tip is to have a glass with a round bowl as you can give it a really good swirl. If you smell the wine as it is, without swirling, you'll identify aromas but they will be fairly subtle. Give the wine a swish in the glass, stick you nose in again and you'll notice the aromas are a lot more obvious. Aromas in wine develop when exposed to air so by swirling the wine you're airing it, this is what we call breathing. We associate breathing with red wine but there's no reason white wine shouldn't breath as well. Try it yourself and see how the flavours are intensified.

AromasVisual of wine aromas

As mentioned, what we smell is entirely subjective and individual to us. We perceive aromas differently so for this bit of wine tasting, there really is no wrong answer. To help with what you're smelling take a look at the aroma wheel designed by Ann C. Noble at the University of California, Davis. Smells are split up into categories and then split further from there. Start by analysing at a high level. For example, is it fruit, spice, chemical etc. From there, what sort of fruit is it, orchard, tropical, forest? Then further still, blackberry, strawberry etc. It's just about breaking it down into smaller pieces and the principle is the same for white wine and red wine. Generally speaking wine from the Old World tend to have less intense aromas as they receive fewer hours of sunshine. New World wine basks in sunshine so the aromas tend to be richer and more pronounced.

Life Cycle

Once you've identified what the aromas are in a wine we can look at where they come from. There are three stages of aroma, Primary, Secondary and Tertiary.
  • Primary aromas - these are simply the aromas that have come from the grape itself and will be fruity, citrusy or vegetal.
  • Secondary aromas - come from the winemaking process. If the wine has been fermented or matured in oak barrels, for example, it will have a toasty, nutty aroma. Other processes add creamy, buttery or cheesy qualities too.
  • Tertiary aromas - are derived as the wine ages. The fruit character becomes more dried rather than fresh is style. Notes of truffle, leather or farmyard are indicative of a wine with age.
So, now we know how to smell wine in order to analyse it. Temperature can make a difference to the aromas displayed; a cold white wine will be fairly closed whereas if you warm it up a bit, you'll get more obvious notes. Likewise if red is too warm it will smell stewed. In another post we'll look at the taste of wine and how to analyse it.    

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