Swirl and Sniff!

Now that you’ve given the wine a good look, you’re ready to take a good sniff. Give the glass a swirl, but don’t bury your nose inside it. Instead, just hover over the top like a helicopter pilot surveying rush hour traffic. Take a series of quick, short sniffs, then step away and let the information filter through to your brain. There are many guides to help you train your nose to identify key wine fragrances, both good and bad. There are potentially thousands of aroma components in a glass of good wine, so forget about finding them all. Naming all the fruits, flowers, herbs and other scents you can trowel out of the glass can be a fun game, but it’s not essential to enjoying and learning how to taste wine. Once you’ve taken a few quick, short sniffs of the wine, try to look for the following aromas, which will help you better understand the wine’s characteristics. You also want to look for off-aromas that indicate a wine is spoiled.

  • A wine that is corked will smell like a musty old attic and taste like a wet newspaper. This is a terminal, unfixable flaw.
  • A wine that has been bottled with a strong dose of SO2 will smell like burnt matches; this will blow off if you give it a bit of vigorous swirling.
  • A smell of vinegar indicates VA (volatile acidity); a nail polish smell is ethyl acetate.
  • Brettanomyces—an undesirable yeast that reeks of sweaty saddle scents. A little bit of “brett” gives red wines an earthy, leathery component; but too much obliterates all the flavors of fruit. A little bit of Brett goes a long way...just like certain people in our lives.

Learning to identify these common flaws is at least as important as reciting the names of all the fruits and flowers. And it will also help you to understand your own palate sensitivities and blind spots. Discovering what you recognize and enjoy is key to learning how to choose wine on your own.

If there are no obvious off-aromas, look for fruit aromas. Wine is made from grapes, so it should smell like fresh fruit, unless it is very old, very sweet, or very cold. You can learn to look for specific fruits and grapes, and many grapes will show a spectrum of possible fruit scents that help you to identify the growing conditions—cool climate, moderate or very warm—of the vineyard.

Floral aromas are particularly common in cool climate white wines like Riesling and Gewürztraminer, and some Rhône varietals, including Viognier.
Some other grapes can be expected to carry herbal or grassy scents. Sauvignon Blanc is often strongly grassy, while Cabernet Sauvignon can be scented with herbs and hints of vegetation. Rhône reds often show delightful scents of Provençal herbs. Most people prefer that any herbal aromas are delicate. The best wine aromas are complex but also balanced, specific but also harmonious.

Another group of common wine aromas might be characterized as earthy. Scents of mushroom, damp earth, leather and stone/mineral can exist in many red wines. A mushroom smell can add nuance; it can also help you determine a possible grape or place of origin of the wine. Too much mushroom may just mean that the grapes failed to ripen sufficiently, or were from an inferior clone. Scents of earth, mineral and rock sometimes exist in the very finest white and red wines. These can be indications of “terroir”—the particular conditions of the vineyard that are expressed as specific scents and flavors in the finished wine.

If you smell toast, smoke, vanilla, chocolate, espresso, roasted nuts, or even caramel in a wine, you are most likely picking up scents from aging in new oak barrels. Depending upon a multitude of factors, including the type of oak, the way the barrels were made, the age of the barrels, the level of char and the way the winemaker has mixed and matched them, barrels can impart a vast array of scents and flavors to finished wines. Think of the barrels as a winemaker’s color palette, to be used the way a painter uses tubes of paint. Too much oak can be detrimental to a wine; imparting harsh bitterness and pencil lead flavors that mask the fruit.

Young white wines and young sparkling wines may have a scent very reminiscent of beer. This is from the yeast. Some dessert wines smell strongly of honey; this is evidence of botrytis, often called noble rot, and is typical of the very greatest Sauternes (a very expensive French wine).
Chardonnays that smell of buttered popcorn or caramel have most likely been put through a secondary, malolactic fermentation, which converts malic to lactic acids, softening the wines and opening up the aromas.
Older wines have more complex, less fruity aromas. A fully mature wine can offer an explosion of highly nuanced scents, beautifully co-mingled and virtually impossible to name. Nonetheless, the effort to put words to wine aromas helps you focus on, understand and retain your impressions of different wines. You want to build a memory bank of wine smells and their meanings. That is where the language of wine can add value to a wine tasting event. Learning to talk the talk, if not carried to extremes, helps to dispel some wine myths, such as the confusion surrounding descriptions on wine labels. Have you ever known anyone to ask why a winery added grapefruit to its Gewürztraminer and raspberries to its Zinfandel? The fact that these are simply descriptive terms is not always understood.  

The information in this article was borrowed from Paul Greggut; Contributing Editor for Wine Enthusiast magazine, a founding member of the magazine’s Tasting Panel, and reviewer of the wines of Oregon and Canada. The author of the critically-acclaimed Washington Wines & Wineries—The Essential Guide, he consulted on the Pacific Northwest entries in current versions of The World Atlas of Wine and The Oxford Companion to Wine.  Needless to say, Paul knows his stuff!

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