One of the most common statements that I hear from inexperienced wine drinkers is “I just don’t smell all of that stuff in my wine.” I’ll be the first to admit that when I began drinking wine regularly, I didn’t smell all of “that stuff” in my wine either. My evaluation was based on whether the wine tasted good or not and stopped there.
What changed? I made the decision a few years ago that I wanted to take wine more seriously. Once that decision was made, I took the plunge and started evaluating each wine I was drinking, rather than just gulping it down. Overall, it’s taken my wine experience to another level (a much higher and enjoyable level). I’d like to pass on some tips that have helped me become more familiar with wine aromas and discuss an aroma experiment conducted this past weekend.
Concentrate – A quick sniff over the top of your glass isn’t going to tell you much about a wine. Stick your nose in that glass and take some deep sniffs! Swirling the wine in your glass will allow for more oxygenation and release further aromas. When tasting, slosh the wine in your mouth so that it is exposed to all parts of your tongue. Most importantly, think about what you’re smelling, tasting, and sensing while doing this. For me, it’s always easier to taste in the quiet of my home, rather than at a tasting event, tasting room, or restaurant, but with concentration, the outside chatter can be blocked out.
Be Curious – My mom used to make fun of me because I would take a deep whiff of my food before putting it in my mouth. I guess I just wanted to know what things smelled like–and still do! This curiosity continues to serve me well, as it helps to store an “aroma bank” in my mind. I’m still surprised at the aromas that can be detected in wines–wet rocks, barnyard, burnt rubber, band-aids, even cat piss (which isn’t even necessarily a flaw!). Make a conscious effort to smell as many things as possible, especially the more common aromas that show up in professional tasting notes. Most everyone knows what cat pee smells like, so I am not suggesting that you stick your head in a litter box!
Experiment – I’ve mentioned the virtues of blind tasting before. Experimentation can be extremely valuable as well. I recently conducted a “blind smelling” experiment featuring aromas that can be found predominately in white wines but also some red wines. This experiment was a great refresher and I took a lot away from it.
After gathering up some items around the house and spending less than $20.00 at the grocery store, I had my specimens to sniff. A majority of the items were fruits–lemon, orange, tangerine, mango, pear, apple, kiwi, cantaloupe, honeydew, peach, nectarine, banana, dried apricot, and grapefruit. Other items included maple extract, vanilla extract, toast, almonds, and wet river rocks.
Once everything was prepped, my wife and I took an exploratory whiff of each item. Then, on with the blindfold and Part 1 of the experiment (and yes, this was just good, clean fun). My wife put the blindfold on first and I picked items at random for her to smell. She ended up identifying 14 out of the 20 items correctly with a bit of a cold, mind you. Next, I put the blindfold on, which was a little bit intimidating! My final score? 16/20. I misidentified the orange (picked tangerine), the maple (picked vanilla), the kiwi (picked cantaloupe), and the pear (picked apple).
In Part 2 of the experiment, the blindfolded person had to again identify the aroma, but this time with the item placed in a wine glass. To make it more difficult, each additional item to be smelled was added in the same glass, so that at the end there were 4-5 aromas intermingling in the glass. I think that I ended up with a mango, maple, grapefruit, banana, and tangerine cocktail.
The easiest aromas to identify were toast, mango, dried apricot, grapefruit, and banana. I got a little tripped up on the citrus fruits. The tangerine and orange had a very similar aroma. The kiwi that we purchased was extremely ripe and had a rich, almost melon-like aroma. Also, the apple and pear aromas were nearly identical–I probably should have picked riper specimens. The maple and vanilla extracts were so strong out of the bottle that they almost burned my nostrils. When a few drops of the maple were added to the glass, I could easily identify it. The almonds and wet rocks barely emitted any aromas at all.
For anyone that would like to duplicate this experiment and for my future reference, the riper the fruits, the easier it is to detect the aromas. Cut the fruit immediately before sniffing, as the aromas can wear off quite quickly (especially the apple and pear). Also, I would recommend using a few drops of the maple and vanilla extracts rather than smelling out of the bottle. Toasting the almonds would probably bring out more of the aromas. I took a shortcut and nuked them, but the aromas quickly faded when the almonds cooled. Lastly, I would keep the rocks submerged in water while smelling them. We pulled them out of the water and they dried very quickly. In this case, dry rocks didn’t make much of an impression.
Overall, this was a great experiment that I plan on repeating again. It allowed for the chance to smell some aromas that I’m not often exposed to–tangerine, nectarine, honeydew, cantaloupe, and wet rocks. I feel very confident that these aromas will be more freshly implanted in my memory and will be easier to identify in the future. I’m planning on conducting a red wine aroma test prior to my trip to Washington at the end of May. Another great source for experiments and sensory evaluation is Marian W. Baldy’s University Wine Course. Experimentation is a blast –I almost had as much fun with this experiment as with tasting wine. Almost.