The human nose can detect approximately 1 trillion different scents, and historically this super sense has served to help us find food, avoid danger, and even fall in love. When it comes to enjoying wine, the nose is our most sensitive evaluation tool – but only if we know how to smell wine like a pro.
Understanding the physiology of smell can help you become a better aroma detective. Volatile substances (those that can evaporate) are sniffed into the nostrils and touch certain receptors within the nose (and retronasal passageway). When they do, the receptors send messages to the brain so that the scent can be interpreted.
These volatile chemical molecules are also released as the wine moves across the palate and travel up the retronasal passages to the nose, which is why tastes and aromas are so easily confused.
Though some aromas volatize and leap into the air off their own accord, it’s best to give the process a helping hand. You may have once thought that swirling wine was just to keep up appearances, but it actually fulfills a very important function. To achieve a well-contained swirl and avoid sloshing wine over the rim, start small and slowly gain speed. Proper wine glasses also come in handy, by pairing glasses that have bigger bowls with wines that require lots of agitation before they really come alive aromatically.
Once the wine has been poured and has had a minute to breathe in the glass, take a sniff. Whether you take a few shallow whiffs, or one long drag, is a question only your nose can decide.
A common mistake is diving as deep into the glass as possible, dipping the tip of your nose into the wine and inhaling like a winded animal. Embarrassing and unnecessary! Aromatically neutral (or muted) wines may leave you no other option other than to aggressively snort in what little aromas are there, but most wines welcome a more subtle approach.
Think of a wine’s aromas as classical music on the radio. If you press your ear up against the speaker, you’re more likely to blow out your ear drum than to ever pick up on the melody in the flute section. As you get to know your nose, try different methods of smelling.
Try shallow sniffs and long drags, tip the glass to one side or smell it straight on. Bring the glass closer as you smell in, or slowly pull it away. Even try smelling with your mouth open and see if you catch any additional perfumes. You may be shocked to find how the wine’s aromas open up to you as soon as you find the sniffing style that fits you best.
Take a Pause
Allow your brain a 3-5 second pause between each sniff. After extended exposure to the same smell (or very similar smells) fatigue will start to set in. Once a smell becomes constant the brain tunes it out so that your nose is free to detect more major stimuli, similar to how the brain tunes out the chatter of a party so that you can focus on what is being said by the person in front of you.
It’s also helpful to sniff the wine again after you have completed the tasting, you’ll notice how the wine has “opened up” over time, allowing new aromas to step into the foreground.
Tip: Avoid smelling a wine straight from the freshly uncorked bottle as you’re likely to inhale nothing more than the alcohol vapors or oak scents that will assault your nose. Decant it, or swirl it in your glass before smelling in order to ensure you get an accurate sniff.
Finding the right words
The ability to smell thousands of scents is innate, but the ability to identify even a few hundred of them requires training. Wine drinkers use analogies (such as cinnamon, or freshly cut grass) in order to remember and communicate a wine’s particular aromas to other people. If you want to become an aroma detective, get to know the usual suspects: fruits, herbs, spices etc. Then memorize what they feel like so you’ll easily recognize them the next time they come around.
Author Bio: Madeline Blasberg is a Certified Wine Consultant currently working as the Official Wine Commentator for Etching Expressions, a company that specializes in custom wine and personalized liquor bottles. She has spent time living in Mendoza, Argentina where she was surrounded by wine, both personally and professionally.