Amongst the three levels of wine assessment – sight, smell and taste – smell is probably the most important. Although we are born with a highly developed sense of smell, we rely much more on our other senses and do nothing to stimulate, train or improve our sense of smell. Over 500 different aromas have been identified in wine, but we often struggle to smell more than a few. Assessing the nose of a wine is a daunting task for average wine lovers. But with training and practice, we can reawaken our sense of smell.
Like sight, the nose of a wine indicates the grape varieties, region, vinification method, age and if there are any defects.
In an earlier article, we talked about aromas in wine and how they come about. To properly smell them, we need to pour the wine to around the widest part of a tulip-shaped glass. The surface area of the wine is the biggest at this widest part, so more aromas will be released. Because of the shape of this glass, these aromas are trapped above the wine but are still inside the glass, allowing us to more easily smell them.
Assessing a wine by smell consists of two stages. The first is to smell it as soon as it is poured into the glass without any swirling. At this stage, we should detect the strongest and most obvious aromas. The next stage is to swirl the glass in order to release the heavier and more subtle aromas. But as I cannot emphasise enough – don’t swirl the glass too vigorously or for too long as aromas are volatile and they will just dissipate into the air.
We classify aromas into different categories. The main aromas from the grape varieties and fermentation include floral, herbaceous (grass, mint, eucalyptus), citrus (lemon, lime, grapefruit), white fruits (apple, pear), yellow fruits (apricot, peach, nectarine), tropical fruits (mango, melon, pineapple), red fruits (raspberry, strawberry, red cherry) and black fruits (black cherry, blueberry, blackcurrant, blackberry). If a wine is fermented or aged in wood, there will be butter, vanilla, spice and coffee aromas.
Aromas derived from ageing are herbs (thyme, rosemary, sage), spices (cinnamon, clove, nutmeg, pepper), dried fruits (fig, raisin) and earth (forest floor, dried leaves).
One of the reasons we may find wine intimidating is that some people claim they can identify 10 or more aromas, such as blackberry, blackcurrant, blueberry and black cherry, in a single red wine. Actually these aromas all fall within the black fruits category. This does not mean that these people are more professional or that the wine is more complex, so don’t be intimidated. A complex wine has layers of different aromas that keep evolving in the glass.
Unpleasant odours in wine usually indicate a faulty wine. A damp smell like wet cardboard means a wine is corked, while the aroma of soy sauce means a wine has oxidised and the scent of boiled cabbage is the result of reduction. There are also nail varnish and plaster (bandage) aromas caused by microbes. These may add complexity to a wine in the right amount, but too much is undesirable (we will discuss wine faults in a later article).
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