500 Wines Easily – The Art of Tasting – Smell

Continuing with the theme of taking full advantage of all the free wine we pour at the shop, this week we’ll focus on the aromatics of wine. While it’s tempting to approach this post from the grape to the glass and point out how the terroir of particular vineyards expresses themselves in a wine, I think it’d be more interesting to work backwards, in an inquiring way, in an attempt to make sense of the scents and discuss where some of the aromas might have come from. Before we go down that path however, I’d like to state a few basic points: 


1. It is completely possible that your sense of smell is completely average and even if it is subpar, it has absolutley no impact on your ability to develop your palate. If you can imagine the difference between the scent of coffee and that of lemon marmalade, you’re able to sharpen that skill. Just keep yourself positive and open to learning. Personally, I do not have a heightened sense of smell. I’d even say that most of my coworkers are far more gifted than I, but I train my palate through an objective and methodical routine every time I approach a glass of wine. It may sound laborious but it’s actually part of the fun. Because of this, little by little, my sense of smell is becoming more refined and that’s as much as anybody could possibly hope.


2. Yes, palates are individual. Our physical receptivity to different chemical compounds and how we respond to them varies marginally. Not only that but it’s my belief that none of us have a clear or purely objective concept of what any one single aroma smells like. Let’s say for example that I’ve eaten more vanilla than anyone you know but the vast majority of what I have eaten was in my Grandma’s kitchen. Wouldn’t it be fair to say that my concept of vanilla could be tinged by other aromas in her kitchen, the ingredients in the recipes, and even some influence from emotions as well? What if the vanilla with which I am so familiar is not the perfect example of vanilla? Have I only had vanilla from Madagascar and not other regions?  Yes there is a fragrant compound called vanillin which gives vanilla it’s scent but… you see where I’m going.


3. Yes, you can be wrong. I have to laugh when I hear people say, “everyone has their own palate and everyone is right.” If everyone is smelling a wine and getting lemons and limes on the nose and another person is getting burnt rubber and fresh sausage pizza, I’ll question the way that olfactory experience got computed. 


4. Glassware absolutely matters. I went to a Riedel tasting earlier in the year hosted by The Wine Company and led Mr. Max Riedel himself. While I’d like to say that I arrived completely open-minded, the truth is I showed-up with my share of skepticism and plenty of snarky ammunition onhand to undress the entire presentation should it have failed to deliver. To wrap up the experience, I was blown away by the importance of properly shaped glassware for different wines. I’d encourage everyone to have at least a couple different shaped glasses on their shelf for the wine they often drink.


With all that out of the way, I’d like to walk you through my approach to breaking down the aromatics of wine and stress that it is exactly that – my approach. It’s a hybrid between the Court of Master Sommeliers’s deductive tasting method and that of the Wine and Spirits Education Trust’s (WSET). As we had talked about sight last week, we’ll let’s skip that part of the process and imagine that we have a wine in front of us that looks more or less like what we expected. The first thing I like to do is take a whiff to establish two things – is the wine faulted and do I like it. 


To tell whether or not a wine is faulted, I hunt for a few key scents in glass. Does it smell like mildewy cardboard from an old basement? Then it could be corked. Does it smell like burnt nuts or burnt fruits? Then it could be heat-damaged. Does it smell like fingernail polish remover? If so, then there could be some volatile acidity which has varying levels of acceptability for wine drinkers. I enjoy low levels in wines such as Amarones, Brunellos, and Barolos but it can be definitely too overpowering, especially in natural wines. Does it smell like Burnt Rubber? This typically means it’s reductive and lacked oxygen at some key points during fermentation. Like volatile acidity, this is also a fault for which people have varying levels of acceptance and one that I struggle with at even moderate levels. A touch of reduction can lift the delicate flower aromas in a white but completely decimate a wine at higher levels.  Does it smell like barnyard, bandaids or sweaty animals? Then it could be Brettanomyces which is fairly common in rustically made wines and can be off-putting to many. I am typically ok with higher levels of Brett in bigger red wines but it’s not something that I typically seek out. These are the faults I typically look for in a wine but there is always the “something doesn’t seem right here” fault which covers all the other malignities that can effect a wine. 


At the same time that I’m searching for faults, I’m also, because I love wine, looking to see if it’s fantastic. There is not easy way to explain this aspect. It’s the X-factor. It’s just that moment when you take a whiff and exclaim something about it with a smile on your face and some sort of variant on a  choice four-letter word followed by an adjective. The whole process takes about five seconds to complete; it doesn’t take all day to recognize sunshine or all night to recognize darkness.


The next step in my process is three fold. I search for aromas of fruit, attempt to define the quality of that fruit, and after that, pinpoint a non-fruit aroma. If I can find more than one descriptor for each of these components, great, but I will find, at minimum, at least one. If I have a red wine in front of me, I first determine whether it is emitting aromas of smell red, blue, or black fruit. If red, do they resemble cherries, strawberries, raspberries, or cranberries? Then on to the quality of the fruit and “quality” refers to the general state of the fruit.  Are they dried cherries or overripe cherries? Cherry jam or baked cherrie? Bing cherries or maraschino cherries? If I have a white wine in front of me, I go through a similar process but instead of looking for which color of fruit the wine expresses, I break it down into different types of fruit: citrus, orchard, stone, or tropical. Beyond just seeking out pleasant smelling aromas in the wine at this point, I’m actually trying to gain other information about the wine during this process – where the grapes were grown, the vintage, the approximate alcohol level, techniques employed during vinification, etc. but all of this information goes beyond the scope of this particular post. Right now we’re just building a framework into which we’ll build our scent library. 


The non-fruit aromatic components in a wine help to further determine whether or not the wine is typical of the variety from which it was made. For example: while green vegetal components in highly celebrated wines are fairly uncommon, green bell pepper aromas are actually quite typical in Sauvignon Blanc, Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, and Carmenere. These green aromas can express themeselves as anything from sage, to bayleaf, shrubbery, briar, jalepeno peppers and anything inbetween. Other non-fruit aromatics such as baking spices indicate the general use of oak, while dill or coconut aromas narrow that focus down to American Oak. Beyond these examples, a whole range of aromatics are fair game to describe the contents of a glass including but not limited to flowers, truffles, mushrooms, tar and asphalt, minerals, herbs, petroleum products, animals, leather, tobacco, etc. After fruitiness, I typically look for florality, oak, and earth but often those aren’t enough and the imagination needs to kick-in. Just last week we had a rep bring by a Burgundy and all five of us present thought smelt like insect repellent which, fortunately, blew-off. 


So here is that ridiculous tasting note again from last week, notice the fruit, fruit quality, and non-fruit descriptors.


“In the glass, a cuprite-like glow creates the backdrop where a delicate bouquet of young roses and violet spring flowers wrapped in thunderous raspberry sauce inspire a vision of an evening wind in the high Tuscan hills creeping in through a window adjacent to a Victorian kitchen’s spice cabinet. Syringaldehyde notes round out the experience while Saharan-like tannins enrapture the palate and broad waves of tartness bathe the oral cavity in an over-whelming and long lasting alcoholic harmony. Drink from December 2021 through March 2046.”


To wrap-up, I’ll try to describe some popular wines using this system of one fruit descriptor, one fruit quality descriptor, and one non-fruit descriptor. See if you can guess what I’m thinking. Zesty limes, and diesel? Ripe apples and baking spices? Grapefruit pith, and lemon grass? Blueberry Jam and Black Pepper? Is it fair for me to use these descriptors for Dry Riesling, Oaked Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, and Syrah? Sure, these descriptors don’t fit every cuvee made from those wines but as you approach wine with this method in mind and find an outlier, you’ll be able to explain why or how it is different than the typical example of that variety.


Thank you for reading this today, I know was a long post and if you made it this far and if you mention this blog over the next week, we’ll give you 10% off your non-sale wine purchase. Don’t hesitate to ask us for classic or outlying expressions of certain grapes, that’s what we love to do.


Thanks for reading and we hope to see you around the shop soon, 


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