Five Tips to Better Identify Aromas in Wine
Before we get into the tips, let’s talk quickly about the elephant in the room. When I first started learning about wine and read that a wine had notes of pineapple, vanilla, and cinnamon I wondered if that meant the wine was made with these ingredients. How else would it have those flavors and aromas? Turns out, aromas found in wine are derived from chemical reactions. This means there was no pineapple (or vanilla or cinnamon for that matter) in the wine I was tasting. This is great news for wines with notes of dirt, rubber hose, or even petroleum. But why, then, do we describe the wine as having these particular aromas if they’re not actually present in the wine?
To answer that, I need to tell you about Dr. Ann Noble. Dr. Noble is a sensory chemist and retired professor from the University of California, Davis. During her time at UC Davis, she discovered that there was no framework or terminology for describing wine. Tasters would use words such as delicate, strong, flavorful, or even masculine vs feminine. But what did those words even mean?
In response to this, Dr. Noble created the aroma wheel. The aroma wheel was based on the idea that we should compare the aromas and tastes of wine to aromas and tastes that we were already familiar with: things like fruit, spices, flowers, and nuts. Her invention completely revolutionized the wine world and is why we describe wine the way we do today.
But how do you go from just smelling wine, to smelling peaches, nutmeg, and mushrooms in your glass? Read on for my tips to improve your wine sniffer!
Tip #1: Improve your Smell “Vocabulary"
How do you combat this? Build your smell “vocabulary.” Next time you go to eat an apple, give it a good sniff. Then take a bite of the apple. Take another sniff. Does it smell different? Try to describe the smell using words. For example maybe it smells tangy, sour, and refreshing. Log that smell in your brain. As you do this with more and more foods, you’ll begin building your very own smell dictionary. Next time you sniff your chardonnay you will be able to pick out the yellow apple because you remember what it smelt like last time you ate one.
Tip # 2: Ensure Wine is at the Right Temperature
One of the biggest myths in wine is that you should drink white wine straight out of the fridge and drink red wine at room temperature, no matter what temperature the room is. Let me be the first to tell you, that is not true!
Most white wines should be enjoyed between 45-55°F (7-13°C). A great way to achieve this temperature is to take your white wine out of the fridge about 30 minutes before you plan on drinking it. As for red wine, the recommended service temperature is between 55-64°F (13-18°C). Unless you’re like my dad and prefer the house at a chilly 65°F, you’re going to want to chill your red wine a bit. Just 30 minutes in the fridge should do it.
Service temperature is incredibly important when distinguishing aromas in the wine. When you’re smelling the wine, you’re smelling the tiny particles coming out of the wine. If the wine is too cold, physics tells us these particles won’t move as much and it will be harder to pick them out. If the wine is too warm on the other hand, it dulls the aromas and causes the fresh fruit and spice smells to fade.
Some examples to try out include:
Tip #4: Start with Fruit
When you are smelling wine, it helps if you have a place to start. I suggest starting with the fruit.
Ask yourself, does the wine smell fruity? If so, can you pick out which group of fruit (citrus, tropical fruit, stone fruit, black fruit, red fruit, etc)? If you get stuck here, try picking two very different fruits and asking yourself which one the wine smells most like. For example, does it smell more like yellow apple or pineapple? More like cherry or fig? From there, just keep narrowing it down. What is the quality of the fruit? Is it underripe, tart, fresh, cooked, or dried? Can you pick out any other fruits?
Tip #5: Be Confident
My final tip is simple, but certainly not easy. Be confident in your ability. There is no wrong answer when it comes to describing wine (as long as you’re not a sommelier trying to pass a certified exam or something, in which case thanks so much for reading my blog and please disregard everything I’m about to say). Does the wine smell like a hay bale on a muggy summer day? If it does to you, then it sure does. Does the wine smell like your grandma's old perfume? Absolutely. Does it smell like sweaty leather saddle? Yep, I’d believe you.
You really can’t go wrong. So go out there, sniff some wines and describe those aromas with confidence.
Interested in learning more about the wine tasting process? Check out my Wine 101 Virtual Tasting Experience. I’ll teach you the four steps to tasting wine and we’ll get a chance to practice them together. Plus you’ll receive a free printable wine tasting guide for you to use whenever you’re tasting wine!