Welcome to Wine Tasting 101! Let’s start at the very beginning: training your senses. If you’ve ever sat down to enjoy a glass of wine, you’ll know as well as anyone, that when it comes to it, there are 3 key senses involved: sight, smell and taste. In the upcoming weeks, we’ll be focusing on all of these senses to help you use them like a pro.
This week we’ll focus on what is undoubtedly your most important tool when it comes to tasting – your nose.
Many wine people believe that the greatest joy in wine tasting is the aroma – and they have a point. You can really gain so much information just from sticking your nose into a glass – the intensity of the wine, the development (i.e. how the aroma changes subtly over time) and maybe even the grape varietal (yup, with a bit of practice you’ll pick up that a Sauvignon Blanc can smell quite distinct from a Chardonnay).
This past weekend, we headed to the Dijon Saturday morning market to well … smell some things. If you’re ever in France, you’ll quickly learn that market days are integral to French cuisine and culture. The beautiful covered market in Dijon was designed by none other than famed French architect Alexandre Gustave Eiffel (you can guess what else he designed), and on market days, passersby zigzag their way from whiffs of freshly-baked baguette and smelly roquefort cheese to the freshly-picked spring flowers ‘jonquille’ (wild daffodils) and cut up citrus slices. Becoming more intentionally aware of the range of smells around you can help you hone your nose for the noble pursuit of wine tasting – so get down to your local market and stick that gorgeous shnoz into a bouquet of peonies. Once that’s done, grab a glass of your favourite Shiraz or Viognier and consider the following tips:
We swirl to release the full aromas into the glass, by letting oxygen into the wine. It’s been cooped up in its bottle for far too long and needs to breathe a little. Granted, swirling like a pro is not as easy as you may think. We’ve been trying to look like savvy swirlers for months now and still end up having mini tsunamis splashing against the sides of our glass. Apparently it’s all in the wrist… But to start, if you’re a baby swirler like us, put your glass on the table and make small concentric circles to create a winey whirlpool of sorts. Then, place your nose fully into the glass, resting against the rim, and take a sniff. What do you smell? If you smell wine, you’re off to a good start.
After taking a good long whiff, the first thing you may want to do is reflect upon what it reminds you of. Is it a particularly strong wine? Is it delicate? Does it remind you of a wet forest after a heavy rainfall, or does it smell like fruity jam straight from your nanna’s tea party? The smells may not be so obvious to start with, so what may help is to take two different wines and compare them. You’ll immediately be able to pick up that there is a difference between the two, and it’s that point of difference that makes each varietal unique. Now the key is just figuring out how to identify what that difference is. There are endless possibilities, and this is where you can let your imagination run loco.
One time visiting a wine estate in Stellenbosch, our friend Jenna remarked loudly that the wine we were tasting smelled exactly like spring onion and cheese flavour Simba chips. The sommelier serving us looked at her like she was nuts, but this had us all in stitches (and it was kinda true). People at this point are often afraid to say what they smell for fear of being ‘wrong’, but at the end of the day it’s important to remember that while certain wines do tend to consistently give off certain kinds of scents (for example Pinot Noir from where we’re living in Burgundy at the moment is usually associated with aromas from red fruit like strawberries and cherries), no two noses are alike.
When we first started learning about wine only a few months back, we were both perplexed at the idea of how some sommeliers can apparently pick up smells such as strawberry, coffee or even nail varnish in a glass of wine. Are they all just bluffing, or did some winemaker actually sit there mixing in strawberries or secretly injecting drops of nail varnish into the wine itself? The answer is no. In actual fact, it’s all chemistry. The aromas in a particular wine will come from certain chemical reactions that took place during the winemaking process, and which continue as the wine ages. Also, some winemaking choices such as storing wine in oak barrels can cause the wine to have a toasty, woody aroma, but a lot of a wine’s aromas has to do with the kind of grape the wine is made from.
For example, wine made from our favourite grape varietal, Riesling, will often be described as having subtle ‘petrol’ aromas. Now this doesn’t mean that wine literally smells or tastes of petrol. What it means is that we, as those human being people, are limited in our smells vocabulary, and so when we we pick up a similar scent that reminds us of petrol, the descriptor will be ‘petrol’, even though Riesling itself is a zesty-honeyed magical elixir that’s a far cry from any liquid one may siphon from a car. Riesling’s descriptor of petrol comes from the chemical TDN, and while it can be found in all grapes, it is highest in the Riesling varietal.
As far as aromas are concerned, the reason some really good tasters will be able to identify grape varieties in a glass simply by smelling it is because they have trained their noses to pick up certain chemicals that will tip them off – Cabernet Sauvignon may have hints of mint and cigars, while Sauvignon Blanc can often be criticized for having a ‘cat pee’ smell to it – again, no cat had fun in the winery, only a chemical that smells vaguely like cat pee has reacted in the wine itself. It’s a bit difficult to explain without getting too scientific (trust us, we’re still figuring it out), but what you should know is that the majority of people aren’t born with a magical ability to pick up all the complex smells in a glass of wine – it really is a matter of paying attention over time.
So stay cool, swirl and sniff.
We hope this first edition of Tasting 101 has helped you to understand wine aromas a bit better – please feel free to leave us any comments or questions!