By Julia van der Vink
In continuing with a systematic approach to wine tasting, the next step after evaluating the appearance (Part I), is to smell the wine. Because one’s sense of smell is more discerning than one’s sense of taste, this is perhaps the most critical part of the tasting process.
Part II: The Nose
1) Swirl the wine in your glass before sniffing deeply. Although, you will have already swirled the wine once to check for legs, the purpose of swirling again is to aerate further the wine and liberate its full spectrum of aromas. As the wine coats the side of the glass and evaporates, it releases its bouquet. *Note: Do be wary of the overzealous floor slosh. It has an uncanny tendency of occurring when one is wearing borrowed clothing.
2) Stick your nose in the glass, and inhale. This step is fairly self-explanatory. And there is no proper technique related to how many sniffs you should take, or how far you should put your nose into the glass. Do whatever works for you.
3) Look for faults, and determine if you should send a wine back. For all of you who have ever shared my restaurant ordering-anxiety, this is the step to pay attention to. When you assess a wine’s condition to determine if it is “clean” or “unclean” you are looking for a few tell-tale smells. Cork taint is the most common fault that can be picked up on the nose, and it affects about 5% of all wines. Cork taint smells of mustiness, wet basement, wet cardboard, or in the most severe cases, moldy gym socks. Cork taint affects wine with varying degrees of intensity. Even if only faint on the nose, it is usually more pronounced on the palate. Some more subtle faults to look out for are excessive sulfur dioxide, and oxidation. Excessive sulfur dioxide is most often found in cheap white wines and has a smell of burnt matches. Oxidized wines will have lost their vibrant fruit aromas, and smell like burnt caramel. Spark notes: avoid wet cardboard, burnt matches, and burnt caramel.
4) Determine if the wine’s state of development is consistent with its vintage. A young wine will have different aroma characteristics than an older wine that has had time to soften and harmonize. If a wine is young, you will be mostly picking up “primary aromas” (i.e. characteristics of the fruit, and specific grape variety), and sometimes a few “secondary aromas” (i.e. aromas derived from the way in which the wine was made). If you are drinking an older wine, however, expect more complexity. There will be more pronounced secondary aromas, as well as specific “tertiary” aromas that develop with bottle aging.
5) Describe the character of the aromas. Describing character is one of the most personal parts of tasting. Everyone has their own Rolodex of familiar smells and tastes. One man’s blackberry may be another man’s boysenberry, and some of us have no idea what “cassis,” and “milk thistle” smell like, and no interest in learning what “sweaty saddle” means. However, with practice, you will learn to associate certain aromas with different grape varieties and regions. Below is a list of words to describe aromas that I find useful and have extrapolated from the Wine and Spirit Educational Trust. Your own Rolodex of terms will quickly expand if you try mentally cataloging the smells in your spice cabinet, or start paying attention to the smells of different fruits, vegetables, etc. that are all around you. Think of it as a little homework assignment.