How to Smell A Wine And Actually Know Something
– I Just Smell Grapes, Not Charcoal and Elderberry Dust
You just got a huge promotion at work, and it’s time to go out and celebrate. Arriving at the finest restaurant on your block, you have a seat at the candlelit table in the corner. “You know what? Forget ordering wine by the glass tonight. For the first time ever I’m getting a whole bottle!” Scouring through the wine list, you finally choose the perfect Cabernet. “That was easy! Ahhh, this is going to be a nice relaxing evening with a good bottle of wine!”
Yeah, you thought wrong.
Your server brings over the bottle. You are still smiling at this point, eager to try out this new wine (since you have been doing research you are ready to experience something new.) They pop the cork, pull out a glass. “Oh my this is going to be great!” Not so fast first timer, things are about to get weird.
As soon as the pouring starts, it ends. One sip. One little, teeny weeny sip in a big ole wine glass. “Here you go sir.” They hand you the glass and just stare at you. The staring continues for what seems like 6 hours. You begin to sweat. “What am I supposed to do with this?” You glance at them with a look of desperation. The tension is high. Finally, they give you a hint to “smell and taste” the wine to make sure it’s to your liking.
In your mind you are thinking “Oh, I’ve heard about this. You are supposed to sniff the glass, swirl or twirl it or something, then taste it. I think you are supposed to make odd comments like it smells like leather and candy corn or something. Let’s do it.”
Maybe I’m a Beer Person?
You shove your face in, take in a deep sniff, shake the glass violently, then chug it. Close enough. You pause, look up to the sky, and try to appear sophisticated. Here it comes, the moment of truth. You look back at them and say “Yup. It’s good. I got a slight hint of grapes at first, followed by a stronger hint of grapes at the finish.” At that point, after rolling their eyes, your server asks “Would you like a beer instead?”
The Sniffing Basics
Before you can know what it is you’re smelling, you need to know where and how to stick your nose. Ok, yeah, that sounded weird but it’s accurate. Luckily, this part isn’t really that complicated, and you can tailor it to your liking. After gently swirling the glass, quickly bring it to your nose and just stick it into the open part of the glass. Obvious, I know. There are different techniques that people use, so try them all and see what fits you. For some, a quick short sniff does the trick. Or several short sniffs. For others, long and deep inhaling sniffs work better. Try different things. Put the glass to your ear. You never know what will be “your thing.”
What In The Smell Just Happened?
Ok, so you are done swirling and sniffing. Now what? Are you supposed to say something profound? Is your cat staring at you wondering what kind of jibberish you are going to spit out about the wine aroma? Yes and yes. Speak profoundly to your cat.
First and foremost, you need to start with a basic aroma or two. Did it smell fruity, earthy, flowery, chocolatey, spicy, barfy, or like a household cleaning supply? Think of things you have smelled before and try to associate the wine with that. After the first sniff or two, take a pause. Think. Focus. Concentrate. Then do it again and see if you get the same aroma. If you are in a room with others drinking the same wine, listen to them and cheat a little. See if what they are saying matches what you were thinking. If not, just try to sound smarter when you give your opinion. Just kidding, but seriously it might work.
The entire process is meant to be enjoyable and fun, not stressful and stuffy. Yes, there are professionals who sniff wine for a living. If you are somehow trapped on a deserted island with them and 400 cases of fine wine, then I’m sorry, I can’t help you. Just keep saying it smells like coconuts I guess. But, most of the time, you will be drinking these wines with friends, coworkers, and others who are probably just as uncomfortable as you are, so just relax. Let your mind take you to a happy place by smelling these wonderful aromas. Well, unless of course you get a bottle that smells like garbage, which is possible.
Once you get a knack for the basic aromas, you can then start expanding into more specific areas. Learn to “train” your nose to smell everything around you, so that the next time you sniff a wine you will have built up a crazy database of smells. Flowers, fruits, vegetables, socks, pavement, old shoes, soaps….everything. Take your time when smelling everything. Picture it. Save it.
If you really, really want to expand your nose sniffing knowledge, check out The Davis Wine Aroma Wheel. It will help you categorize each basic aroma and expand upon it. For example, that first sniff gave you an “earthy” feeling. Take a pause. Sniff again. Was it a sulfuric earthy feeling? Or pungent? It just keeps going until you might possibly end up at smelling a skunk. (Yeah, skunk is actually on the wheel.)
So, as you can see, there are many levels to “wine sniffing” that you can build upon. If you just want to remain a casual wine drinker with a tad bit of sophistication, just stick to the basics and make it sound pretty when you speak. If you want to join a more sophisticated wine club that meets in some creepy professor’s basement, then expand your smell database. It’s not as difficult as you think, it just takes some training and patience.
Most importantly, enjoy it. Every sniff. Every sip. Every bottle.
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