The sense of smell is the most important of the five when
evaluating wine. While one can only taste five things (sweet, sour,
bitter, salty and umami), scientists tell us that we can smell over 100,000
different things. In fact, smell accounts for as much as 85% of the sense
Whether you take several short, quick sniffs or one long gentle sniff or something in between, you can learn a lot about a wine. First you see if there are faults or flaws – does it smell of musty cardboard, vinegar, barnyard funk, or some other off putting aroma. If that is the case going to the next criteria of taste is probably not worthwhile.
However, once past this first step you look for the
fruit qualities. Do you notice aromas of apples and pears in a white wine
or cherries and plums in a red wine. These are all primary fruit flavors from
the grapes. Further, there are “fruit groups” for white and red
wines. Here is a list:
Tree fruit: apple and pear
Citrus fruit: lemon, lime, grapefruit, orange, tangerine and the like.
Tropical fruit: pineapple, mango, papaya, passion fruit, banana etc.
Stone or pit fruit: peach, apricot, nectarine
“Other”: for things like melon.
Red fruits: red cherry, red raspberry, cranberry, strawberry, red currant, red plum, pomegranate.
Black fruits: black cherry/berry, black currant, black raspberry, black plum and in even riper versions boysenberry and blueberry.
Dried or desiccated fruit: raisin, date, and figs.
There are usually secondary aromas and flavors in
wine. A white wine may have the apple and citrus aromas accompanied by
non-fruit aromas such as flowers, green herbs, spices, and more. Once
you’ve noted the fruit and the non-fruit aromas move on to earth.
Do you notice earth as in dirt or minerals. European wines tend to have a pronounced earthy or mineral quality to them. Wines from the new world, or non-European wines, tend to have little, if any, earthiness to them and also tend to be fruit-driven. Earthiness can be expressed in the form of chalk (Chablis), slate (German Riesling), damp earth, wet leaves, mushrooms, underbrush, or just plain dirt. In the tasting exam setting, earthiness (or the lack thereof) is a major clue as to a wine’s origin.
Fine wines are often aged in small, 55-to-60-gallon oak barrels. The oak will make itself apparent in the form of aromas of smoke, toast, sweet baking spices (from caramelizing the inside of the barrels), and freshly sawed oak plank. That’s usually a sign of too much wood in a wine. The presence (or lack of) these wood flavors are another clue as to a wine’s identity. Certain white wines (Alsace, Germany and others) have little, if any, wood flavors, while other whites such as white Burgundies or California Chardonnays often have considerable wood flavors. The same goes for red wines.
Alcohol makes itself known in the form of heat in the nose. A wine with relatively low alcohol won’t register any sensation of heat in the nose while a fortified wine such as port will cause quite a bit of warmth.
Finally you can learn about the age of the wine with your nose. Do you notice bright, youthful fruit or are there earthier, spicier notes. A young red wine will display bright berry fruit while an older wine will reveal flavors such as leather, tobacco, and spice box. This shouldn’t come as a shock because you’ve already detected youthful or aged qualities in the color of the wine. Think of it as building a case that will culminate in your conclusion as to the identity of the wine.