The 3rd “S” of Wine Tasting: Smell

The next “S” is where you’ll actually be able to enjoy the first part of the wine; smell. Once you’ve “volatized the esters” in the wine, you’ll be able to really enjoy the smell of the wine. Now, some people tend to believe that the aroma and the bouquet in a wine mean the same thing; the smell. Not quite.
I just recently had this explained to me by a professor that teaches wine courses at the Rochester Institute of Technology. Aroma is something that is an expected smell from that grape. The aroma of a Cabernet Sauvignon might be black cherry because that is a characteristic smell that most Cabernet Sauvignons portray. The bouquet then is something that is specific to that one wine that you are trying. For example, if that Cabernet Sauvignon had aromas of black cherries but a bouquet of coriander, because coriander isn’t something that Cabernet Sauvignons usually smell like. This isn’t of the utmost importance but it is good to know.
Also, smell is probably one of the most important steps of wine tasting. Our sense of smell may not be as good as say, a dog or rhinoceros, but nevertheless it can detect some 10,000 different smells. Even when you’re not in the process of smelling and sniffing something you can still smell it; the retronasal passage at the back of your throat carries the smells up to where the receptors in your nose can smell them (some 1,000 receptors in all), so you can smell something even when it’s in your mouth. But I don’t want to get to technical on you.
One thing that I’ve found helps me out a lot is when I’m smelling a wine I imagine a buffet table, but all the plates are empty. As I smell the wine, I imagine that everything I smell is filling up these plates. It usually helps if you close your eyes because there is less to distract you. But I might find that grapefruit is on a plate next to pears, then next to that is some fresh cut grass and green peppers. You can get all this and more from wine. You’ll be smelling spices, fruits, nuts, different types of wood if it’s oaked, butter, and an almost infinite number of other smells. This is one of the reasons why wine has stuck around so long, it is so dynamic. The same bottle of wine will smell and taste differently whether you opened it today or tomorrow.
There is always something going on so you might smell more oak in a Cabernet Sauvignon one day and if you open the same bottle the next day, the smell of cherries might strike you right in the face (no not literally of course). For example, I T.A. for a wine class and I heard a student one time say that he smelled cat piss in a bottle of Sauvignon Blanc. Want to hear the funny part? He was right. Whatever you smell, the keyword being you, is what is right. Wine is so subjective in that way. It’s all about your experience. Some people might be more sensitive to fruit while others, well they might just be more sensitive to cat piss, everyone’s different.
Like in literature, where your previous experiences can help to dictate what you get from the author of that book, your previous experiences, personal tastes, even the way you think, will dictate what you smell and taste in your wine. So before I go any further, before you open that bottle of wine and tell me what you smell let me tell you something; you’re right! Don’t you love being told you’re right? There are certain things of course you shouldn’t be smelling in a bottle of wine, for example it would be highly unusual to smell fresh cut grass in a bottle of Cabernet Franc. Some characteristics are more apparent in whites than reds and vice versa. But it’s all about training your nose and palate and the only way to do that is by drinking lots and lots of wine. So after you finish reading this, go out and buy a couple bottles of wine and get to work.

Ryan Evans


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