The wine aroma can be one of the most intriguing and passion-inducing components of appreciating fine wine. While we think of wine simply as a beverage, it can be so much more, enticing and thrilling many of your senses, not just your taste-buds! Remember, much of your sense of taste is really based on what you smell. So, when wine tasting, significant time should be taken to evaluate and enjoy the wine aroma. I have had many profound wines which I didn't even put to my lips for 15 to 20 minutes, all the while simply swirling and smelling the complex and beautiful aromas rising up from my glass. This alone can be a joy and therefore should not be overlooked.
Wine aroma, often called the wine's nose or, if it is particularly complex, bouquet, should be assessed for each new wine after looking at its color. To do this, proper swirling of your wine should be done. Swirling helps to volatilize particles in the wine into the air so that you can smell it better. It also allows the wine to react with oxygen so that it can develop and grow in complexity in your glass. Swirl the wine and then immediately bring the glass to your nose and inhale deeply through your nose to appreciate the wine aroma. Don't be afraid to really get your nose right into the mouth of the glass to really pick up all those subtle aromas!
Swirling wine - If you haven't swirled a wine before and are afraid of making a fool of yourself, don't worry! I'm here to help. It is not as hard as it may first seem and with a little practice it will be completely second nature. I even inadvertently swirl my water glass sometimes if I'm not paying attention! Here are some tips to swirling:
Practice, Practice, Practice! - Before your first formal wine tasting, when learning how to taste wine at home, practice swirling a bit. It may seem silly but it will help you become comfortable with it. I recommend first using water in a wine glass so that you don't spill wine on your nice white shirt! You will splash and even spill a bit at first, but with practice you will become more confident and be able to swirl aggressively without loosing a drop. When you feel confident, move up to using some real wine.
Use Proper Wine Glasses - One of the biggest mistakes you can make is using improper wine glasses. Good wine glasses for tasting wine should have a taper so that the opening at the top is narrower than the bowl of the glass. Glasses that do the opposite, that flare out at the top, like a Martini or Margarita glass, are horrible for tasting wine. First of all they do not focus the wine aroma towards your nose. Also, when you try to swirl the wine will fly all over the room!
Don't Over-Pour the Wine - While in many restaurants you will see servers bring glasses of wine filled to the brim, this is absolutely the wrong way to serve wine. In appropriate wine glasses, a wine pour should be only about 1/4 of the glass, maybe a 1/3 at the most. Anything beyond the half-way point will certainly cause problems. Swirling wine is much easier with less glass in your wine.
Swirl on the Table First - One way to get used to the circular motion you will need to swirl the wine elegantly is to place your wine glass on a flat surface. Then gently start to rotate the base while holding the glass stem. The base of the wine should always remain completely in contact with the table. Swirl harder and harder until the wine is spinning along the sides of the glass. Once you get comfortable with this movement and can keep the wine swirling smoothly then you can move on to trying it without the table as support.
Components of the Wine Aroma/Nose to Evaluate - Once you've got swirling down, its time to start sniffing! As I said before, don't be afraid to really get your snout down into the glass to really immerse yourself in the wine aroma. Take your time and pick out all those details of the wine aroma that you notice.
Intensity - The intensity of a wine's aroma is how powerful it is. Does it jump out at you and kick you in the face or do you have to search for it? This can be described s weak, moderate, aromatic or even powerful. If you can smell it across the room then comment on that! While great wines usually have an aromatic, powerful aroma, sometimes young wines can be a bit shy. They may take some coaxing to come out of their shell. Don't give up! Give it some time and keep swirling to try to release more of the wine's bouquet.
Development - The development of a wine is an indication of how mature it is. Is it a young wine or an old one? Youthful wines tend to have fresher aromas which tend towards the ripe, fresh fruit end of the spectrum, often accented by other notes such as spice or oak. As a wine ages (and even as it sits in the glass for a while and reacts with oxygen) it begins to develop new aromas, often ones you might not usually associate with fruit. Aromas like mushrooms, truffles, earth, tobacco and coffee can develop along with just about anything you can imagine. Comment on whether you think the wine aroma is youthful and primary or does it show some age with more advanced secondary aromatics? Again, this is something that will become more obvious to you as you get more experience tasting wine.
Specific Aromas - Describe what you smell. Does it smell like red fruits like raspberry and strawberry or is it distinctly melon flavored? Wines can have hundreds of different types of aromas. Usually they focus around the world of fruits, particularly when young, but they can have accents of many other things, mushrooms, tobacco, coffee, chocolate, spices, earth, vegetables, flowers, candy, etc. Let your nose do the walking and tell you what it reminds you of. There are no wrong answers, simply describe what impression it makes on you and what you think it smells like. This could be a single smell (It smells like fresh strawberries!) or it could be a laundry list of descriptors. In general great wines have great complexity with layers of aromas and flavors that blend together beautifully. Do you like the combination of aromas or is it awkward or off-putting? One thing I should point out is that while you often hear people describe wines as smelling like raspberries, cherries and black currants, for example, this does not mean that there are literally raspberries, cherries and black currants in the wine! Wine is made from grapes and only grapes. Those other aromas and flavors all come from the complexity of the flavors in those grapes and that develop in the wine as it is made and aged, first in barrels and later in the wine bottle.If you are having trouble coming up with descriptors or picking out the subtle, complex wine aromas you smell, consider trying out a Wine Tasting Wheel to guide you, at least initially while you are refining your nose.
"Off" Aromas/Flaws - Not all aromas you can smell in a wine are positive attributes! Like all products, and particularly agricultural products, wine can have flaws. These wine aromas are often described as "off" aromas. These vary dramatically but trust your nose, if you think it smells weird and not right, then it probably isn't. I've listed a few of the more common wine flaws you may encounter below. They can vary in intensity.
Corked Wine (TCA) - A corked wine does not mean the cork has been pulled or that the normal components of the cork ruined the wine. What this term refers to is a wine contaminated with TCA (2,4,6-Trichloroanisole), also referred to as cork taint. Generally, TCA is though to be a created by some types of airborne fungi which infest some corks. The TCA leaches into the wine, tainting it. Although harmless to humans, TCA creates an aroma that masks the normal wine and destroys it. Some people are more sensitive to it than others but most describe the aroma of a corked wine as being musty, like wet newspaper or cardboard, a wet dog or a damp, moldy basement. Basically, it smells like mold. This can vary from very slight to completely overwhelming. It masks the normal aromas of the wine and even the flavors can be muted by this contaminant. Unfortunately, this is a fairly common problem with wines which use natural corks. While the estimates vary dramatically, it can affect from 2 to 10% of bottles.
Brett - Brettanomyces, usually called Brett for short, is another fungus which can infest wines in the winemaking process. Again, it is harmless health-wise but can have variable effects on wine. Some winemakers and tasters feel that a small amount of Brett can actually be a good thing, enhancing the aroma and adding complexity, but people vary in their tolerance of this contaminant. On the good end of the spectrum, Brett can give wine aroma which is smokey like bacon or even a bit "barnyardy" which some people like. On the other end of the spectrum it can be quite stinky, smelling like Band-Aids and antiseptic, like manure and horse, a sweaty saddle or rancid cheese.
Reduction - Wine that has had very little exposure to oxygen can sometimes become reduced, a chemical process. If extreme this can lead to aromas that are often described as "funky". They can included a roasted, sulfur aroma like a just-struck match, hard-boiled eggs, burnt rubber or rotting vegetation. Mild levels of this wine aroma will often "blow off" as the wine sits in the glass and is exposed to oxygen over 10 to 20 minutes. Decanting the bottle of wine can also help speed this process up. If it is severe, it may be more difficult to reverse.
Oxidation - When wine is exposed to oxygen, it gets oxidized. While this is good in small amounts, excessive oxidation can lead to a flattening of the wine's character and its aromas can come to resemble other oxidized wines such as Sherry which is normally oxidized. Oxidation can occur in old wines which are over the hill but can also occur in younger wines if they have been mishandled or mistakes have been made in the winemaking process.
That's it! I hope this helps you get started using your nose to investigate your next wine. To move on to learn about tasting wine, go on to the Wine Flavor page.