I recently organized a wine tasting at my house using the homemade red wine aroma standards suggested in this Wine Spectator article. Aroma standards are things that smell like the smells we smell in wine. For example, you improve your ability to recognize cherry aromas in wine by smelling the wine, then smelling cherries mixed with wine, then referring back to the original wine. By practicing this way, you heighten an aroma and make it easier to recognize and remember.
The link above has instructions for creating lots of different aroma standards, so I won’t repeat that information here. Instead, I want to pass on what I learned when I incorporated this exercise into a fun home tasting with friends, and give you all the information you need to do the same.
Setting up the Aroma StandardsSelect the wine. I used Bogle Merlot ($8 per bottle at Spec’s) to create my red aroma standards. I wanted something inexpensive, but from a reputable producer, and not so cheap that I ran the risk of finding funky aromas in the wine.
Add your own aromas. Don’t think you have to stick to Wine Spectator’s recipes. I added 2 aromas to my lineup: mushrooms (using 1 fresh mushroom) and cloves (using ~1/4 teaspoon). Next time I’d like to try cranberry and blackberry. If you think of an aroma you’d like to have, try it and see if it works. The bottle’s already open, it wasn’t expensive, and you have nothing to lose.
Make them ahead of time so you can adjust them. Some of the aromas will get stronger, the longer they sit in the wine. Put the ingredients into the wine at least an hour in advance. That way, if some of the aromas have become so strong that they overpower the wine, you can remove some (or all) of that ingredient from the wine, or add more wine. For instance, the tobacco aroma was extremely strong after sitting in the wine for 30 minutes, so I strained it all out before the tasting began. You can also add more of an ingredient if the smell is not strong enough. I did this with the mushrooms. We all have different thresholds for detecting aromas, and you’ll get the best result if you adjust the strength of the smell for your level of scent perception.
Label them. I used wine bottle tags to label the stems of the glasses with what aroma they contained, then folded the paper over so we couldn’t see the label. That way we could quiz ourselves by guessing the standard first without looking. A post-it note would probably work too.
Incorporating Aroma Standards into a Home TastingThere are 2 ways to go about this: the simple way and the ambitious way. First the simple way: Use 1 wine to create the aroma standards AND to taste. This keeps the focus on detecting and identifying the aromas. It is easier to compare the aroma of the plain wine with the aroma of the standards you’ve created when the wine is the same.
The more ambitious approach is to select several red wines you want to taste, then create aroma standards (using one of those wines or another fairly neutral wine) for the aromas you expect to find in the wines you’ve selected. This highlights how aromas differ from one wine to another, and gives you more wines to taste!
Here are some guidelines for aromas commonly found in red wines. This can help you decide which aroma standards you will definitely want to make, based on what wine(s) you’ll be drinking.
If you’re tasting/drinking… Make sure you create an aroma for…
Pinot Noir / Burgundy Strawberry, mushroom
Merlot / right bank Bordeaux Cherry, coffee, vanilla
Cabernet / left bank Bordeaux Blackberry, green pepper, tobacco
Tempranillo / Rioja Cloves
Sangiovese / Chianti Cranberry
Setting the TableLast but not least, here are some ideas for setting up your tasting table. If you’re using the simple method of just one wine for the aroma standards and for tasting, it would be easy to do this with a large group, and you would not need to set a place for each person. You just need a central area to place your aroma standards so people can walk up and sniff. If you’re using the multiple wine approach (like I did), I suggest placing your aroma standards in the middle of the table and giving everyone a place to sit with their own tasting glasses.
After the tasting, I don’t think these aroma standards can be kept for later use. Just like the wine they’re made from, they will only last a couple of days.
I’ll soon be hosting a tasting just like this but for white wines, so I’ll tell you all about my experiences with making my own white wine aroma standards then.
I hope you give these a try. They make a tasting so much more fun, and they’re wonderful for training your wine senses.