Saturday, September 29, 2012

Smelling, Swirling, and Training Your Nose

What’s with smelling the wine?

Smelling is an important part of tasting because aromas and flavors are so closely linked.  We’ve all experienced this, when we’ve had stuffy noses and can’t taste food very well.  The food tastes bland because we are using only our sense of taste to perceive it, and we’re missing the aromatic component of the experience.  For more details on the relationship between taste and smell, check out this article.

Another reason to smell or “nose” the wine is that our sense of smell is actually stronger and more sensitive than our sense of taste.  We can only taste 4 different flavors – sweet, sour, salty, bitter (5 if you count umami) – but we have the potential to smell between 5,000 and 10,000 distinct aromas, if we develop that ability.  For more on how our sense of smell works, read this.

What’s with all the swirling?

Aromas in wine come from chemical compounds that are present in the grapes and/or created during the fermentation process.  When the wine is swirled, more of these compounds are exposed to oxygen and “volatilize,” which just means they evaporate into the air and directly up your nose, if you've positioned it at the top of the glass!  The swirling makes the wine aromas stronger, so we can smell them better.  For more detail on this subject, the Wikipedia page on wine aromas is a good resource.  And here’s a list of some of the chemical compounds, called esters, and what they smell like.

How to Train Your Nose

While some of us will naturally have a more or less acute sense of smell, we can all train our noses to work better!

A wine teacher once told me to go through the grocery store and pick up and smell all the fruits and vegetables.  By consciously noticing smells and making an effort to remember them, we can improve our recognition and ability to recall aromas.  This article mentions how the subjects in sensory research experiments got better at recognizing aromas as the tests progressed.  

A fun way to practice is to get a Wine Aroma Wheel.  The wheel helps you identify what you might be smelling in the wine.  There are several different versions, but here’s what mine looks like (available at the link above): 

You start at the center of the wheel with general aroma categories and then move out to get more specific.  

And if you have plenty of money to spend, you can always buy a Wine Aroma Kit.  These usually contain small vials of different isolated smells for you to practice with and compare to your wine.  The kits vary by how many aromas they include and by price.  Here are some places to start looking:

In a future post we’ll discuss ways to make your own aroma kit, but for now, keep smelling things!

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