Many of us have trouble matching the wine’s description (either on the label or in a review) to its actual taste and smell. For example, when a Chardonnay is called “oaky”, what does that taste and smell like? I’d like to share five tips for fine tuning your wine tasting (and smelling) skills.
The first thing to realize here is that most of us are works in progress when it comes to our tasting and smelling skills. Yes, there are some people out there who were born with incredible noses and palates, but they are few and far between.
Most people spend a lifetime developing these skills. Here are five tips for improving your wine tasting and smelling skills:
1. Take a spin on an aroma wheel
One of our biggest challenges as wine tasters is coming up with descriptive words for what we’re smelling and tasting. Wouldn’t it be great if we could say, “that Chardonnay tastes and smells like a Chardonnay” and have everybody understand what we mean? Unfortunately, life isn’t that simple.
The best way for us to describe a Chardonnay is to use “foody” words such as “apple,” “pear,” “banana,” “nutmeg,” “vanilla,” and “oak.” But when we don’t have an apple right in front of us, it’s hard to recognize that we’re tasting and smelling apple in a particular wine.
That’s where an aroma wheel comes in. Aroma wheels give us a list of smells and tastes to look for.
Start at the center of the wheel where the major categories are (e.g., fruit, vegetable, floral), and then work your way out as you narrow in on the details, such as “citrus” vs. “tropical,” for example.
The original aroma wheel (http://www.winenet.com/aromawheel.html) was created in the 1970’s at UC Davis, and it has been modified since then by a number of different organizations. Any aroma wheel that you find will be helpful.
2. Sniff out clues from wineries or reviewers
If a winery or reviewer describes a wine as having “hints of raspberry and blackberry on the nose”, use this as a clue to discovering these scents for yourself. Try and remember them so you’ll easily recognize them next time.
Also, be more vigilant about observing the smells and tastes of the food you eat. A part of our problem is that we might not be as expert at recognizing the smell and taste of banana, for example, as we think we are.
For items that we don’t eat, like leather, take the time to smell a leather belt periodically and really get familiar with that aroma.
Focus on the most common descriptive words, and you’ll be in great shape for a good 80 percent of the wines that you taste. Here is my short list: grapefruit, lemon, orange, blackberry, raspberry, strawberry, black currant/cassis, cherry, apricot, peach, apple, pear, pineapple, melon, banana, bell pepper, eucalyptus, mint, green olive, honey, chocolate, vanilla, tobacco, oak, smoky, mushroom, rose, licorice, black pepper, leather.
3. Swirl away
When you pour wine directly from the bottle into your glass, the wine needs to aerate. If you smell the wine before swirling, you aren’t likely to get a lot out of the experience. Once you aggressively swirl the wine, the aromas are much more prominent. So swirl away! If you’re new to swirling, put your glass on a flat surface and draw circles with your glass.
4. Try a group “drink think”
Enjoy tastings with experts or a group of friends, so you can share your ideas about tastes and scents, and learn some interesting factoids from your fearless leader or cohorts. If you’re in the Bay Area, I would love to lead a tasting for you and experience the tastes and aromas with you.
5. Take a sensory analysis class
I took a sensory analysis class several years ago at the Culinary Institute of America in Saint Helena (www.ciachef.edu/california/wines.asp), and I loved it. Day 1 was all about smell. Day 2 was all about taste. I got so much out of the class, I think I could take it many times over and benefit each time!
I hope these tips for fine tuning your tasting and smelling skills are helpful.