For one thing, organized wine tastings are often plagued by the joy-killing suspicion that there are very serious rules that must be followed to the letter or you’ll look like an idiot. Tasting wine is not nearly as much fun if you’re nervous that perhaps you’re not holding the glass correctly or speaking poetically enough about the “bouquet.”
When trying to detect aromas, it helps to know that each grape varietal has a few classic aromas. Here is a list that covers some of the popular red and white varietals.
Black currant, mint, plum, eucalyptus, bell pepper, olives, vanilla, black cherry, cedar, anise, cassis
Raspberry, black or white pepper, blackberry, red or black currant, cassis, jam, smoke, leather, tar,coffee
Wild berries, raspberry, plum, pepper, bramble, earth
Guava, tropical fruit, honey, nutseo.
Red berries, black berries, eucalyptus, mint, herb, bell pepper, plum, violets, cassis, fruit cake, chocolate.
Boiled sweets, bananas, cloves, herbs
Apple, melon, peach, pineapple, pear, lemon, fig, honey, butter, toast
Blossom scents, peaches, pears, apricots, honey.
Red currant, strawberry, cherry (red or black), raspberry, violets, mushrooms, decaying leaves, cola
Violets, herbs, heather
Grass, gooseberry, nettles, herbs, tropical fruit, citrus, fig
Roses, raisins, ripe pineapple, cinnamon, apricot. When aged, chocolates, nuts, liquorice.
If you fill your glass to about one-quarter or so of the way, you’ll leave plenty of room for swirling and also make space for aromas to build up.
Give the glass a good swirl. This will help release aromas. A tulip-shaped glass will help capture the aromas and funnel them toward your nose. Go ahead and put your nose right in there. And breathe deeply. The first sniff is usually the most revealing. Now it’s really getting interesting. Smell is, of course, a critical part of taste, and as you get a sense of a wines’ aroma it stimulates the palate. But take a moment to tease yourself a bit more before you sip. What do you smell? A wines’ aromas can tell you a lot. This is also, however, where the cerebral nonsense of wine tasting can get thoroughly out of hand. This is where wine tastings can begin to feel intimidating. Some people are more naturally adept at picking out aromas than others. Others are simply bolder about giving voice to their guesses.
Most of us feel lucky if we can pick out more than one aroma. Identifying underlying flavours often sounds like a poetry reading. But as with most things, with practice (if drinking wine can really be said to require “practice”) you can teach your nose and palate to identify more aromas and flavours.
Tip and Sip It
Go ahead, take a sip. But before you swallow the wine, let it linger a bit in the mouth. At this point, you have many options, some more flamboyant than others. You can tighten the mouth and breathe in over the wine to send the aromas into the back of the nasal cavity. Or you can “chew” on the wine a bit to move it around the tongue. However you do it, let the flavours wash over your palate.
- Is it pleasantly weighty? The alcohol will give it the “body” that is felt in the mouth as viscosity or weight.
- Is there a drying sensation in the mouth? That indicates the presence of tannin. (Note that we perceive tannins and alcohol as feelings, not flavours.)
Now that you’ve tasted and have directed your attention to noticing the flavours, language will be helpful. One thing you’ll notice is that no one ever says a wine smells or tastes like grapes. Instead, there are many, many other fruits plus vegetables, herbs, spices and minerals that we tend to detect in wine. This is because there are thousands of flavour compounds milling around in that glass that share flavours with other foods.
Part of the fun of identifying flavours in wine is being willing to assign to it words that might seem silly or out of place. It takes courage to say, “I’m smelling rotting leaves in this Burgundy” or “My syrah smells a little like a barnyard” because rotten leaves and barnyard smells don’t seem like the kind of aromas you should be experiencing in nice wines. But go ahead and say it loud and proud. As it happens, those are not uncommon aromas to find in those particular wines; neither are they flaws.
In the wacky world of wine, they’re considered attractive. Go with your instinct. Be daring with the language.
There are classic flavours and aromas to look for:
- Pinot Noir and cherries or mushrooms
- Merlot and plums
- Shiraz and leather (even barnyard smells)
- Sauvignon Blanc and grass (even cat pee!)
- Riesling and petrol (again, in a good way), and so on.
Going Beyond the Basics
Once you’ve tasted for a while, you might find yourself taking your aesthetic evaluations to (potentially insufferable) new levels. You can begin to evaluate such things as the wines’ “balance.” Do the wine’s acidity, alcohol, tannins (if they’re there) and flavours come together as a pleasurable whole without different parts sticking out unattractively?
Something fun to do after you’ve tasted wine is to pay special attention to the smell of foods as you’re cooking. Go ahead and put the mushroom to your nose, give the lemon a sniff, breathe in the aromas of those freshly chopped herbs. The nose has a powerful memory, and taking care to notice aromas in the ingredients you prepare will help you pick out aromas in wines.
If your white wines are poured too cold, you will have difficulty picking out aromas until they warm a bit and the tightly bundled odours reveal themselves.