Last week I discussed Step 1 of Proper Wine Tasting Technique: Looking at the Wine. If you’re reading this then you survived without becoming a juicy meal for the wine snobs waiting for the slightest faux pas in your technique to eat you alive. By now, I imagine they’re getting pretty hungry, so let’s waste no time getting on with Step II: Smelling the Wine (next week, we’ll actually taste the wine – I promise).
The first step in smelling wine is to swirl the wine in the glass. This allows air to mix with the wine and lets volatile components and alcohol evaporate and release aromas.
Swirling actually takes some skill to do without sloshing wine all over yourself and everyone within ten feet of you. There is, in fact, no easier way to end up on the wine snobs’ dinner menu than to have poor swirling technique.
The trick is to swirl with your shoulder, not your elbow or wrist. Hold the glass by the stem, flat on the table. Don’t hold the glass in the air. Move your shoulders so that the glass moves in circles on the table. Try not to use your elbow and wrist much. Practice this in the privacy of your home with a wine glass filled about halfway with water until you can swirl the wine smoothly and rapidly without sloshing. Practice, practice, practice. That’s the key to survival here. (I honestly can’t believe I spent an entire paragraph on swirling technique. I gotta get a real job.)
Once you’ve given the wine a good swirl, say 5 to 10 seconds worth, it’s time to smell the wine. Don’t do this dainty thing my partner does and put the glass about five inches from your nose and take a tentative sniff. No. Jam that glass up to your nose like it was full of 100% pure Columbian coke and snort like you were suffering serious withdrawal. Breathe deep and really suck those aromas in. I find that inhaling for two to four seconds gives the best take on the wine’s aromas. Closing your eyes while inhaling will make you look like you’re really concentrating on those aromas.
Now we reach the single most critical juncture in surviving wine tasting, and the one that petrifies all wine newbies: describing what the wine smells like. And what does it smell like? What rich and sensuous aromas do you detect? Come on… you can tell me. I won’t hurt you. Cross my heart. Tell me, it smells like wine, doesn’t it?
Ah ha! You worthless little wine cretin! It’s dinnertime!!
Of course wine smells like wine (duh), but most wines also carry overtones of other aromas. Identifying those aromas is the single greatest pleasure in the pathetic life of a wine snob, and that’s why they take it so seriously.
I wish I could tell you that’s it’s easy to detect and describe aromas in wine, but it really takes practice. The best way to start is to compare two wines side-by-side looking for basic types of aromas. The most common types include fruit, floral, spice, vegetal, wood, and earth aromas.
To make it easy on yourself, start with white wines, like a Riesling and a chardonnay. These are two very different kinds of wine and should smell very different. Use the aroma groups above and try to see if you can detect any fruit smells. Riesling often has a strong aroma of green apple and apricot. Chardonnay often has oak and citrus. Any flower-like smells? How about spices?
Don’t worry if you can’t put your finger on what you smell. Just keep smelling. It can take years to develop a finely tuned nose. And don’t worry that you come up with odd things like “pineapple with a dash of motor oil and tartar sauce”. Many of the hip young experts coming on the wine scene today are using exactly these types of weird terms to describe aromas.
Of course, in a wine tasting, surrounded by drooling wine snobs, you don’t have time to practice. You’ve got to get it right the first time. Fortunately, smell is a very personal experience, so as long as you don’t stray too far a field from typical aromas, you should be okay. Here are a few examples of common aromas to guide you.
Light white wines: pineapple, apple, peach, straw, mango
Chardonnay: butter, oak, citrus, vanilla, flint/mineral
Riesling: Green apple, pear, apricot, rose petal, mineral
Burgundy/Pinot Noir: Strawberry, raspberry, cherry, cinnamon, barnyard (swear to God)
Cabernet Sauvignon: Black current, blackberry, mocha, bell pepper, eucalyptus
Syrah: Blackberry, plum, black cherry, black pepper
Drop these terms liberally as you smell the wine using the following time-honored technique:
Swirl. Inhale. Look thoughtful for 4-8 seconds. “I’m getting a bit of blackberry, and…” Swirl again. Inhale again, deeply. Gaze at the ceiling for 6-11 seconds. “…Just a touch of earthiness. Very obvious black pepper.” Quick swirl. Inhale. “And a hint of plum…no make that black cherry.”
Do this right, and you might actually live to taste the wine. In the end, it doesn’t matter so much what exact aromas you can identify. The point of smelling is to get some idea of the character of the wine so that you can enjoy it more. And enjoyment is what it’s all about.