For many new wine drinkers, the art of smelling wine can very much seem like a mystery: How is that some people are able to recognize a variety of floral or earthy notes, while other people walk away from the experience convinced that all wine smells exactly the same? Below, we’ll take a closer look at some of the methods, approaches and techniques that can help you recognize a full range of smells in a wine.
The one technique that is taught in many beginner wine courses is to stick your nose all the way into a glass, close your eyes, and breathe in deep. The intensity of this experience can help you to unlock many of the primary floral and fruit characteristics of a wine. For example, a white wine might have notes of bananas, lemon or pineapple, while a red wine might have notes of cherries or strawberries. If a wine has been aged in oak for a while, you might also be able to pick up some secondary notes, such as pepper, plum, prunes or tobacco.
The above technique of breathing in deeply and extending one’s nose directly into the glass can work as a basic approach, but it can also lead to a wine taster being overwhelmed if the wine is very high in alcohol. At that point, you will have a very difficult time picking out the secondary and tertiary notes.
As a result, a modified technique calls for a technique in which you gently place the rim of the glass on our upper lip, just below your nose, and then breathe with short, gentle and quick breaths. You can then experiment with a variety of angles for the glass as you breathe in and out, with many veteran wine experts saying that the optimal angle for a glass will be somewhere between 45 and 50 degrees. Since your nose is not directly in the glass, you will also have more options for where your eyes are positioned. The classic approach is to look straight ahead at the wine with your eyes as you breathe. However, as you angle the glass, it might be easier to look slightly downward to the left or slightly downward to the right.
Breathing with both the mouth and nose
Once you’ve experimented with the modified technique above (i.e. short, quick breaths instead of one deep inhalation), you can experiment with breathing through your mouth and nose at the same time. To do this, you hold the wine glass approximately 1 inch away from your nose, and open up your mouth approximately one-quarter inch. This open mouth approach can be very effective at intensifying the smells you would be picking up with your mouth alone.
The retro-nasal approach
Amongst professional wine tasters, a further modification of this approach is known as the retro-nasal approach. It consists of sipping a wine, then spitting it out (or swallowing), and only then breathing out through the nose. You can see why this is called “retro” – the act of breathing is actually an exhalation at the end, rather than an inhalation at the beginning.
Finding the perfect approach
It can often take quite a bit of experimentation to find the “perfect” approach. The important point here is that there is no “wrong” answer when you smell a wine. As a general rule, the human brain can only reference smells already in memory, and usually only those that are smelled over and over again, or that are entrenched in memory from childhood (if you grew up on a farm, for example, you would naturally be much more attuned to smells in nature than someone who grew up in the city). So don’t be concerned if your peers are describing a wine as being redolent of an exotic spice – if you’ve never actually smelled that spice, then you won’t be able to describe it.
The corked wine
One final note on smelling a wine – beware that some wines may be “corked.” This means that, despite all best efforts taken by the winemaker, the wine is ruined. The resulting smell is one that has been described as a “dank basement,” a “wet rag” or a “moldy room” – so it should be obvious when a wine is corked. That being said, there is a very small subset of wines (known as natural wines) that might have faint odors that are reminiscent of a corked wine. Only wine bottles closed with real corks can be “corked,” however, not those with synthetic corks or screw top closures.
Final thoughts on smelling wine
It can take a lot of experimentation to find the right approach that works best for you. When you find an approach that works, it can feel like a real epiphany, as you start to smell all the secondary and tertiary aromas that once were a mystery to you. When that happens, you will be well on your way to becoming a wine fan for life.