How to Become a Better Wine Taster: Training Your Nose
In the countless wine tastings, courses and classes of the past decade, I’ve had the pleasure of observing wine tasters of all walks of life. And they roughly fall in one of two categories: those who follow their nose first, or those who rely more on what their palate tells them.
Of course that’s a crude generalisation, and a good wine taster has learnt to concentrate on the different aspects of a wine before venturing towards a conclusion. Yet this doesn’t change the fact that we have our natural preference and ability, and when a wine gives us inconclusive data, we’re likely to fall back on our strengths.
No one who’s ever tasted with me will doubt that I am in the ‘nose’ category. But fortunately, thanks to my wine teachers, colleagues and mentors, I’ve learnt to value and use the essential information that acidity levels, sweetness, body, alcohol, flavour intensity and length of a wine bring to the tasting experience. Still, even now, I’m at my happiest when meandering in the fragrant landscape of a great wine, to the point where I might forget to take a sip. Then wandering out again with a many-layered sensory image in mind, looking for words that will capture the ephemeral sensations so I can share them. My slice of heaven in this smelly world we call home.
What helps me tremendously in wine tasting is that I actually know what most of the ingredients on wine aroma listings smell like. You’d think that’s a given, yet it’s a vital step that’s often overlooked in both formal and informal wine training. You can’t expect to recognise the scents and flavours of different flowers, herbs and spices in a wine, if you don’t know with intimate certainty what they really smell like.
I’ve been working with plants for as long as I can remember: from (reluctantly) helping out in my parents’ flower and vegetable garden, to (happily) growing them in our own garden now, cooking with them and pottering around with herbal teas, tinctures, creams, bath oils and soaps. Once you’ve planted, pruned, picked, chopped, dried, macerated and munched on an aromatic ingredient enough times, you have no use for overpriced, artificial-smelling wine aroma kits.
This brings me to the good news:
Our capacity to recognise, interpret and name different aromas is not congenital, but learnt. The brain can be trained to remember and identify more scents, which in turn makes us better wine tasters.
And as with many things, a little goes a long way. You don’t need to start a rigorous nasal work-out routine (although, if you feel so inclined, by all means: go ahead). A few minor changes will make a big difference. Just like you can easily recall the defining scents of your childhood: the smell of apple pie, lavender, cinnamon or your grandfather’s pipe tobacco, this too will be a matter of encountering an aroma often enough until your brain connects it to new or existing memories. That way it is stored in your mental aroma library, to be retrieved the next time you encounter similar aromatic components in a wine.
The brain can be trained to remember and identify more scents, which makes us better wine tasters.
10 Tips That Will Make You a Better Wine Taster
- Smell everything. Consciously. Be aware of the smells in your environment – you’ll be surprised how many objects, plants and places actually have a distinct scent. Don’t be embarrassed sniffing things; people aren’t watching you as closely as you might think.
- Cook from scratch. When preparing your ingredients: focus on how they smell, what these aromas remind you of, and how they change throughout the cooking process.
- Diversify in the fruit, vegetables, herbs and spices you eat. Not just at home, but also in restaurants: make it a habit to regularly order something you’ve never eaten before. Try out foreign cuisines and explore the different ethnic food stores wherever you go.
- Start a kitchen herb planter, patch or garden. This will enrich your mental aroma library, not just with the perfume of the herbs themselves, but also with the associated scents: potting soil, humus, compost, forest floor, decaying leaves, and the fragrance nuances between the different parts of the plant: roots, stems, leaves, flowers, seeds, … You don’t need a big garden or lots of place – you’ll be surprised how much you can grow in a few pots, a balcony rail planter, a raised bed or in a square meter garden.
- Go for walks in parks or forests nearby, throughout the year. Each natural environment and each season (or even time of the day) has its own smells.
- Look for botanic gardens in your area, or visit famous herb or rose gardens when you are on holiday. Don’t be afraid or embarrassed to sniff the plants – you might inspire others to do the same. (Mind the garden’s policies and signage, though, and beware of poisonous plants!)
- Scratch, squeeze, slice or smack the ingredients. Many aroma compounds in plants need some nudging in order to be released. After all, if they’d occur in a volatile state, they’re likely to be gone by the time you get to them, right? So don’t hesitate to scratch, squeeze and slice in order to get a more complete aromatic impression. Or in the case of flint or slate: smack away!
- Taste as many wines as you can, and do so with full awareness and focus. Try every unfamiliar wine you can get your hands on. Get out of your comfort zone!
When you are tasting a wine, take an aroma wheel graphic and go over the aromas one by one, testing if you can find them in the wine. This works best with aroma wheels specifically designed for a specific grape variety or blend, like those in Wine Folly’s The Essential Guide to Wine. Nothing will teach you about the aromas of e.g. Sauvignon Blanc like opening several varietal bottles from different regions, and analysing them against an aroma wheel template.
And last but not least:
- Don’t bother with expensive aroma kits. In most cases the fragrances are chemical imitations, they age, change and fade, and very few smell like the real thing to begin with. Besides, what’s the point in paying for a tiny bottle of imitation “orange”, “clove” or “honey”? Find the real thing and squeeze, scratch and sniff it to your heart’s content. And for the more exotic smells: you’ll be better off buying tiny bottles of essential oils in your local health-food store. They’re not cheap either, but at least they smell like the actual plant, tree or fruit, and you can use them in oil diffusers in your home, which helps you to focus on one scent for a longer period of time, until you’d recognise it anywhere.
The Common Sense Wine Aroma Starter Kit
The following ingredients should be easy to get access to, and knowing their scents will go a long way towards making you a better wine taster:
- apples: green apples, red apples, yellow apples, applesauce
- pears & quince: unripe, ripe, as jelly or jam
- citrus: lemon, lime, orange, mandarin, grapefruit. Scratch and squeeze the different parts of the fruit: peel, pith, flesh and marmalade/preserve
- berries: strawberries, raspberries, blackberries, blueberries, redcurrants, blackcurrants, and if you want to go wild: cranberries and elderberries too
- cherries: sour, sweet, red, black, and even that eighties cocktail or ice cream decoration horror: the maraschino cherry
- plums: greengages, mirabelles, damsons, …
- peaches, apricots and nectarines
- pineapples at different ripeness
- passion fruit
- lychees: fresh as well as canned
- dried figs, dates, raisins
- apple, pear and cherry blossoms
- hawthorn blossom
- linden/lime blossom
- citrus blossoms (orange, lemon)
Herbs & spices (fresh or dried)
- dill / fennel
- freshly-cut grass
- star anise
- white & black peppercorns – when you smell them side by side, you’ll notice they’re different
- baking spices / cookie spices / gingerbread spices
green bell pepper
- green beans
- sun-dried tomatoes
- mushrooms / truffle
Trees & nuts
- almonds / cashews / hazelnuts
- pine (needles, branches, resin)
- cedar, sandalwood (if you live in countries where these don’t occur, get the essential oil)
- honey / beeswax
- butter / cream / buttermilk / yoghurt
- bread dough / bread crust / yeast / toast
- coffee / mocha
- caramel / moscovado sugar
- chocolate / cocoa
- black tea
- green & black olives
- balsamic vinegar
- potting soil / humus / compost
- cured meat
- (old and new) leather
And above all: enjoy! Losing yourself in these perfumes and fragrances is one of the most sensual, heartwarming and fundamentally human activities. And it will make you enjoy wine even more, that’s a guarantee.