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.
As an independent wine consultant with WineShop At Home, I absolutely enjoy bringing a taste of the Napa wine country home to you one sip at a time. Whether you simply love to drink wine, would like to host a tasting, seek a special gift, or are in search of a new wine jobs opportunity as a wine consultant, feel free to contact me for a truly unique wine tasting experience!
Betty Kaufman, WineShop At Home
Thanks for the great answer to my question Betty. The aroma wheel is very helpful. Now, this weekend I guess I’ll have to do some “research” on tasting! I know, it’s a tough job . . .
A tough job, but somebody’s gotta do it 🙂
Oh I so need this aroma wheel. 🙂 To me they just taste good or not taste good. I mean, I like certain wines more then another and prefer wines that are not so acidic on my tongue …. but have a hard time discerning what I am actually tasting or not. I guess I need to start tasting MORE wine so I can figure it out. 🙂
I will give you an aroma wheel the next time I see you. Just remember ~ this is all about having more fun with wine, not about figuring anything out 🙂
I used to have an aroma wheel somewhere around this house… Thank you for the reminder as I really should start deepening my knowledge and the wheel would definitely make me “stop and smell the roses” [I mean, aromas] more! Your idea of taking a sensory analysis class is fabulous, Betty. I will consider it as it would be not only a great getaway, but also very educational!
You will love the sensory analysis class at Culinary Institute of America. And of course, you get to stay in the wine country, which is such a treat.
Nice column. When I first started taking wine classes (from an extremely impressive guy – the second “Master of Wine” in the US!), and was totally mystified by all the descriptors flying around, the teacher offered the following insight, which I’ve never forgotten: “Look, wine is made from grapes. So what does wine smell like? GRAPES. What does wine taste like? GRAPES. What does wine look like? GRAPE JUICE. 99% of the taste, smell and appearance is grapes. But that is so boring. What is fascinating is that last 1% – with almost infinte variety. Beginning wine drinkers understandably find that all of the wine they taste is pretty much dominated by the same ‘grapeness’. Good wine tasters have learned how to get past the 99% and find that elusive 1%.”
Rob, I love it! I am going to post that comment to my Fb business page. It’s perfect. It’s priceless. Any chance that you want to tailgate with us tomorrow? Our tailgating is so much fun. We do it at the parking lot above the stadium.
Betty, this is so cool! I’ve never heard of an aroma wheel, but I love it! I always chuckle when I try to place a flavor or taste in wine, and after not being able to figure it out, look at the wine’s label and say, “Aha! Blackberries!” or whatever it may be. I love your blog and passion for wine!
Thanks Irene. You are not alone. I think that most people struggle with this. The aroma wheel really helps. I love to have it with me when I’m tasting wine.
This has always been something I have felt really lame about…people mention certain aromas or tastes in a wine, and I just don’t taste or smell it, so your lesson on the aroma wheel and other suggestions are really helpful. I think this is a skill that you develop with the more different wines you try and that is another reason why your tastings are so helpful and educational! I am going to bring an aroma wheel with us when we go to Italy!
Donna, that’s a great idea. Let me know if you want one. I have some spares. Take a look at Rob’s comment above. I think it pertains to most of us. I really like what he said.
I love your comment that it is about having fun and loving the wine not figuring it out. I know what I like immediately. I don’t have the best sense of smell but I do notice the aroma more when I swirl the wine. I have been paying more attention to the smell and then if I like it or not. If I do, I smell it again to lock in the smell.
That is great that, if you like it, you smell it again and try to lock in the smell. I am going to start doing that. Thanks!
I love that aroma wheel. I often wonder what it is about certain wines that I like, the wheel helped me put some words to what I like and don’t like. Thank goodness, tho,I’m not too picky, I love most wines! But, I agree that a group tasting does help tasting skills, you can bounce your thoughts off the rest of the group! Fun info!
I love hearing what other people think about different wines. I always learn something. Good for you for not being too picky 🙂
I am like Steve, I have a really hard time connecting the flavors in wine to everyday fruits and things I eat. Thanks for the tips, I will take a little extra time to savor the tastes and smells of things around me and try to remember them when I am tasting. The key word there is try! I think to be a good taster you are born with it or you have to have lots of practice. Here is to the practice! Cheers!
I think most of us are challenged by this. The more wine tasting you do, the easier it gets. More importantly, the more fun it gets.
This aroma wheel is going to keep me even more focused the next time I attend one of your wine tastings. Although I will say that wine tastings are the best way to try wine before you buy when compared to reading and understanding wine labels. Plus, at Betty’s Wine Tastings, you get her personality which makes the wine taste even better to me!
Thanks Elias! The aroma wheel is really helpful. Please remind me to give you one the next time we see each other.
Hi Betty this wheel is very useful especially for anyone conducting wine lessons. Do you have a bigger version as I cant see some of the words clearly. thanks
Hi PK. These wheels are available to order at http://winearomawheel.com/.