Tasting Week 1: Smell

The next stage in tasting is to smell the wine. This is the part where you see all these instaworthy swirling photos. To help aerate the wine and release more of the aromas, you want to swirl the glass. This takes some practice so that you don’t end up with wine all over your table, the floor, and yourself (having a smaller pour will also help with this!).


Once you’ve swirled the wine, take a large sniff. For me, smell is the hardest part of wine tasting. Distinguishing different aromas doesn’t come naturally to me and I often have trouble either finding anything or naming what the smell is.

It’s easy to be persuaded to find a smell, by hearing someone else say it, reading the bottle, or making assumptions due to color. If you don’t authentically smell the aroma though, you likely will not smell it a second time and then your tasting notes will not be helpful. I often close my eyes when trying to smell the wine to help me to focus on the aroma and not be distracted by the color or other factors.

Also, it’s important to note that smells in wine come from the grapes and the yeast, not anything else. Meaning, a wine with a lemon aroma is not made with lemons. This also means that there is no wrong answer for what you smell in the wine. As long as you truly smell tennis balls or cat pee and you can consistently pull out that smell from the same wine, then you’re on the right track.

Here’s what I note when I smell wine: clarity, intensity, and smell.

  • Clarity: Is the wine clean or are there faults to it? If there are faults – what are they? If it’s overly acidic, for example, and smells like vinegar, it could be oxidized, if it smells like a barnyard (in a bad way) it could have been infected with Brettanomyces.
  • Intensity: How strong is the smell on a 1-5 scale. 1 meaning it is incredibly difficult to smell anything or determine the makeup of the wine and 5 being an overpowering aroma.
  • Smell: What does it smell like? I make a list and try to start with the most prominent smell and then add auxiliary aromas.

There are numerous smell guides out there to help you classify what category of smells you find in wine. In general though, they fall into a few categories: Fruit, Floral, Vegetal, Animal, Earth, and Toasted/Grilled. Wine Folly has a great color wheel with over 100 flavors. I’ve found, however, that using a guide while I’m tasting isn’t always helpful. I’ve learned my brain will falsely find the Mango, Fig, or Beeswax I saw on the wheel if I’m looking at a guide. However, by thinking about the overall categories when smelling the wine, I can help narrow my mind without being persuaded by the actual aroma.

Here are some example aromas from my recent wines:

Veuve Clicquot Brut Champagne:
Clarity: Yes
Intensity: 2
Smell: Slightly yeasty and breaded

Cloudveil, 2015 Pinot Noir:
Clarity: Yes
Intensity: 3
Smell: Leather, plum and cherries, with slight smoke

Rocca delle Macie 2016 Chianti Classico:
Clarity: Yes
Intensity: 3
Smell: Oak and wood, earthy notes of moss and truffle, and bright cherries

Dominus Estate Napanook, 2016:
Clarity: Yes
Intensity: 4
Smell: Dark strawberry jam, plums, and cedar

The best way to develop the ability to smell wine is to practice! Smell everything from dirt to spices in your kitchen and really focus on the aromas – see what you can remember about each smell. There are also black wineglasses available to reduce your urge to rely on the color of the wine or you try using a smelling kit (Le Nez du Vin creates a master aroma kit that’s excellent).

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