Wine, Wine Blog

Olfactory, gustatory work in unison

Hold your nose to see what changes on your tongue

As readers of this blog know, I write as I learn. It gets a little tricky when it comes to wine tasting as I don’t drink much. That I’m never too sloshed to care about the difference between rose and leather is perhaps a virtue; but it doesn’t help to only occasionally expose my nose and tongue to the aromas of wine.

With this deficiency in mind, I took a class at the Napa Valley Wine Academy a couple of weeks ago. The goal of the course was to get us to recognize the main aromas of a few dominant varietals. It was informative, of course, but like anything else that you try to master, it requires tons of practice. Read: Drink up.

Human senses.

Our instructor, Alexandre Remy, owner and winemaker of Omen Wine, started off by telling us that science has detected more than 8,000 aromas in wine, of which we know only a few. And though we sniff and swirl and swirl and sniff, our nose and tongue are much weaker than our sight, which accounts for 80 percent of our perceptions. (I guess, we are not ursine in our ability to smell!)

Feeling we were on the wrong end of the sensory hierarchy, worse than even the lowly rodent, we nevertheless dived into the study of winemaking and the many processes and compounds that give us the flavors and smells that make wine drinking such a pleasure.

Le Nez du Vin.

In class we worked with Le Nez du Vin, each numbered bottle a concentration of a specific aroma. We started with the aromas of white wine. Alexandre had put a bottle of aroma under several glasses. We had to lift the glass, let the smell waft over to us, or stick our noses in the bottle and try to identify the fruit or flower. Armed with a stack of cards, each printed with a flavor, we set about challenging our olfactory.

Hmmm. What is the nasal version of tone deaf? Most of us felt the sense of smell had bypassed us completely. But wait, there was a glimmer and I seized upon it. One of the aroma bottles reminded me of children’s Tylenol. I had administered that over so many years that I couldn’t forget the smell. It was cherry. Eureka!

That is the key. Each aroma, we were told, brings up certain memories – grandma’s house, Christmas pudding, a romp through a lavender field. For those of us who do not have ‘Western’ olfactory memories, it gets a bit harder. So far, at least, Le Nez du Vin does not have aromas of turmeric and heeng – characteristic of mother’s kitchen. But maybe they lurk among those thousands of unidentified aromas that Alexandre talked about at the beginning of class.

How do aromas develop?

 A question for many novices, such as myself, is how pineapple and green pepper show up in wine made from grapes? Is this an affectation or a sort of priesthood that prides itself in its exclusivity as it declares aromas to the hoi polloi or is there something to it?

The latter, I was excited to find. While, of course, some of the swilling and smacking are an affectation, there is science behind it. Aromas develop at four stages – when grape bud turns to flower, the time of crushing the grapes, during fermentation, and while aging in barrels or bottles. Chemistry plays a big role in how compounds affect smell and taste of what comes before us in a glass.

 Do it at home. Plan a party game.

So how do you hone your sense of smell at home, other than buying an aroma kit? Winemaker J.Lohr used to hold a descriptor seminar that I once attended. They put out about 25 aromas in glasses holding red and white wine. Each had a bit of the fruit or flower or wood that they wanted us to smell. Of course, you can’t learn so many scents in one short evening. But you can start with a couple or three.

So I did a web search and found a very nice article in Wine Spectator. For the whites, for instance, they suggest that you use a neutral wine, such as a pinot gris, and put, say a piece of lemon and its juice to create the aroma. But let me point you to the link, so you can read it and plan to have a fun evening with friends. My only advice is to start small and build your memory bank.

You could, for example, experiment with a sauvignon blanc. What are the aromas of a sauvignon blanc? Green apple, lemon, grapefruit, peach. Try to identify each or put them close together to see if you smell the varietal. Above all, have fun. I keep telling myself the aromas will happen.

And here’s the link to the Wine Spectator aroma kit:



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  1. Andre Neu

    June 21, 2018 at 2:47 pm

    I’ve never doubted that wine emits certain smells that are not only identifiable but affect how the wine tastes once we’ve smelled and recognized it. Unfortunately, I’ve also never quite got the hang of identifying those aromas, except in the broadest, most wide ranging dart-throwing manner. Cantaloupe. No, no: celery. No: pumpkin. Wait, no: asparagus. Maybe harsh browns. I give up. Anyway, I somehow enjoy drinking wines regardless of what I know or don’t know about them. I congratulate you on delving deeper into their makeup.

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