How To Taste: Smelling the Wine

Maybe you’ve laughed when you’ve seen someone in a tasting a room walking around with his nose stuck in the glass. OK – fair enough – it looks pretty silly. But, sometimes a wine is so good that smelling it is almost enough. I said almost

Don’t knock it ’til you’ve tried it. Since smell is taste, nosing the wine (checking out the way it smells) can be ever so pleasurable and it also gives you an idea of what to expect from the flavors. 

So, we’ve already gone over why you want to swirl the wine. And we’ve talked about the benefit of using a wine aroma wheel or something like it. 


OK, give the wine a good, vigorous swirl for several seconds and pop your nose in the glass (no long-distance sniffing). First and foremost, does it smell good? Every other consideration pales in importance to this! What do you smell? Is it a fresh smell or a rich smell? Have you smelled a wine with a stronger fragrance before? Or less fragrant? You’re beginning to gage aromatic intensity. 

Do you smell anything that reminds you of fruit? Or herbs/vegetable? Spices? Vanilla? Smoke? Wood? Does any one category stand out? It’s usually a mix, but this might help you decide if the wine is fruit driven (just means it’s all about the fruit!) or has a lot of production aromas – things like oak, that are imposed by the winemaker. Or other aromas that may come from either source – the grape or production – like spice or chocolate. 

If you know this variety well, is this wine a good likeness? Recently I tasted a Zinfandel that I liked very much as a red wine, but it didn’t have any Zinfandel character and that disappointed me. 

Going by the smell, do you expect that the wine will be light or heavy? Dry or sweet?

If the wine just smells like wine to you, not to worry – it is wine! If you continue honing in on the wine this way, those descriptors will start coming to you. It’s just a question of repetition and really paying attention.

If your descriptors aren’t the same as those of your friends, it doesn’t mean anyone is right or wrong. We all have different sensitivities. Trust yourself before you trust your friends or a wine critic!  

Why do you need to describe the wine? Because it helps you when you go shopping. If you know whether you like your Chardonnay to be relatively light and fruit driven, as opposed to heavy, oaky and buttery, your retailer can help you select something that’s going to make you happy. Building a relationship with a good retailer who knows his wine and his inventory is a great way to learn more about wine and to branch out and try new things. If he knows your tastes he’ll make good recommendations for you. 

I think that’s enough on smelling! On to tasting!

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