“Ahhh, yes, aromas of dried figs, wrapped in sage, with just a hint of sweet pipe tobacco and macerated cherries.”
“I’m picking up nuances of passionfruit dusted with salt, and the slightest note of cantaloupe on the finish.”
“I … uh, just smell wine?”
If that last quote is something you’d say, you’re not alone.
I am often asked how it is that I can smell such diverse aromas in wine. While I detest snobbery and loathe anyone who would wax poetic about their cabernet to simply undermine others in the room, the truth is, these aromas in wines do exist. And, yes, you can learn to identify them as much as any other wine-drinker.
The key word here is learn. No one is born knowing about wine. And like all things in life, the only way to learn is by doing—or, in this case, drinking. Not a bad type of “school,” if you ask me!
I was once taught that the human nose can smell more than 10,000 different aromas. And what’s more, we can train our brains to correctly identify around 2,000 of those smells. That’s 2,000 words to describe what’s in your glass. I find that amazing.
That same teacher also taught me that smell is our most powerful sense. It’s the sense that is most connected to our memories. I always assumed it was sound; you know that moment when a song comes on the radio, and you’re immediately transported to a place in time? That’s such powerful feeling—yet after learning that it was my nose that was most transportive, I began to think about all the aromas we experience every day of our lives. Your grandmother’s pie cooling in the kitchen. That new car. Your son’s hockey bag. Your dad’s aftershave. Your mother’s rose garden. Every one of those smells, good or bad, carries with it a memory.
So how do you take that catalog of lifelong aromas stored in your brain and apply it to wine? It’s really quite simple: Stick your nose in the glass and inhale. Close your eyes; swirl the glass; and do it again. Trust yourself. You cannot be wrong. If you think a wine smells like your backyard after a rain, then that’s what it smells like. Period. If someone else tastes the same wine and says it tastes like lychee nuts, then it does. Your brain cannot remember a smell it’s never experienced, so if you’ve never had a lychee nut, nothing is going to smell one.
Don’t worry about tasting the wine. While it’s the fun part, it’s not the important part. Your mouth can only taste five things: sweetness, saltiness, sourness, bitterness and that thing they call umami, or savoriness. Those are sensations, not aromas. Those elements work together with your olfactory system to identify flavors, but without the nose, the tongue doesn’t matter.
So you may be wondering why a sauvignon blanc from New Zealand smells like grapefruit, or why pinot noirs have a red cherry aroma—and I’m happy to tell you that there is actual science behind this. It all comes down to chemistry: On a molecular level, the aroma compounds in wine are almost identical to aroma compounds in things you already know.
If you smell aromas like orange blossoms, citrus peels, eucalyptus, rose petals and peppercorns, you’re experiencing compounds called terpenes. Wonder why that cabernet franc and some Chilean wines smell like green bell peppers? Those are pyrazines, and they are very common in certain grapes. These aromas come from the grape itself and are common in other plants, fruits and vegetables.
Other aromas happen during fermentation. When the sugar converts to alcohol, aroma compounds vaporize and are free to waft around. Scents like apples, pears, strawberries and raspberries are called esters, and these fruity smells get released once the grape juice turns into wine.
There are a host of other aroma building blocks, like thiols, sulfur and lactones, that all contribute to the overall dynamics of flavors in wine. These happen through oak aging, over time in the bottle, or during fermentation.
Chemistry aside, no matter how the smells get in there, or what caused them, the most important thing to remember is that what you’re smelling is your lifetime of memories. It’s your history, and experiences, and travels, and childhood. That wine might not smell the same to anyone else, and I think that’s kinda awesome.
Now go stick your nose in some wine—and see what happens!