|Wine Basics: How to Taste Wine
Smelling Wine: Just the Basics
When you stop swirling, and the tears are falling, it's time to take the next step: smelling. Agitating the wine vaporizes it, and the thin sheet of liquid on the sides of the glass evaporates rapidly; the result is an intensification of the aromas. If the glass narrows at the top, the aromas are further concentrated. Stick your nose right into the bowl and inhale.
There's no consensus about the proper sniffing technique. Some advocate two or three quick inhalations; others prefer one deep, sharp sniff. I've seen tasters close one nostril, sniff, then close the other and sniff again. The goal is to draw the aromas deep into the nose, to bring them into contact with the olfactory mucosa and thence to the olfactory bulb, where the sensations are registered and deciphered. It's a remote and protected place, and a head cold or allergies will effectively block it off from even the strongest aromas. But with practice, and keen attention, you'll learn how to maximize your perception of aromas, and then how to decipher them.
Serious wine tasters love to identify smells. "Chocolate!" cries one. "Burnt matches!" insists another. "Tea, tobacco, mushrooms and a bit of the old barnyard," intones a third. Are they just playing word games?
But in fact, wine does smell of more than grapes. Analysis of its volatile components has identified the same molecules that give many familiar objects their distinctive scents. Here are just a few: rose, iris, cherry, peach, honey and vanilla. Who's to say that some of the more imaginative descriptorsfrom road tar to smoked baconaren't grounded in some basic chemical affinity?
As with color, wine's aromas offer insights into character, origin and history. Because our actual sense of taste is limited to four simple categories (the well-known sweet, sour, bitter and salt), aroma is the most revealing aspect of our examination. But don't simply sniff for clues. Revel in the sensation. Scientists say smells have direct access to the brain, connecting immediately to memory and emotion. Like a lover's perfume, or the scent of cookies from childhood, wine's aromas can evoke a specific place and time with uncanny power.
Text from the Wine Spectator Pocket Guide to Wine. Image from www.turningleaf.com.
Smelling Wine: Advanced Clues from Red Wine's Aroma
Every step of the tasting will add more information to the equation, modifying the conclusions you're drawing about the wine. Aroma is the most complex element, and the most revealing to the experienced taster. Some commentators divide the aromatic components into several classes: those produced by the grapes themselves, those introduced by the chemical processes of winemaking and, finally, those that result from the evolution of the wine over time in the bottle. Sometimes the first two classes, which are most distinctive when the wine is young, are called the "aroma," while the third, which emerges only in maturity, is called the "bouquet."
As with color, grape variety and growing season are powerful determinants of aroma. Pinot Noir typically smells of red fruits like cherries and strawberries. Cabernet Sauvignon, like its color, tends to have darker aromas, typically black cherries or plums.
Winemaking techniques dramatically affect aromas. The yeasts that cause fermentation are sometimes chosen by the winemakers and added to the juice specifically because of the aromatic and flavor nuances they create. Cool fermentations yield vibrant, fruity aromas; warmer ones give more spicy and earthy notes.
The biggest aromatic impact comes after fermentation, when the wine is racked off the skins and held for clarification and maturation before bottling. Some Cabs are simply pumped into large vats, generally made of stainless steel, epoxied concrete or old wood. The large volume of the liquid and the neutral character of the container emphasize the fruit character inherent in the wine. Other (generally more ambitious and expensive) wines are racked into small (60-gallon) oak barrels. If the barrels are old, they too will be basically neutral, adding little in the way of flavor or aroma. If they are new, however, the wine absorbs elements from the wood that can add aromas (and flavors) of vanilla, smoke, toast, coffee, even chocolate. These aromas will vary in character and intensity depending on whether the oak is French or American in origin, how much the inside of the barrels have been charred, or "toasted," and what percentage of the barrels are new.
Time in bottle also influences aromas. Young red wines smell of fruit; as they age, their bouquet evolves into complex perfumes that mingle cedar, tobacco, tea, mushrooms and spices. Different cultures prefer one stage over the other; the French drink their reds vigorous and fruity, while the English favor the softer, more earthy aromas of mature wines. Young wines can be delicious, but a great wine aged to perfect maturity is a glorious experience, and once sniffed will never be forgotten.
So when you smell our a Cabernet and find scents that remind you of plums or blackberries, joined by aromas of vanilla and toast, you can reasonably assume the wine is young, made from ripe grapes and aged in a high percentage of new barrelsthe "formula" that most often results in concentrated, age-worthy wines. If there are herbal, vegetal or other "green" notes, you may suspect the growing season was cool or short, preventing the grapes from achieving complete maturity. If the fruit smells "cooked," ripe and sweet like jam or even raisins, overripe fruit from a long, hot summer is a likely cause.
Text from www.winespectator.com.