Wine is known for its intricate flavors, complex aromas, and elaborate growing processes. Discovering the type of grapes used, the growing climate, soil quality, and the tannins in wine are key factors when you learn about wine.
But how do you make sense of all of these wine characteristics? By smelling wine, that is. Learning how to smell wine doesn’t just make you better at bar management, but it helps you understand wine pairing and how to become a sommelier.
Before you dive right in and start smelling, it’s important to take the time to learn good technique. Keep reading to learn how to smell wine, no matter what type you’ve selected.
Why Do People Smell Wine?
People smell wine before tasting it to detect the wine’s aromas, and therefore to sense how the wine will taste. About 80% percent of how something tastes comes from its aroma, so smelling a wine reveals most of its flavors.
All wine is made from fermented grapes. In order to make wine, the filtered grape juice, any infused ingredients, and yeast have been fermenting for at least a couple weeks. This means there are dozens of chemical compounds in a single bottle of wine, sometimes hundreds.
That’s not to mention oak barrels or specialized fermentation tanks that also affect a wine’s flavor. Make sure you know what ingredients were used in the wine so you avoid a wine allergy.
As you can imagine, such complex ingredient combinations means there’s going to be several aromas to experience. Smelling wine slowly gives you the opportunity to soak up everything the wine manufacturer intended for their customers.
Smelling wine is also a good skill to teach your bar staff so they can make recommendations to customers. If you don’t have an in-house sommelier, informed employees are the next best step.
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How to Smell & Sniff Wine
Understanding why it’s valuable to smell wine is one thing, but knowing how to smell and sniff wine is even better. If you've ever wondered, “Can wine go bad?” Smelling wine is the perfect skill to learn so you can tell more easily.
You can get the full sensory experience out of a fresh bottle of wine with proper smelling techniques. Here are some guidelines to follow when smelling wine:
- Pour your wine with an aerator or into a decanter. Aerators and decanters are specialized wine pour spouts and vessels that increase the amount of surface exposure your wine receives. Is wine acidic? Yes it is, and it gets more acidic over time. By letting it air out, it speeds the processes of evaporation and oxidation. These processes also minimize undesirable flavors in wine, like excessive bitterness. You can let your wine decant for anywhere from one hour to three hours.
- Transfer the wine from the decanter to a glass. After your wine has thoroughly decanted, begin pouring wine from the decanter into a glass. Make sure to pour at an angle to maximize the amount of oxygen exposure your wine receives. Next, brush up on how to hold a wine glass for the best experience.
- Raise your glass and smell the air inside the bowl. Here is where the fun part begins. Lift your glass up to your nose and smell into the bowl. The drink’s aromas should be pretty strong before you start sipping. Take your time as you smell; there’s no reason to rush a beverage that took a year or more to create.
- Experiment with different smelling techniques. As you’re smelling the wine, try different smelling techniques. Some people smell with a long, deep inhalation, whereas others use brief, strong sniffs. There’s no right or wrong technique here, only what works for you. You can also use both styles back to back, or use one, take a break, and continue with the other. Smell different types of wine over time and evaluate what gives you the greatest discoveries.
- Consider what the wine’s aromas make you think of. Free association is a technique used by both wine enthusiasts and connoisseurs. This means you can describe your wine’s aromas with anything that comes to mind. Don’t be shy about thinking outside the box and even inventing new terms if need be. Chances are if you smell it, it’s probably true. There are dozens of chemical compounds and hundreds of subtleties in a single wine. Explore them all across several servings or with different food and wine pairings.
What Does Wine Smell Like?
Wine will smell like the type of grapes used to create it, the flavors added to it, and the material it's fermented in. Wine smell is also influenced by the environment the grapes were grown in, whether it’s an aged wine or newer one, and how finely filtered the wine is. Different wine manufacturers have different approaches to grape growing, refining, and fermentation, so every wine you sniff will have unique aromas.
The Smell of Wine: Three Layers
If you’re becoming a sommelier you’ll be familiar with this, but if not, you’re about to learn something new about wine. Every wine has three layers of aroma, and therefore three layers of flavor. There is the primary, secondary, and tertiary level of aromas, each of which reveals something unique about how the wine was made.
The primary aromatic level contains the most apparent flavor of the wine, like cherry, blackberry, strawberry, dark chocolate, or blueberry. It’s the first smell you notice and the first flavor on your tastebuds.
The secondary level is a little more complex and demonstrates additional aromatic characteristics. You may smell something herbaceous, woodsy, floral, or earthen--hinting at tannins. It will depend on the grower’s technique, how long the wine was bottled, whether it was made in steel tanks or oak barrels, and more.
Finally, the tertiary aromatic level has the subtlest of smells and flavors. These are the tiny wafts of scent that linger in the air or at the end of a sip. It may be a hint of tobacco, a note of coffee, a dab of vanilla, or a touch of nuttiness.
Remember that the point of smelling wine is to enjoy it. Let each of the aromas and flavors permeate your senses. After all, this is why the wine producer went to such lengths to make a unique wine.
What Does Red Wine Smell Like?
Though every red wine will smell different, reds tend to take on darker fruit aromas. This includes plums, cherries, pomegranates, blackberries, currants, boysenberries, and even olive notes.
A red wine’s primary smell is going to come from the type of grapes that were used and any fruits that were infused in it. Naturally, red grapes are used for red wine, but there are over 20 kinds of red wine grapes throughout the world. The grapes chosen for a particular flavor guide the main aroma, taste, and sugar in wine.
The secondary smell will include other fruity notes and any special ingredients the manufacturer included in the wine. This is where less obvious flavors come out, like beetroot, spices, tar, and banana.
A red wine’s tertiary smell(s) may include wood ash, cloves, truffle, fennel, or tree bark. These are the lightest aromas that are difficult to detect until the wine has wafted across the air long enough. It’s usually easier to notice tertiary elements when consuming wine on a clean palate and without other scents filling the room.
Frequently Asked Questions About Smelling Wine
When you’re stepping into the world of wine, you discover tidbits along the way, like wine tasting terms. One such example is wine smelling, which seems odd to the uninitiated. As it turns out, smelling your wine can tell you much about its flavor profile. You've probably seen this done in the wine movies you've watched.
If sniffing your wine still sounds strange, or you just want to get started, you can learn from questions other people have asked. Read the frequently asked questions and our answers below:
What is it called when you smell wine?
While there’s no official term for smelling wine, some call it smelling the aroma or checking the “nose.” Some also refer to it as wine sniffing, but each of the above terms is common for wine connoisseurs.
The reason smelling wine is commonplace is because it reveals important information about a wine’s taste. The majority of a drink’s flavor is found in its aroma, so by smelling wine first, you can prepare your palate for it.
What does smelling a wine tell you?
Smelling a wine informs you of several wine characteristics: its primary scent, its wine alcohol content, secondary aromas, and its general acidity level. A wine’s primary scent will indicate the type of grapes used and whether or not other fruits were included in the wine’s creation.
Wines with stronger alcohol content will usually be noticeable by smelling them, and colder wines have greater acid content than a warmer, low acid wine. You’ll notice a wine’s secondary aromas after it’s been decanted or a moment after smelling the bowl. These are the hints of woodsiness, fruit, and botanicals that waft through the air.
Ultimately, smelling wine tells you what kind of flavor to expect. Everyone will have slightly different opinions on a wine’s smell and taste, but the important thing is to know how to experience it for yourself.
Do you sniff white wine?
Yes, you can sniff white wine the same way you would a rosé or red wine. After your wine has been decanted or aerated, lift the glass to your nose and smell into the bowl.
Take note of the primary scent, whether that’s orange, pear, apple, or something completely different. It’s common to notice citrus and tree fruit aromas in white wines.
Where There’s A Wine, There’s A Way
Wine smelling is an excellent skill to add to your beverage repertoire. It helps you select the right wine, impress friends with your expertise, and recommend flavors to customers. Use this blog post as a guide whenever you’re training employees or refreshing your own knowledge.