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Nose in a glass: The science of wine aromas. [Guest post by Madeline Blasberg]

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By Madeline Blasberg

If you love wine, you’ve likely read dozens of poetic tasting notes that string together exotic scents which are about as difficult to imagine as they are to identify in the glass. Wine aromas include a spectacular range of smells: everything from the gentle perfume of dried violets and sweet passion fruit, to wet river stones and rank horse sweat. Every scent is closely tied to memory and translating each scent into words becomes a life-long course of studying. The possibilities are endless and in order to pick out each scent, wine drinkers need to know where wine aromas come from and how to train their senses to be up for the challenge.

Why smell wine?

Smelling wine helps prepare the brain for what the drinker is about to taste – it’s a sensation appetizer of sorts. Wine aromas develop and evolve from the moment the grape starts its life on the vine to the moment the wine hits the drinker’s lips. They can indicate the grape variety, wine growing region, how the wine was made, even how it was aged. A winemakers every move influences how a wine smells – including everything from yeast type, to oak brand, to what kind of cork is used to top off the bottle. Pesky items such as service technique, temperature, and glass shape also heavily influence how we taste and experience a wine, as each has the ability to highlight or hinder a wine’s aromatic expression.

The chemistry behind wine aromas

Surprisingly, wine flavors and aromas have more to do with biology than marketing, though most wineries fail to mention why. Genetically speaking, the more attractive a grape tastes and smells the better its chances of being propagated. Each tiny grape contains thousands of natural chemical compounds such as flavonoids, anthocyanins, and catechins, and each chemical compound has a unique and detectable flavor and aroma. For example, the chemical compound methoxypyrazine is the smell of green bell pepper, an aroma commonly found in Cabernet Sauvignon and Sauvignon Blanc.

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Contrary to popular opinion, aromas and tastes are entirely different things. The palate has the ability to recognize five tastes (sweet, salty, acidic, bitter, and umami), while the nose has the ability to sense over 100,000 different aromas. Unfortunately, studies have shown that most people are only able to remember and identify a set of 200 aromas at any given time. That’s a fraction of our nose’s potential–but still, far more versatile than the palate when it comes to taste detection.

Most wine drinkers don’t realize that aromas can be inhaled through the nose–the more traditional route–as well as the mouth. When inhaled through the mouth, the chemical compounds pass through the retronasal passages, sensed together with taste bud sensations and combined to provide a bigger picture of wine flavor.

Categorizing wine aromas

Eager for a way to bring order to the wide world of aromas, wine drinkers organized them into three categories based on where the aromas come from and when they are developed during the production process. The three categories of wine aromas are:

  • Primary aromas come from the grape itself. Examples include items such as cherry, black pepper, rose, pear, and pineapple.
  • Secondary aromas develop during the fermentation process and include scents such as yeast aromas, bread dough, and cake.
  • Tertiary aromas are known as a wine’s bouquet and come from the aging and evolutionary processes, in both oak barrels and glass bottles. Examples of tertiary aromas include baking spices, smoke, chocolate, and even truffles.

And while the 1-2-3 categorical system does a fairly fine job of breaking down a complex topic, it’s certainly not the only organizational method available to wine lovers. The wine aroma wheel was originally developed at the UC Davis campus by Ann C. Noble, a university professor and sensory chemist. It categorizes wine aromas not according to where they come from but by how they smell. Scents are grouped into 12 aroma families which become ever more specific as the eye travels from the circle’s center to the outside edge. For example: fruity aromas to citrus fruits to grapefruit, or vegetal aromas to herbs to eucalyptus. Not to mention that it displays the whole system on an easy-to-read infographic that can almost fit in a wine drinker’s back pocket – a travel sized secret weapon of sorts.

How to train your nose like a wine professional

Developing your wine smelling skills comes down to building up your aroma rolodex and training your brain to put a name to each smell every time it passes through your senses. That means two things: dedication and confidence. Certainly smelling food items and random household objects is a great place to begin but wine lovers have developed a few slightly more sophisticated courses of study.

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Both amateur and professional wine students frequently decide to invest in a scent set, which is formally known as the Le Nez Du Vin (the nose of wine). These sets include tiny bottles of chemical scent that replicate common aromas found in wine, such as green pepper, blackcurrant, leather, and many more. Students sniff the lid of the bottle and then rack their brains to call forth the proper name, training their senses in a game of recognize and recall.

Developing proper tasting technique is the second sure-fire way to get your nose in gear. Professional tasters recommend smelling the wine both before and after swirling, and smelling from a variety of distances and angles to see which position turns up the sensory volume.

No amount of studying however can erase the personal and cultural biases that influence what aromas people are predisposed to recognize. For example, North Americans generally hit a home run on coffee and cinnamon, but strike out when it comes to floral scents, which South Americans tend to be more familiar with. That’s why taste kits and smelling practices are so important. And while it’s easy to become intimidated by professional wine tasters who sniff and swirl with all the confidence in the world, the best thing wine lovers can do is start their aroma education one whiff at a time.

Madeline Blasberg is a Certified Wine Consultant who has spent time in Mendoza, Argentina, where she was surrounded by wine, both personally and professionally. Currently, Madeline works as the Official Wine Commentator & Reviewer for Etching Expressions, a company specializing in personalized wine bottles.

The images in this article are copyrighted, licensed to the author, and may not be re-used without similar license.

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