Wine tasting needs a library of wine smells.

Heirloom Tomatoes at a Farmers' Market, Fleurieu Pennisula, South Australia (photo by Hiroshi Shoji)

Do you smell?  If someone blindfolded you and then put 5 objects in front of your nose, could you identify them by smell alone?  Could you describe a smell to someone who may have never smelled it before?

Wine tasting is mostly wine smelling.  Wine makers put a lot of work into making their wines smell heavenly.  Yet, at the same time, wine lovers panic when asked what a specific wine smells or tastes like. “Well, it smells…like wine”, is often the safe reply.
Our ancestors used their sense of sight, sound, touch, taste and smell to survive.  However, recently most people seem to have lost their sense of smell.
Yet, one whiff of freshly cut grass, a car with real leather seats, or a musty school book and we suddenly are snapped back in time to our childhood.  What is it about smells?  Most of the time we can’t remember them, but we can’t forget the ones that meant most to us either.
When taste wine and even food, most of what we taste is what we smell.  Think of when you have a cold, and everything seems to lack flavor. To become a star at wine tasting you need to start developing a library of smells as you can only smell in wine, something you have experienced smelling before.
Japanese wine drinkers often smell soy sauce in Bordeaux’s red wines.  Wine consumers in Britain describe red Bordeaux wines as smelling like black currents and pencil shavings. While most British have smelled and tasted soy sauce, few Japanese have experienced black currents. New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc’s classic description is smelling like cats’ pee on a gooseberry bush. If you grew up both cat-less and gooseberry-less, you might be clueless as to was that smell might be like.
Step one to building your library is to smell everything. Go to the local supermarket, or even better, farmers’ market.  Many farmers markets sell heirloom fruits and vegetables which should have more intense smells and flavors. Smell the different varieties of locally grown tomatoes, melons and peaches. Smell the differences between ripe and unripe pineapples. Grow some herbs in your kitchen window. Can you tell the difference between the smell of oregano and rosemary?
In the autumn find as many kinds of apples you can and memorize the nuances of their  particular smells.  Start hanging around gardens smelling flowers. Visit a lumber yard and smell the various types of wood.  Pop in at an Indian spice shop and inhale the magical herbs and spices. Tea and coffee stores are catalogued like libraries and their odors waft into your nose.
Spices, beans and more in Adelaide Market (photo by Hiroshi Shoji)
Step two is to relate those smells to wine. There are supposed to be around 500 chemical compounds in wine. Many of these share the same volatile components as fruits and vegetables. Not surprisingly as wine is made from grapes, a fruit. Other wine smells come fermentation and maturation. Pyrazines give a green pepper aroma to Cabernet Sauvignon. Ethyl caprylate gives Chardonnay a pineapple aroma.  American oak is said to give the wines matured in it a coconut nuance.  Secondary malolatic fermentation gives Chardonnays a buttery smell.
Discover which grapes give wines special smells. Gewurztraminer, no matter where it is made– smells like lychees, roses and ginger.  Grapes affected by botytis, or noble rot, a good kind of mold, which raisinates grapes to produce lusciously rich wines like Sauternes or late harvest Chenin Blancs,  smells like honey.  Champagne has a fresh baked bread nose that comes from the extra yeast in the bottle. Champagne and other fine traditionally made sparkling wines often have a whiff of sherry if they has been maturing for a long time in chalky caves.
Step three is to take an aromatherapy class. Learn to distinguish layers of scents, in terms of base notes, middle notes and high notes, as well as how to create a blend.  Learning the subtleties of scents facilitates building up the tiny corners of your olfactory library to increase the recognition of wine smells. It also reminds you which smells most people love, and are increasingly found in wine.
At a recent sumo tournament a friend said to me as a sumo wrestler passed, “I love how they smell. One whiff!  Vanilla and coconut.”  Vanilla and coconut are scents people love. Vanilla is associated with home baked cookies, breads and cakes.  Coconut is the dreamy smell of hot sunny days and turquoise clear seas at the beach, and long tropical drinks at night. With the rise of Starbucks and espresso machines, coffee is another comfort smell.  The queen of comfort smells must be chocolate, a smell which is increasingly found in rich, red wines.

Portuguese egg tarts with coconut--the smell of N.World Chardonnay

Wine aged in an American oak barrel with a heavy toast (heavily charred by fire) gives wine coffee and chocolate smells.  A lighter toast and we can smell vanilla and coconut. Wine makers know what smells push our buttons, and we keep finding more in our wines.  A whole fruit basket of fruit is in our glass recently, because we like intense smells and flavors.
Yet, even the difference between the smell of fresh fruit and dried fruit is to be noted. The younger the wine, the more it is like a teenager, with shirttails hanging out, fresh fruit personality all over the place. A few more years of maturation and experiences, and the wine mellows into a smoother, less bumpy ride of subtle dried fruits and nuts.
An elderly wine enthusiast remarked during a wine class in England, that a wine smelled like ‘ a maid’s bedroom’.  His wife looked startled, and asked how he would know!  The scent of the maturing Pinot Noir was the scent of lavender, face powder, roses, well-polished leather shoes and polished furniture. Exactly like an English maid’s bedroom when he was a small child.
So if you can’t identify a smell that you have never smelled before, then it is never too late to start your smell library.
(Copyright 2010 by Sandra Shoji at Tokyo Wine Matters- サンドラ ショージ)