“Most people sniff because they think it’s something they have to do to look like they know what they are doing — but it’s not all just for show,” write Grant Reynolds and Chris Stang in their delightfully whimsical new book, “How to Drink Wine,” published this month by Clarkson Potter.
A quick smell can help you determine if the wine is faulty. A wine could be corked (moldy basement, wet dog), reductive (sulfur, cabbage), or have too much volatile acidity (nail polish, paint, vinegar) or brettanomyces (bandage, sweaty saddle, “barnyard”). It could also show signs of premature aging (tired, cooked flavors), though you probably would have noticed the visual clues in your glass. I like to do this initial sniffspection before swirling the glass, because swirling brings out other aromas that may mask the faults.
Now swirl the glass. Don’t do it so vigorously that you spill it — a smooth circular motion will do. You can keep the glass on the table for increased stability as you move it around, or wave it elegantly in the air. The motion is similar to whisking egg whites, only gentle. The idea is to release the wine’s aromas into the bowl of the glass. This is why a traditional wine glass is wider at the bottom; the narrow opening at the rim helps to focus the aromas.
So what are we looking for? Professional tasters try to identify primary, secondary and tertiary aromas. Primary aromas come from the grapes — the various fruits, herbs, flowers, vegetables and spices. Secondary aromas derive from the fermentation process — earth, smoke, rocks. And tertiary aromas develop from aging — oak, oxidation and the complex flavors that develop in the bottle as a wine transforms over years in the cellar.
But don’t think of a checklist. This is the time to engage your most valuable wine tasting asset: your imagination. Do you smell berries? What type? Cherries? Are they Bing, Rainier or even maraschino? Pepper — is it white, black or green? Maybe your white wine smells of jasmine, litchis, honeysuckle or elderberries, your red of lavender, black olives and sage. Do you smell the sea? Wet stones after a summer rainstorm? Perhaps the wine unlocks a memory of a long-ago vacation in the Greek Isles, a friendly trattoria in a Tuscan hill town, or a wine bar in Paris.
This may sound like an out-of-body experience, and indeed there are wines that make me want to enter a meditative trance. But it can also promote conversation. It is perfectly normal, and acceptable, for someone else to say, “I smell roses,” and for you to exclaim, “Yeah, I get that!” And then you might say, “maybe lilac!” — or something completely different — and the conversation will go on from there.
Tasting with your imagination engaged is an excellent way to connect with the outside world. I advise people who are new to wine to “smell everything, taste with discretion.” My love of wine helped me pull my attention out of the self-absorbed fog between my ears and focus on the greater world outside. I became more adventurous with food and attentive to my surroundings. After all, who knows when the flavor of something I tasted, or the smell of something I stepped in, might waft out of my wine glass?
“You don’t need to learn how to taste, you need to learn how to pay attention,” Reynolds and Stang write. “Aromas can evoke strong memories and associations, so the smell of a wine might make it more appealing to drink, ideally bringing to mind another thing you like to smell, like lavender or fresh fruit — or tennis balls, if something is wrong with you.”
As you swirl your wine and prepare to take a sniff, don’t just think of the liquid in your glass as a drink. That vortex is an invitation to an experience, drawing you in.
Next week, we taste.
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