Smelling the wine

Learning to describe a vino's scent takes practice

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You've all heard them: wine descriptions that sound so pretentious, so preposterous that you can't help but think, "Is this person for real? Does this person actually think their wine smells like pencil shavings?"

To be honest, the answer is yes. I've smelled pencil shavings in wine. I've also smelled "air let out of a beach ball" and "lawnmower after it has just cut grass."

Part of this, of course, is the inherent ability of certain smells to trigger memories in the human brain. The latter smell reminded me of when I was a kid and my dad used to mow the grass and then park the lawnmower in the garage.

But if I were being professional about it, I would break this smell down into the component aromas that make up that memory-inducing smell: green grass and gasoline. Maybe that combination doesn't sound particularly delicious, but both are accepted, even common, descriptors of wine aromas.

I studied wine in a structured environment that helped me to develop a vocabulary to express qualities, like aroma, that I detect in wine. But people who haven't embarked upon that particular path often find it difficult to identify aromas in wine, and, perhaps unsurprisingly, find it quite silly that others make an effort to do so. But if you're interested in spending time with your nose in a glass, you can develop a vocabulary that will allow you to deepen your appreciation and enjoyment of wine, and perhaps impress (or at least entertain) your friends in the process.

One place to start is with an aroma wheel, a tool developed by a professor at the University of California, Davis, whose concentric circles of aroma categories help you to determine more and more precisely what you're smelling. Such aroma wheels are available widely on the Internet, though are copyrighted, so don't go reproducing them willy-nilly.

So, you swirl your glass of sauvignon blanc, take a whiff, and ask yourself: Is what I'm smelling more like a fruit or a vegetable? Is it spicy? Is it floral or earthy? A wine can smell like any, or all, of these things, but let's say you decide that the primary aroma is fruity.

You consult your aroma wheel and ask yourself: What kind of the fruit? Is it tree fruit, like a peach or an apple? Or is it citrusy, or tropical, or even dried fruit? This is when things get a little more difficult and perhaps a bit more subjective.

Some tools can help you learn specific aromas, such as little vials of concentrated smells, which can be helpful. But for most of us, the best way to start is to make a list in your head of all the fruits you can think of (the aroma wheel can make suggestions here, too), and run through them, asking yourself if the wine smells like…strawberries? No. Bananas? Not really. Apricots? Yes, I think so. Grapefruit? Yes!

When I was studying wine, I had two teachers who disagreed somewhat about this part. One said, "If you smell it, it's there." The other, if you said something like, "I smell lychees!" would look at you like you'd grown a third head and say, "No."

I think I fall in the former camp. When you stick your nose in a glass of wine, and your brain shouts "dragon fruit!," I think you're smelling dragon fruit, or at least the association your brain has formed with what you think dragon fruit smells like.

This may seem like a lot of work, and at the beginning it is. But over time, your brain learns to associate aromas in wine with specific smells in other parts of your life, such as food, flowers, even animal-related smells. (Wet dog, anyone?)

Pretty soon, you'll find yourself debating whether the aroma you're getting from your wine is peach or apricot, yellow grapefruit or pink grapefruit, green bell pepper or New Mexico green chile (no, seriously, sniff some New Zealand sauvignon blanc, and you might smell Hatch!).

So let's try it out. I have a glass of 2014 Château Perray Jouannet Anjou ($21/750ml bottle) in front of me. I take a preliminary sniff without agitating the wine, which allows me to sense the smaller, more volatile aroma molecules.

My first impression is vegetable. It's a cooked vegetable, rather than fresh or dried. So I rattle through a list of vegetables and am soon convinced I'm smelling green pepper. It's even a little spicy smelling, like a roasted jalapeño.

I give the glass a gentle swirl to release the heavier molecules (don't go crazy, a little agitation will do), and begin to identify some aromas that smell earthy to me. I ask myself, is this a smell of actual earth (i.e. dirt), or is it something that reminds me of the woods: leaf litter on the ground or even the smell of a particular tree's wood? I decide it's the latter. In fact, it reminds me of a cedar-lined shower in an apartment I once rented.

So we have green pepper and cedar. What else? Any fruit? Yes, berries. Red berries. I smell cranberries, and tart red cherries. Do these aromas change when I taste the wine? (Because, yes, the "flavors" you taste in a wine are aromas. Ever try to taste wine while pinching your nose?) The same aromas remain on the palate along with something animal-like: leather.

In the grand scheme, is this exercise important, or is it just a party trick? I suppose it depends on your profession, but if you're interested in enough in wine to read this column, why not take your relationship to the next level? Give your wine a good sniff. You never know what you might find in there.

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