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Sommelier, Cara De Lavallade, sniffing out a selection of Argentine wines.

In my last post I wrote about how the close link between your memories and your sense of smell is key to your ability to describe wine. So whether you have had lots of experience with wine or not, it’s time to put your nose in a glass and your memories to work. Here are seven tips on how you can start developing your skills, and begin identifying a wine’s characteristics like the pros do.

1.  Know the importance of smelling the wine: You may well know that flavours are largely experienced through sense of smell. Your mouth is more useful in experiencing textures, sensations, and basic flavours like salty, sweet, bitter, etc. It is an obvious one but take the time to sniff out a wine and get acquainted with delicate nuances before you tip it back.

2. Taste two wines, of the same colour, side by side: By comparing them directly, you will be able to move past a wine smelling like wine. You will find that one is fruitier, one is more intense, and one has a longer finish (sensations and flavours of the wine that you can still sense after you swallow. A long finish also indicates higher quality…more about that in another post).

3. Reference an aroma wheel: It is likely that you will smell something familiar when nosing a wine, but without a visual reference, the words to describe the fragrance may be hard to find. An aroma wheel lists common wine odours from vague to specific. For example, if you think a wine is fruity, the wheel will help you determine if the fruit is tropical, citrusy, or dried. If you decide it is tropical, then the wheel will suggest banana, guava or pineapple (each grape variety has a typical set of characteristics. By identifying specific fruits you are progressing towards your ability to blind taste). Basically, an aroma wheel can put the words back in your mouth.

4. Don’t be shy to share your descriptions: “The wine smells like Nana’s cottage.” Sure, it is a bit nuts to describe a wine this way but that is only because no one else has been to Nana’s cottage. The trick to making sense of your descriptor is to change it into terms that others can relate too. This wine smells like Nana’s cottage, but what does Nana’s cottage smell like? Dust? Camp fire? Drift wood? Perfume? Strawberry jam? Remember this little tip and you will be a believable wine geek in no time. Whatever weird wine descriptor you come up with, there is probably a good reason for it.

5. Keep notes of what you have tasted:  You may never read these notes again, but they are helpful to:

a. Organize your thoughts if you are tasting multiple wines at one time

b. Remember your first impression of a wine, and to track it as it changes. Exposure to oxygen changes the wine right in your glass. New smells will become apparent and the initial fragrances will dissipate.

c. Track similarities between wines of the same variety, region, and age. It won’t be long until you learn the difference between light pink and salmon coloured, and figure out that Sauvignon Blanc, the world over, smells like cutgrass and grapefruit.

Friends tasting and toasting at O. Fournier winery in Mendoza

6. Taste with friends: By bringing together different palates, and comparing notes, you will discover new ways of describing the same smell, growing your palate and diversifying your wine vocabulary. For example, what one person describes as baked bread, another person will describe as buttered toast. Don’t underestimate the importance of drinking with friends as a learning tool, especially now that you are not reluctant to share your whacky findings.

7. Visit a facility that offers a wine sensory kit, or make your own: These are a great way to start to strengthen your ability to recognise a smell and then describe it.

What methods work for you? Perhaps you have already started noticing a consistent aroma from one Cabernet to another? Feel free to share  how these suggestions work for you and to offer your own tips in the comments!

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