Getting Started: An Introduction to Wine Smelling

Yes, that’s wine SMELLING, not tasting.  I was fortunate enough to get interested in wine before I was actually of legal drinking age.  Why do I say fortunately, you ask?  Because this forced me to only smell wines, for the first two and a half years that I worked in the wine industry.  I really believe that this time was invaluable to me as a wine taster because it let me focus on only one aspect of wine at a time, the nose.

The nose of a wine is an extremely complex and intricate introduction to the wine itself.  You can learn quite a bit of information from the nose of a wine alone.  Is the wine obviously oaked or is it more fruit driven?  Is it flawed? Was botrytis involved?  Does it have primary (fresh fruit notes), secondary (oak and ML or butter notes), or tertiary (dried fruits and bottle aged) aromas?

So how do you go from the person who swirls and smells and immediately says “Smells like wine!” to a person who can tell the difference between apricot and white peach or cloves and coffee?  The answer is really simple.  Go smell the items that usually make up wine descriptors.  I started out in the fruit and vegetable section of the Wegman’s supermarket in Ithaca, NY.  (On a side note, if you’ve never experienced Wegman’s and you are fortunate enough to live near one you must GO!!!) I bought one of just about everything and took them home, sliced them up and proceeded to smell them.  Not just sniff but really smell and analyze.  Close your eyes and take deep breaths, letting your mind tell you what it thinks you’re holding.  Cucumbers give me the visual of spring rain at home in SC and that’s how I know I’m smelling cucumbers.  Now go to your spice rack.  Smell each spice and commit it to memory.  Really it’s the same thing with everything in your kitchen.  Now go outside, smell the grass, the soil, the mulch, wet rocks…Are you getting the picture?  SMELL EVERYTHING!  Really pay attention to it.  You’ll be surprised how much your nose can tell you about the world.  Once you’ve done this exercise to the point where you’re getting really good at distinguishing individual smells, you’re ready to try some wines.  I recommend going to wine tastings with a friend or two.  Offer to be the designated driver and then don’t drink.  Just smell.  Think of it as your wine smelling rather than tasting.  When you do get back to tasting wines they will seem so much more alive, the flavors will be more vibrant and you’ll be able to tell when a wine is complex (i.e. a lot of different smells and flavors) or more simple.

I’ve found that training my nose not only has helped my winemaking and wine studies but it has helped me notice more about my environment on a daily basis.  I can smell rain on the wind or when my neighbor has stirred up some ants in his back yard with a lawnmower.  I can smell which fruits are the most ripe in the grocery store.  It’s amazing the amount of information that your nose can deliver to you when you pay attention to it.


On a vineyard note, this has been a dismal spring which has rained for about two weeks exactly timed with bloom.  What does this mean?  It means that berry set on the vines will be uneven at best and non-existent at the worst.  The crop may be much smaller than last year and with an already tight grape market that means what fruit there is will be expensive to purchase.  I’m not sure if I’ll find fruit for my home wine this year or not.

2 thoughts on “Getting Started: An Introduction to Wine Smelling

  1. home wine making
    Wine tasting is the sensory examination and assessment of wine. While the practice of wine tasting is as ancient as its production, a more formalized methodology has slowly become established from the 14th century onwards. Wine tasting is an art and not every person can be a perfect wine taster.

  2. I must say I disagree. I think anyone who applies themselves to learn about how their brain interprets wine can become a wine taster. However I don’t think anyone has the capacity to be a perfect wine taster. We all have off days. We all get sick from time to time. However, the base sense is there for everyone barring extreme loss of smell through some other unfortunate incident.

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