Olfactory analysis of wine: how to recognize the aromas of the wine
And after the visual analysis, let’s go on with the guide on analyzing wine with a fundamental phase: the olfactory analysis. The first physical contact we have with wine can give us more in-depth information on what the grape variety may be.
Why do we smell wine?
First of all, we must ask ourselves what the purpose of the olfactory analysis is and why the bouquet of the wine is so important. To discover the 10,000 aromas that can be hidden in a wine? To say that it tastes of cherry, licorice and currants and to be the fine taster who manages to recognize the Parma violet hand-picked by the Blind Clarisse of Sorrento, the Boer made with 78 sherry, the broom from the botanical garden of Vetulonia, the Sichuan pepper?
If you want to become a barker, a wine influencer, then, of course, the olfactory tasting of perfumes is the fundamental phase of an event or a tasting. The moment the sommelier poet emerges and can give himself a crazy joy, those few square centimeters of nasal mucosa allow us to recognize 10000 smells so that you can go wild.
But apart from the intrinsic pleasure of discovering and knowing a wine, the purpose of this analysis is to dissect every characteristic. First of all, understand what the wine is made of. If it has defects. If the cork has not held up. If there is a reduction if it is too oxidized if it is young or old, aged in wood or steel, concrete or amphora if the wood is well integrated into the bouquet or rude and dominant.
The bouquet of a wine is the mirror of its soul
We must understand if the wine is genuine and reflects the organoleptic characteristics that distinguish it and recognize the grape variety. This is the purpose of the olfactory analysis. It is not a blind race to see who recognizes the vine or finds more smells in the glass. Based on what you have ascertained with the visual examination, you should find a match in the olfactory analysis. There should be an agreement between the two exams. If wine was greenish, it should give the nose fresh fruity and floral aromas, not too complex. If wine was deep straw yellow, it should have an intense aroma of yellow fruit and perhaps flowers such as broom or butter (if made of wood). If wine was dense and amber, it should release evolved aromas of dried fruit, spices, jam, sultanas. But let’s get down to business!
How to do the olfactory analisys of wine
As soon as you uncork the bottle, smell the cork. If it smells like cork and not wine, it will likely have ruined the wine. Pour a drop of wine into the glass and smell it immediately (without swirling it) to see any defects. The goblet must be grabbed by the base so that the hand is far away and does not heat the wine or can fool the nose with alien smells, such as hand soap.
If the wine has no imperfections, swirl the glass to oxygenate it for a few seconds.
Smell and get a first idea: are the aromas intense or faint? Ripe or fresh or unripe? What are the main aromas that you recognize in the fruity and floral? Are there herbaceous scents? Can you perceive the wood? How is the wood: well-integrated or grumpy? Does it need time to oxygenate or is it still too early for this wine? Are there typical aromas of an aromatic grape variety? Or a particular area? After we draw up a list of distinct scents by grape variety and production area, don’t worry and let’s move on.
After a first deep sniff do not exaggerate, do not smell too long, better interspersed deep breaths: the nose becomes accustomed to the aromas and loses lucidity, so detach yourself from the glass and breathe. After a minute, smell and go deeper, alternating first one nostril and then the other. After a minute, take a break and so on. Do not linger too long on the glass. Otherwise, the nose will fall asleep.
After a first judgment, put your thoughts on paper
Take a piece of paper and write: how credible is this bouquet? How fine is it? How enjoyable? How persistent and complex is it? How varied and inspiring is it? But above all, how much is it in tune with the type of wine it belongs to? These are the fundamental parameters to understand if a wine is worthy or not, not to recognize 158 Indian spice aromas.
We talked about complexity, but each wine should be evaluated for what it is and should not be compared to other wines of different caliber. If you taste a Barolo, it must be austere, elegant, complex and enveloping: it is in its nature, it must challenge the decades. But if, on the other hand, you are judging a vintage Nebbiolo you should drink immediately, it must not be complex or imaginative, but rigorous and pleasant, tasty, endowed with endless drinkability and pleasantness. This is to say that there is no absolute wine and not all wines must be judged with the same parameters.
We talked about it on another page on how to organize a tasting in advance so as not to run into mistakes that would make all this work useless.
Well, we are done, the olfactory analysis should not last for hours, but if you are tasting a complex wine, maybe even a natural wine or an old wine, give it time. Taste it even after an hour, two hours and five hours and take note of the changes, if there are any.
Beware of very old wines, taste them immediately and hold them by the hand. The sudden contact with oxygen tends to crush them after a couple of hours. So stay close to it in its last moments of life.
What are the aromas of wine and how to recognize them? Primary, secondary and tertiary perfumes: this is what they are
Let’s start with the primary aromas that are the intrinsic ones of a vine, those typical of the grape in question. Some vines boast marked and easily recognizable aromas: Moscato smells of peach and sage, Gewurztraminer of tropical fruit and spices, Brachetto of roses, Schiava of geranium. Taste a grain of these grapes and you will recognize these flavors.
When the grapes are pressed and become must, they release secondary aromas, namely those due to fermentation and the release of substances present in the skins and the pulp. They are sharp, fresh, unripe aromas. The most typical of wine are fruity, floral, herbaceous, mineral, aromatic herbs, vegetables, (slightly) spicy and animal. The main ones that will characterize the bouquet are not other than the manifestation of molecules, higher alcohols, aldehydes and other chemicals that release a given aroma. The list is very long and tedious. We mention only a few for the record. The licorice aroma is given by glycyrrhizin. The banana aroma is given by isoamyl acetate and so on.
But why are we interested in such trivial cataloging of wine aromas? Because if you smell these youthful aromas in a wine, the visual examination should give you a purple color for reds and greenish or pale yellow for white wine and confirm your initial thesis. We have divided them, but in reality, they are two analyses that coincide and are interdependent.
Another secondary scent is that of milk and cheese, given by the malolactic fermentation, which transforms malic acid into lactic acid and occurs later, as a second fermentation.
Tertiary aromas: the charm of aged wines
Tertiary perfumes: the Holy Grail of enthusiasts is full of tertiary scents: they are the apotheosis of those looking for elegant and intriguing suggestions. The primary and tertiary aromas mature, become rounded and oxidize, expanding the aromatic volume of the wine. The fruit becomes jam, ripe, in alcohol and dried.
The flowers wither, becoming more intense like a potpourri, the spices emerge, the herbs take on a more medicinal nuance.
But be careful. Tertiary aromas are often spicy; however, some grape varieties such as Syrah, Gewurztraminer, and Cabernet Sauvignon are vegetal, peppery, and spicy nature; therefore for these aromatic vines, they are primary perfumes.
What is certain is that barrique aging helps to develop these characteristics.
The situation is different when the spices, toasting, vanilla and butter come entirely from wood, as in the case of some Chardonnays aged for a long time in barrique.
We have the balsamic aromas of resin, Mediterranean scrub, pine, incense and eucalyptus found in some wines that have undergone maceration or were born near the sea, such as Pinot Grigio or Frappato di Sicilia.
Even the ethereal aromas are tertiary: there are some wines, which have undergone a long aging process, such as Port wines, Sherry, Barolo and the noblest passito wines that release a myriad of ethereal perfumes of lacquer, enamel, soap. Sealing wax and iodine are often on the verge of vinegar, but when they are at their peak, they offer unique emotions.
And then the scent of Champagne yeasts, classic method sparkling wines and refermented. In this case, the yeasts take on aromas of bread, brewer’s yeast, and brioche, which recall the leavening of baked goods and fall within the secondary aromas.
But how do smells and wine evolve?
Thanks to aging, which can be done in different materials, more or less intrusive, and in the bottle. If made in steel, concrete or amphora, the aromas are clearer. If done in new and toasted wood, butter and tobacco can be found. If done in old wood, the wine ages without taking tannins and aromas from the wood.
But let’s not forget another fundamental factor, namely the oxygenation of the wine. Transpiration: the exchange it has with the “outside world.” If put in barrique, the wine undergoes more intense and mature oxygenation earlier but more overwhelmingly. That is why it is an ideal refinement for very robust and extract-rich vines such as Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Syrah, Sagrantino and Chardonnay. If placed in large barrels, the contact with the air is reduced and the wine will develop the aromas more slowly. The tone will be more austere and less jammy.
Do not think, however, that wood is always necessary. Mythical cellars such as Emidio Pepe show us that even aging in concrete and then bottle can tame an intense and rocky wine like Montepulciano d’Abruzzo. It is no coincidence that there are still bottles of ancient vintages in their cellar, including 1977 and 1968, to name a couple that we tasted.
Training the nose is essential
But how do you learn to judge a wine by its aromas? The most important thing for those who want to taste wine is building an olfactory memory, awakening the senses, and smelling as many substances as possible. Take a tour of a botanical garden and smell the flowers: there are about 3000 species of roses in the world. Try to make a comparison between Damask Rose and Tea Rose.
Go into a herbalist’s shop and buy a few grams of each spice, berry, dried flowers and then, after having impressed them in your mind, use them to flavor your gin and tonics.
Smell everything, even what you have in the garage. It is not an invitation to snort glue, but not limit it. Identifying ethereal aromas is not so simple and requires some training. There are also for sale on Amazon many collections of essences to smell, with manuals and explanations: the most complete and exhaustive one, also equipped with evident and easy to memorize summary cards, is the Master Sommelier Wine Aromas Kit, 88 Aromas, is a decent investment, but worth all the money spent, since you will be able to make a considerable baggage of olfactory memories. The important thing is to discern the types of perfumes in broad terms. Whether it is a type of rose or the other is not essential, but understanding the differences between lemon and lime or thyme and oregano or sandalwood and cedarwood is fundamental for understanding if it is a primary, secondary, tertiary perfume given by the wood or inherent in wine.
And do you know who the best nose tasters in the world are? Children: for two reasons. One is physiological since all the discerning abilities of the mucosa are still intact and the second is that they do not pretend and must not impress. Have a child smell a goblet and he will tell you everything she hears and remember even if she has already sensed it. Not only is it an exercise to stimulate memory and its nasal abilities, but in this way, it will begin to create a wealth of direct experiences, of perfume memories.
All you have to do is start uncorking bottles and smell!