To the uninitiated, sticking your nose in a glass of wine and sniffing can seem affected and perhaps somewhat undignified, however this is how you will extract the primary information about wine.
Science tell us that around 80% of flavours come from the smell. As one of our five senses, smell is part of the limbic system that controls behaviours, emotions and memory. Think the wonderful impact of coffee aroma or how smell can invoke a long forgotten memory.
There are many 'smell' descriptors for wines, ranging from fruits, herbs, flowers, earth, grass, tobacco, butterscotch, toast, vanilla, mocha, chocolate plus many more. You may well ask, are they serious? Yes ‘they’ are and you can also ‘learn’ how to do it – but it takes time.
If you ever want know how important smell is for wine judges, just be around if they think they are catching a cold prior to participating on a judging panel. No smell, no taste. Total disaster. They lose the equipment to do the job.
With smell rating 80% of the experience, you are doing the wine and yourself a disservice if you don’t sniff first. Anyone can participate; designated drivers can have a go, children can also be ‘allowed to sniff’. Their comments can be devastatingly accurate and quite amusing. It also is teaching them to understand and respect wine.
Developing wine appreciation means taking every opportunity to taste wine. Different vintages of the same variety and same winemaker. Or different winemakers same vintage. A splash of each wine - no need for a full glass. It is so much easier to learn when you are ‘seeing’ the same wines together. If possible, include award winning wines in the selection as this will give you an independent and professional benchmark.
In the beginning I couldn’t tell the difference between Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc. Highly embarrassed I turned to a winemaker (not Tim) and asked if he could sort it out for me.
I handed him the glass and he said “Sorry, but you are wearing hand cream and I can’t smell a thing about the wine”. In this case an overpowering perfume excluded all others. I can’t be really sure, not having done a ‘sniff test’, but I believe many winemakers and judges avoid perfumes and aftershave. Incidentally he did tell me what was what. He did that by looking at the colour.
Ask questions. If it is a struggle to recognise a smell or flavours listen to what others have to say. You may not agree but it will help. Next step is putting the wine in your mouth and actually tasting – but that's another story...