Lesson 4 – How to “Smell” Wine

The nose is an extremely important factor in tasting wine.  Used properly, it is a reliable tool for measuring the degree of a wine’s quality.  Once you know how to smell wine properly, a whole new dimension of appreciation opens up.  You will begin noticing scents of raspberries, strawberries, melons, apples, even prunes and bananas coming through the odor of a wine.  As you begin recognizing these scents, you will be able to distinguish wines simply by their smells.  Unfortunately most people don’t know how to use their noses effectively and miss out on this aspect of wine enjoyment.

Before learning how to smell though, it’s important to know where smells are sensed.  Contrary to popular belief, smells are not registered in the nose, but at olfactory receptors located behind the nose and between the eyes and brain.  This is one reason why it’s important to “aggressively” sniff wines … you need to make sure the odor gets back to these receptors.

To smell wine most effectively, it’s also important to first release its scents.  This is done simply by swirling your glass.  Swirling helps intensify a wine’s odor because it causes some of the alcohol in the wine to evaporate.  As it evaporates it brings with it the particular scents that were trapped in the wine.

To properly swirl your glass, fill it 1/3 full, keep the base on a table and rotate it until you develop a small “cyclone.” This cyclone intensifies the scents and focuses the evaporating vapors in the center of the glass.  Then immediately put your nose into the glass and take a deep, aggressive sniff. It’s very important that you smell the wine immediately after swirling it because these vapors only last for about one second.


The “homework” for this lesson is to practice smelling different wines.  Start with two drastically different wines to detect differences between varietals.  (Can you smell the difference between Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay?)  Then try different wines within the same varietal to detect differences in quality and style.  (Does $30 Chardonnay smell twice as good as $15 Chardonnay?)  Then try comparably priced different wines within the same varietal but grown in different areas.  (Does Oregon Pinot Noir smell different than California Pinot Noir?)