Tasting wine or any kind of beverage actually. Most of it comes down to your ability to smell. Amazing isn’t it? We are so used to thinking the main taste sensation comes from our mouth, but in reality our noses take the lead role here and they don’t get enough credit. Don’t believe me? Squeeze your nose shut and taste an apple. Then do it again with your nose freed up, first smelling the apple and then taking a bite. See the difference?
This is the reason why all serious wine lovers will look at you with a murderous stare if you decide to attend a tasting with a common cold. You give me a runny nose - I can’t do what I love…enjoy wine.
If you wish to improve your tasting and describing skills you have to get in the habit of keeping your nose open. When I attended sommelier school one of the trickiest and most confusing parts at first was to pinpoint and name the different smells and tastes that you find in wine. You know, the apple, chalk, lemon zest or is it blackcurrant berry that I smell or is it actually the leafs of the bush? Or is it cat urine? The hell… why should anyone know how cat urine tastes? To get out of the habit of just saying white or red you need to practice identifying different smells. The more your brain registers individual smells of different items the easier it will be for it to name detailed smells in the beverage your tasting.
For practice start smelling everything. All the items you use for cooking, all the fruits in department stores. Notice the smell of autumn rain or the smell of warm summer days drizzle. Does the strawberry you buy in October smell the same way as you remember a strawberry from your childhood? What does your dog smell like? Your nail polish remover? Kitty litter? And the list goes on and on. Everything in our lives has a distinctive smell. You probably like the smell of your partner don’t you? What does sex smell like? Or the pair of new boots you just bought?
Once you start understanding that each and every tiny little thing has a specific aroma try to put that smell into words. The way this works is you trigger your brain into looking for smells that have been registered from your past that are similar to the bouquet you are experiencing right now. As your brain does that, it makes a mental note and registers the new smell with a name. And that’s why we get brioche aromas in champagne. Not because someone put a slice of sweet bread in the bottle, but because our brain registers the smell you get from that drink as a “I remember that - that’s brioche” smell.
The names we give to different smells varies from person to person. You can bet your hat on the fact that my childhood strawberries from my grandmothers garden near Pärnu actually smell and taste different than the ones you tasted while growing up in US. That’s what makes tastings so subjective. There’s no right or wrong answers. No one can say that your sense of smell is faulty. That’s where discussions come from and common ground is found. That’s why being present while tasting and really going into detail can make a bottle of wine so much more interesting.
And yes, I just told you that you do not have to invest in thousands of bottles of wine to improve your tasting skills. Keep your nose open and mind sharp!
Smell the world around you!