wine tastingAroma training.Photo: Isabelle Pinzauti

Food Studies features the voices of 11 volunteer student bloggers from a variety of different food- and agriculture-related programs at universities around the world. You can explore the full series here.

Wine tasting gets a bad rap. We all know the classic stereotype of the arrogant wine snob swirling and sniffing his glass. Roald Dahl captures it perfectly with the voice of Richard Pratt in his short story Taste:

“A prudent wine,” he would say, “rather diffident and evasive, but quite prudent.” Or, “A good-humored wine, benevolent and cheerful — slightly obscene, perhaps, but none the less good-humored.”

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I love wine and I’ve done my share of formal tastings, but even I roll my eyes at the extravagant way some people describe what they supposedly smell and taste. With descriptions like lemon meringue pie or a forest after a rainstorm, it’s no wonder wine tasting is simultaneously intimidating and obnoxious.

But in my recent wine sensory analysis class, professor Ann Noble taught us that there is a way to describe wine without succumbing to snobbery — and, better yet, it’s something you can easily do at home, following this description.

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Noble is a sensory chemist, a retired professor from the University of California, Davis, and creator of the Aroma Wheel, a nifty tool for identifying the smells and flavors in wine. She started class by explaining that most of the flavor notes used to describe wines are better detected with our noses than our tastebuds. Although up to 1,700 different volatile compounds make up a wine’s aroma, you can actually train yourself to recognize a lot of them!

aroma wheelThe aroma wheel.Photo: Yvonne de ZeeuwOur class split into groups and sat at tables with rows and rows of black wine glasses. It’s a blind exercise, so the black glass prevents us from seeing inside. We were instructed to sniff each glass and guess what we were smelling. I put my nose into glass after glass, inhaling deeply, and concentrating as hard as I could — it was tough! The problem is that detecting a specific aroma is easy, but identifying it is tricky. The whiff of spice is obvious, for example, but which spice — cinnamon, black pepper, clove, or something else altogether?

Noble’s Aroma Wheel helps because it prompts you with broad categories you might recognize: fruity, nutty, woody, spicy, etc. If you smell fruit, the Wheel prompts you to narrow it to berry, tropical, or citrus fruit; then you can drill down to lemon, lime, or grapefruit. But it starts with just smelling fruit.

I quickly learned that I have difficultly distinguishing between tropical fruits. I didn’t grow up eating pineapple, lychee, or mango, so I don’t have a strong memory association for those aromas. And I’ll admit, I cheated a few times and peeked in the glass. I was surprised to find bits of green bell pepper, whole lychee, cinnamon sticks, or wood chips placed right into the wine. In the wine-judging world, these are called “standards.” I thought the aroma came from some chemical tincture added to wine, but in fact, it’s the actual thing you’re using as a descriptive analogy, placed in a neutral red or white base wine. Why didn’t I think of that? I could have done this at home years ago and shown those wine snobs a thing or two.

This exercise is easy and fun to replicate at home. You can make your own standards using a neutral, inexpensive wine. For example, prepare glasses of base white wine with a few pieces of bell pepper, a drop of vanilla or butter extract, or a teaspoon of citrus juice or peach puree. It’s an easy way to train yourself to recognize and identify the smell of key wine descriptors.

wine standardWine standard.Photo: Isabelle PinzautiDuring the next session, we were presented with eight unlabeled white wines, no funny stuff added, and asked to describe the aroma and taste. The labeled standards were still on the table to use as a smell reference. Moving back and forth between the wine and the standards definitely helped me with the tricky tropicals, and it got easier and easier as we moved on to a batch of unlabeled red wines alongside standards of oak, black pepper, berry jam, cocoa, etc.

After we assessed each wine individually, we discussed among our group and came to a consensus on the aroma and flavor properties. What’s amazing is that the only reason we were able to come to consensus is because we were working with the same vocabulary. I should note that none of our standards were labeled things like “cheerful,” “evasive,” or “good-humored.” Aside from sounding pretentious, these terms are subjective and not universally shared.

Once you have the vocabulary, all it takes is practice. I recently tasted an Italian white wine aged in oak barrels. I detected citrus (lemon to be specific), a toasted or burnt sugar aroma, and a bit of butter. I could say it was reminiscent of lemon meringue pie, but I won’t.