Thursday, December 17, 2009

Wine Fundamentals: Training the Nose

Just so no one is confused, we are not training the nose for an Olympic event. Rather, it’s a process of refining the sense of smell to identify the many aromas present in a wine’s nose or bouquet. The tried and not-always-true method of perception is to keep drinking wine and taking notes on what is perceived in the glass. This is only moderately successful. Consider if you define a scent as licorice, which is really cloves, and continue to misinterpret that scent with no checks on accuracy, you lock in the wrong indicator.

Communicating the Elements in a Bouquet
Another possibility is to check the wine label, hopefully, after you’ve made your notes or determination of the bouquet’s constituents. That requires the wine label notes be accurate, it also requires us to share the same palate with the writer. Both are compromises on accuracy. Reading the notes before sniffing can unduly influence what you then pick up in the bouquet. Yes, I’ve tried all these methods in the past.

What is needed is a standard reference that can be used to accurately identify each scent in a wine bouquet. Alternately, you could take a wine course to become a sommelier, but most people don’t have the time for that. Some scents, of course, are fairly obvious. The initial reaction we get on the bouquet, or the strongest, is often the main aroma element in a wine. It is the interplay of subtler aromas that require a precise catalog of reference scents. It also requires a standard naming convention so these elements are communicated to others.

The Wine Aroma Wheel
The wine aroma wheel, developed by Prof. Ann Noble of U.C. Davis and her class, was created to standardize scent designators to aid in communication. The wheel and its variants, work from the idea of defining scents by category and sub-category, represented by concentric circles on the wheel. Pie slices or quadrants then define a group of scents, represented by different colors. The innermost circle defines the category, such as fruity, herbaceous, or floral. The next circle further defines the category, such as fruity, which breaks down into dried fruit, berry, tropical fruit, etc. The outermost circle divides these even further, so that berry now sub-divides into red raspberry, red currant, strawberry, etc. Moving from the general to the specific is a logical way to approach, what at first may seem like an impossible task.

When checking a wine’s bouquet, the first impression on our nose is usually the strongest, because over time the scent moves to the background due to fatigue and adaptation. An example here might help. Recall going into a room with an unpleasant odor, and later not being aware of it, while someone else coming into the room later will say, “Yuch, what’s that smell?” We adapted to the smell, and fatigue of our scent sensors have dialed down the intensity. Those sensors are called the olfactory epithelium. Yeah, I’m sure you wanted to know that. In other words, the quicker we can identify a scent, the better before that initial impression fades away.

Wine Scent Kits
Another approach is to buy a scent kit, with concentrated aromas enclosed in capped jars. Mine has forty scents including subtle ones like truffles and amber. I suspect some wine writers use the term truffles because most people have never eaten one or have any idea what the scent is like. I’ve been sniffing the one in my kit and I’m still not sure. For the most part, however, using these kits makes it possible to memorize specific scents over time and apply that knowledge when detecting them in a wine’s bouquet.

It’s also possible to create your own wine scent kit. If you click on the wine aroma wheel URL above, it will link to the web portal that includes a description of how to use the wheel, or get cool aroma wheel t-shirts so you’re never without this helpful guide. Yeah, right.

There is also a link to download the user guide, which is free. Within the two page tri-fold booklet downloaded is specific information on how to create your own scent kit for white, red, and sparkling wines. Since my professional kit costs hundreds of dollars, this is an inexpensive way to be introduced to the wonderful world of wine scents. You may even be able to pick up that elusive scent of truffles. Salut!