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Discovering How to Sniff a Glass of Wine

The process of tasting a wine — of systematically experiencing all the wine's attributes — involves three steps: Looking at it, smelling it, and, finally, tasting it. Before you explore the smelling ritual, know that a) you don't have to apply this procedure to every single wine you drink; b) you won't look foolish doing it, at least in the eyes of other wine lovers; and c) it's a great trick at parties to avoid talking with someone you don't like.

Swirl 'n' sniff

To get the most out of your wine sniffing, you swirl the wine in the glass first. Don't even think about swirling your wine if your glass is more than half full — you'll end up sloshing it everywhere.

Here's a closer look at how to swirl and sniff your wine:

1. Keep your glass on the table and rotate it three or four times so that the wine swirls around inside the glass and mixes with air.

As you swirl, the aromatic compounds in the wine vaporize so that you can smell them. Wine has so many of these compounds that whatever scent you detect probably isn't a figment of your imagination.

2. Quickly bring the glass to your nose, stick your nose right into the airspace of the glass where the aromas are captured, and smell the wine.

Try different techniques of sniffing. Some people like to take short, quick sniffs, while others like to inhale a deep whiff of the wine's smell. Keeping your mouth open a bit while you inhale can help you perceive aromas. (Some people even hold one nostril closed and smell with the other.)

3. Free-associate — think of what the aroma brings to mind.

Is the aroma fruity, woodsy, fresh, cooked, intense, light? Your nose tires quickly, but it recovers quickly, too. Wait just a moment and try again. Listen to your friends' comments and try to find the same things they find in the smell.

The point behind this whole ritual of swirling and sniffing is that what you smell should be pleasurable, maybe even fascinating, and that you should have fun in the process.

Keep these pointers in mind as you sniff around:

  • Don't wear a strong scent; it will compete with the smell of the wine.
  • Don't knock yourself out smelling a wine when there are strong food aromas around. The tomatoes you smell in the wine could really be the tomato in someone's pasta sauce.
  • Become a smeller. When it comes to smelling wine, many people are concerned that they aren't able to detect as many aromas as they think they should. Train your nose by smelling every ingredient when you cook, the foods you eat, the fresh fruits and vegetables at the market, and even the smells of your environment — like leather, wet earth, fresh road tar, grass, your wet dog, shoe polish, everything. Stuff your mental database with smells so that you'll have aroma memories at your disposal when you need to draw on them.

Smelling wine is really just a matter of practice and attention. If you start to pay more attention to smells in your normal activities, you'll get better at smelling wine.

Lingo to know

With poetic license typical of wine tasters, someone once dubbed the smell of a wine its nose — and the expression took hold. If someone says that a wine has a huge nose, he means that the wine has a very strong smell. If the wine enthusiast detects lemon in the nose or on the nose, she means that the wine smells a bit like lemons.

In fact, most wine tasters rarely use the word smell to describe how a wine smells because the word smell (like the word odor) has negative connotations. Instead, wine tasters talk about the wine's nose or aroma. Sometimes they use the word bouquet, although that word is falling out of fashion.

Just as a wine taster might use the term nose for the smell of a wine, he might use the word palate in referring to the taste of a wine. A wine's palate is the overall impression the wine gives in your mouth, or any isolated aspect of the wine's taste, as in "This wine has a harmonious palate," or "The palate of this wine is a bit acidic." When a wine taster says that she finds raspberries on the palate, he means that the wine has the flavor of raspberries.

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