Your sense of smell has an enormous impact on how the brain processes flavors and smells. Thus, the act of smelling a wine before tasting it is very important – it helps to prepare the brain for what it is about to experience.
As a way to understand this intuitively, just consider how your enjoyment of food diminishes whenever you have a cold. Since your sense of smell is reduced (due to congestion or other associated problems) when you are sick, you also do not have the capacity to smell as much of the food as you are used to. That is why we find certain foods – such as hot soups or hot teas – so satisfying during these periods, while spicier or more flavorful foods lose their appeal.
Since each person has a unique sense of smell, as well as a unique repository of memories linked to those smells, there is no single “right” way that a wine should smell. For example, some people might associate the smell of berries (raspberries, blueberries, strawberries) with freshly baked pies that they enjoyed as a child. Others, however, might associate blueberries and strawberries with a farmer’s market experience and might be more attuned to complementary smells (such as herbs or flowers) that help to round out the full aroma potential.
The actual process of smelling wine can be as lengthy or complex as you desire. As a minimum, you should stick your nose all the way into a glass, close your eyes, and breathe deeply. What do you smell? In this initial phase, you should be looking for primary scents that help to define the wine. As a general rule, white wine will have aromas suggestive of citrus, stone fruit and tropical fruit. In contrast, red wines will have aromas suggestive of prunes, cherries, strawberries, peppers, plums, tobacco and even chocolate.
With just this basic knowledge, you will have a very good idea of what to expect. As you learn more about the terroir of a particular region, you will become much more sophisticated in distinguishing different smells and describing them to others. The tricky part here, of course, is that you can really only describe smells that you have already experienced. Thus, the more that you have sampled other foods, other cuisines, and other geographies, the better able you will be to single out a particular aroma or smell.
If the first, primary aroma is hard to distinguish, you can opt for a second nosing, in which you hold your nose for a long time over the glass, or in which you breathe in more deeply. This is why you will often see wines described in terms of several different characteristics, usually with phrases like “with undertones of dried plums and cherries.” This refers to the secondary aromas that can become more pronounced as the wine opens up in the glass.
Finally, as part of any wine tasting, you should be able to recognize when a wine is “corked.” The smell is really unforgettable – the wine might smell like a wet newspaper, as a dank basement or old wet rags. Just keep in mind – this corked smell is only possible if there is a real cork stopper in the wine, and not a screwcap or an artificial plastic cork. It is the contact with the natural cork that causes the chemical changes to the wine in the bottle.
Once you’ve built up a glossary of terms typically used by wine critics to describe a wine, you will be able to focus in on the wines that you find most appealing. In some cases, a wine might unconsciously unlock memories in your brain, or suggest food-wine pairings that you had never before considered.