Now close your eyes and take a deep breath…

amelia smelling

Mmm peaches, roses.. maybe a hint of cinnamon…?

I love talking to people about what they smell in a wine—there are so many different nouns and descriptive adjectives you could use, so many directions you could go: fruits or flowers, exotic spices, feelings or sensations.. maybe even a memory comes to mind—aromas can trigger the most unexpected associations, something you might not have thought about in years.

This “wine talk” has played a huge part in my falling in love with wine.  Between attending the AIS lecture on the olfactory examination and the numerous tastings I’ve been to at vino roma, I’ve accumulated a fresh set of tools that have forever changed the way I talk about wine.‘L’esame olfattivo’— the olfactory analysis, is the standardized evaluation of the famous ‘nose’ of the wine.  This is what might make a wine, as an Italian would put it, un vino da meditazione—a wine you could meditate on.

Our noses are incredibly powerful instruments; we can literally pick out and distinguish up to 12,000 different smells.  I remember a California winemaker once telling me that 90% of wine tasting was just in the smell of it.  Each wine we try tells such a different story; it’s through the nose that we’re able to interpret what it’s saying— subjectively of course— then after we’ve come to our own conclusions we can translate those thoughts to the objective evaluation system.  This standardization is important; it ensures that other sommeliers and wine professional can understand what we taste, too, and just makes communicating about a wine a whole lot more effective.

There are four categories to consider when evaluating the nose of a wine: intensity (think of a vertical analysis, it judges the power of all the aromas perceived at the same exact time), complexity (think horizontally— the range of different aromas you may concurrently smell), quality (the synthesis of intensity, complexity, finesse and elegance), and finally description.

It’s the description guidelines that have been especially helpful for me.  There are ten description groups, and every aroma you could possibly perceive would theoretically fall into one or more of them.

Aromatic—this adjective would describe the bouquet of a wine made from aromatic grape varieties, ONLY (and here I’ve been throwing this around loosely for years).

Vinous—this refers to winery smells, fermentation aromas, generally found in younger red wines.


Floral—these essences can be numerous, and come from a variety of factors such as soils, grape varieties, and the age of a wine.  You might note white and yellow flowers for fresher young wines, red flowers for deeper colored wines, and dried ones for those who’ve got some age on them.

Fruity—various fruits can be perceived, depending again on factors like soils, varieties, and age.  A fresh white wine bouquet might give off green, white, or yellow fruit aromas, or maybe exotic, tropical, or citrus notes.  A red might show darker berries, red or black fruits, and you may detect dried or ripe fruits in mature ones.


Grassy—green vegetal aromas that are often reminiscent of.. grass!  This could also be bell peppers, tomato leaves, or dried hay aromas.


Mineral—Salt and mineral aromas, flint, gunpowder, or river stones.  This is the category I’ve found most eye opening— Hande has poured some Italian wines that actually taste salty!

Fragrant—two meanings, it’s most commonly used to talk about fresh and lively wines in general, but it’s also a term for sparkling or still white wines that have had extended contact on their lees, giving off a bread-like, yeasty smell.

Frank—this one I’ve never used, but frankly, it makes sense.  This would be a clean, well-defined scent that stands out from the other smells.  Say that you have a wine that smells just like a green pepper, this would be written: grassy, frank (bell pepper).

Spicy—this category stretches from sweet to hot spices, and can be found in any type of wine, especially those aged in oak barrels.

Ethereal—this is another term that I hadn’t heard of before starting the class. It’s derived from the alcohols, acids and aldehydes, and gives off a medicinal, estery, sometimes soapy or waxy aroma.  Think about inhaling Vick’s vapor rub, and you’ll get the idea.

So here’s your homework guys: go out and buy yourselves a bottle of ITALIAN wine, and get to work.  Use these olfactory guidelines and you’ve basically got what it takes to evaluate a wine like an inexperienced professional.  If you’re like me and enjoy coming up with the various correlations between what you smell and what it reminds you of, this is the perfect exercise to build up your “wine talk”.  Go through the categories and ponder each one for a few seconds, you’ll actually be surprised how easy it is, and how good at it you already are!  Of course, even better yet - book a tasting with vino roma next time you’re in Rome; nothing compares to analyzing a wine with the guidance of a sommelier smelling the same exact wine as you are!


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