Making Wine Sense: Smell Capabilities

The past couple of weeks, we’ve been Making Wine Sense by highlighting out how wine tasting is actually a sensory experience. We continue to explore our sense of smell and what that has to do with how we taste wine.  Earlier this week, we posted about how the olfactory nerves in our sinuses play such a big part in sensing flavors.

Smell vs. Taste Abilities

Another reason that smell is one of the most important steps in wine tasting has to do with how much we are capable of smelling vs. tasting.  When it comes down to it, we have 6 taste sensations:

  1. Sweet
  2. Sour
  3. Salty
  4. Fat
  5. Bitter
  6. Umami (Savory)

That’s it. These are the 6 things that we can truly “taste”. And when it comes to wine, only sweet and sour are relevant. (More on that when we get to the taste post of this Making Wine Sense series.)

We are capable of sensing 6 tastes.

We are capable of sensing 6 tastes.

But smells… there are so many smells! In fact, we know we are capable of perceiving over 10,000 different chemical compounds that register as smells! That’s right – SIX taste sensations vs. over TEN THOUSAND smells! This all goes back to those nifty olfactory nerves sending impulses to the brain. The aroma comes in through our nose, tickles those olfactory nerves, which ultimately sense impulses to the brain which tells us, “that smells like apple pie – we’ll register that as a flavor!”.

We are capable of smelling over 10,000 chemical compounds which register as flavors!

We are capable of smelling over 10,000 chemical compounds which register as flavors!


So when someone says they taste blackberries or strawberries in a wine, what they’re really saying is they sense them – or have smelled them – and they are registering as flavors. Some wines are often described as having a “barnyard” or “earthy” flavor. I doubt many people have tasted an actual barnyard before, but most of us have smelled one. And that smell is registering as a flavor. (Note that “barnyard” is not a negative description for wine!)

Next time you’re sipping on something delightful, think about what you’re sensing!! What are some unusual flavors that you’ve tasted on a wine?


Did You Wine Know… How Wine Gets Its Flavor

This blog has a handy-dandy page that allows you to make a request for some specific wine know. While I do not likely know the answer to your request, I do have some trusty books and resources to conduct some informal research and will then share the wealth of Wine Know here in a post.  A friend of mine (we’ll call her MI cupcake) made the following wine know request… 

Hi Inga! I was restocking on wine last night (can’t beat the 20% 6 bottles deal), and I started wondering about the flavors descriptions on the labels. Since wine is usually just made with grapes, how does it pick up flavors like pepper, mocha, blackberry? Is it infused with these flavors, or do they develop during fermentation? Are winemakers able to predict the flavor profiles? Also, who are the people that taste and decide what flavor profiles are presented in the wine, how are they trained, and how much would they have to drink before figuring it out? I’ve read your posts on wine tasting, but I’m curious how the flavors get in there, and how the pros decide what to put on the bottle. Thanks much!

I think MI cupcake did a fine job of articulating the questions that we all ask in our own minds when standing in the wine store and reading the label that says the wine tastes like tobacco and strawberry flavors.

Let’s get it out there right from the start that there is no flavor infusion in the typical winemaking process. Barrels are not lined with additional aromas that would alter the flavor. Strawberries and tobacco leaves are not mixed in with the grape juice.  All those interesting flavors are a result of a few key things: (1) Terroir, (2) Fermentation, and (3) Personal Experiences.  (There are many more, but these are some of the big influencers…)

(1) Terroir

Terroir can be simply defined as “a growing environment”.  It’s the specific place where something grows that makes the something that grows there taste like it comes from there.  We often talk about “Idaho potatoes” or “Nebraska corn” or “Washington apples”.  What makes “Idaho potatoes” so famous and well-known? At some point, it became clear that Idaho potatoes tasted like Idaho potatoes and not California potatoes. They stood out because there was some unique characteristic of the growing environment of Idaho that made those potatoes so darn good. It includes the climate in that area (rainfall, humidity, fog, etc), the amount of sunlight and/or cloud coverage, what the ground water is like, the slope of the land, and the soil.

A great visual of terroir from the Le Terroir label from New Belgium Brewing Company beers.

A great visual of terroir from the Le Terroir label from New Belgium Brewing Company beers.

Grape vines (and their grapes) are especially sensitive to terroir.  Pinot Noir grapes from Napa Valley will have different characteristics compared to those grown in France.  They are genetically the same grape, but because of the differences in the terroir, the grapes taste more like “Napa Valley Pinot Noir grapes” instead of “French Pinot Noir grapes”.  Napa Valley Pinot Noir typically has rhubarb and floral flavors, for example.  French Pinot Noir typically has cranberry and peppery flavors. These are just common characteristics of one region vs another.  And from what I keep hearing, if you really take your Wino title seriously, and drink lots and lots of wine, you will start to identify the characteristics in wines from specific regions.


(2) Fermentation

How To Make Wine poster. Looks kinda hard. I think I prefer drinking it.

How To Make Wine poster. Looks kinda hard. I think I prefer drinking it.

Another key influence on the flavors of wine is the fermentation process.  Alcohol fermentation is the chemical conversion of sugar and yeast into ethyl alcohol, carbon dioxide and other compounds.  And guess what… it’s those ambiguous “other compounds” that are such a big piece of what makes wine so darn interesting to smell and taste. Get this, Winos. There 8,000 to 10,000 active chemical compounds in wine. And each and every one of those may invoke a different flavor or aroma. Just for the sake of comparison, imagine the deliciousness of a steak. That hunk o’ meat has only 120 active chemical compounds. 120 compared to 10,000!! This little fact helped me put things into perspective as to why you never think, “hmmm, this steak has a hint of blueberries.”  But with wine, you might! One or more of those 10,000 compounds could invoke the flavor of blueberries while you are drinking that fermented grape juice.

In addition to alcohol fermentation, wine often goes through malolactic fermentation, which, contrary to its name, is not actually a fermentation process. It is the transformation of malic acid and bacteria into lactic acid, carbon dioxide, and (again) other compounds. Malic acid is a naturally occurring acid in grapes that can give the tart flavor of granny smith apples. (I can sense your salivary glands suddenly being activated.)  Lactic acid can calm down the excessive acidity in malic acid and even give some wines that “buttery” flavor (often tasted in Chardonnays).

So basically, the “other compounds” that are a result of both alcohol fermentation and malolactic fermentation create the incredibly complex and vast amount of flavors in a single mouthful of wine. Those chemical compounds could make one taste a number of various flavors.  Which is why personal experiences are a critical part of tasting flavors in wine….

(3) Personal Experiences

Finally, personal experiences play a big role in what YOU are tasting when you taste wine. We all live in a world of smells and flavors and tastes.  And our brains recognize those smells and flavors and tastes and relate them to memories. And they trigger specific memories or even mentally transport you to the place where the memory is locked in your brain.  For example, for me the smell of fresh raspberries always reminds me of my grandmother.  And when I walk by dusty sidewalks being hosed down, I am transported to a specific morning I spent while traveling in Vienna. The brain is so cool.  Anyway, when you sip a glass of anything with 8,000-10,000 active chemical compounds, something is going to trigger some memory or familiar flavor or experience.  But that doesn’t mean it is easy to sense.  We don’t really exercise that part of our brain or often articulate what something smells like.  You don’t state aloud that bread in the toaster smells like toast.  You just know it does.  So when you sip on a glass of wine, it may trigger a certain flavor but it is often hard to identify it and pinpoint it to what that flavor is… mostly because you’re not used to saying it aloud.  And when you and I take a sip of the same glass of wine, those compounds may trigger a different experience or memory for both of us. So you may smell or taste fig while I taste bacon. And it’s not wrong either way.

This is your brain on wine.

This is your brain on wine.

When you read a label on the back of a bottle of wine, it will often give a flavor description.  These flavors are typically present in the wine – they may be commonly identified by a large group of people. But just because you don’t taste them doesn’t mean that you’re wrong.

The good news is that you can start exercising the part of your brain that relates smells and tastes to words. All you do is have a sip and start describing – as best you can – what you taste. The more you do it, the more you’ll be able to do it!

A quick recap:

(1) Terroir (the growing environment of the vines) make wines taste like the wine of that growing area.

(2) Fermentation results in 8,000 to 10,000 active chemical compounds in wine which are basically responsible for the flavors and aromas in wine.

(3) While you are experiencing the flavors of those active chemical compounds, you’re not used to verbally expressing what you are smelling or tasting. And your personal experiences and memories may lead you to taste something different from someone else.

So Winos… hold that glass with your head and pinky held high, and state with confidence that you smell mothballs and taste leather in this glass of Cabernet. Own it. You can’t be wrong!

Thoroughly Wino Thursday: Let’s Talk About Taste, Part II of II

As discussed last Thursday, many of us Winos seek to be able to better understand and articulate the wine we taste. If for nothing else, just to be able to hold our own amongst other wine drinkers.  Beyond that, however, it seems the more you understand, the more you enjoy the complexity of wine and its delights.

To recap from last Thursday’s Thoroughly Wino Thursday: Let’s Talk About Taste, Part I, there are four key elements to understanding the taste of wine.  The two covered last week were (1) flavor and (2) aroma and methods for identifying both when tasting wine.  (Remember that word description list with things like “horse blanket” and “worn boot”??)  Today’s post on taste will focus on the other two key elements – (1) body and (b) texture. Body and texture are closely related and have a lot to do with the fullness, concentration, and weight of a wine with regard to a total “mouthfeel”.  (Yes, that is an official wine word – I really gotta get that Wino glossary going.)


Most of us are familiar with the general descriptions of wine as either “light”, “medium”, or “full” bodied.  But what does that really mean? I have usually equated a light-bodied wine to something like a red that doesn’t have a lot of color to it, or tastes a bit watered down.  And full-bodied to wine that looks kind of thick – or opaque. The Wine Bible compares the body of wine to the weights of milk.  For example, a light-bodied wine might equate to skim milk while a full-bodied wine is more like whole milk.  Body is, essentially, the weight of the wine in the same sense as in this example of the weight of milk.

However, the wine’s body does not have to do with the quality of the wine, the intensity of the flavor, or even the finish.  A wine can be light-bodied by very intense in flavor.  Similarly, a full-bodied wine’s flavor may not last long in the Wino’s mouth (the “finish”).  In general, it sounds like the easiest way to think about a wine’s body is by its weight.  (That milk comparison really helped me.)


A wine’s texture is often described as its “mouthfeel”, or “tactile impression it leaves in your mouth”. (The Wine Bible)  Words used to describe texture are often fabrics (textures – fabrics… makes sense, eh!?!)  Some examples are “flannel” (as in soft), or silky (as in smooth), or wool (as in coarse).  Other texture descriptors may be syrupy or gritty. So how do you determine texture when tasting wine?  Well, take a sip and roll that sip around in your mouth for a bit before swallowing it.  It will help you identify not only the flavor of the wine but the texture as well.


There is of course much, much more to know about wine tasting, but this initial overview is a start!  In summary, aroma, flavor, body, and texture all contribute to a wine’s taste in different ways.  Next time you’re sipping a new wine, think about these elements and see if you can pick something out!  To close out this two-part series,  I thought I’d copy over The Wine Bible’s “Twleve Truths Wine Pros Know” with regarding to tasting wine:

  • A systematic approach to tasting is critical to understanding wine and being able to remember what you tasted.
  • Perceptions of a wine can be skewed by outside influences as innocent as eating a bag of M&Ms.
  • The first sip is not always reliable.
  • At least 80% of taste is smell.
  • Swirling the wine in the glass helps you smell and therefore taste it better.
  • You continue to smell a wine once it is in your mouth.
  • Light, medium, and full-bodied wines feel in the mouth like skim milk, whole milk, and half-and-half, respectively.
  • A full body is no guarantee of an intense flavor.
  • To get the total impact of flavor, you must hold the wine in your mouth for a few seconds.
  • The world’s best wines all have long finishes.
  • White wines get darker in color as they get older.
  • Red wines get lighter as they get older.


If nothing else, you Winos can become pros by jotting down this cheat sheet and sticking it in your wallet so that the next time you are out and about, you can apply your Wine Know knowledge easily!  Now…. taste on!

[Source for all Wine Knowledge in this post is The Wine Bible.]

Thoroughly Wino Thursday: Let’s Talk About Taste – Part I of II

All of us Winos have been there… that moment when you go out with other friends who like wine, and seem to know a little something about it.  You feel good about checking out the wine menu… you pick one out confidently.  The server brings it to your table and you reach for your glass to take a sip.  You look up… and then it happens.  Your seemingly Wine Know friend is swirling that glass more comfortably than you… they’re more willing to take a big ol’ sniff of that wine while there in public… they swish their first sip – maybe even second – in their mouth… and there you have it.  Your Wine Know confidence is shot and you’ve just downgraded yourself back to a Wino.

This Wino knows that self-wine-doubt… So I figured some tips on tasting wine should be shared.  There are essentially four key areas to consider when tasting wine: Aroma, Body, Texture, and Flavor.  Today on Thoroughly Wino Thursday, we’re only going to get into Aroma and Flavor.  Next week (Let’s Talk About Taste – Part II of II), we’ll take a look at Body and Texture.


There are a couple of parts to getting the sense of a wine’s aroma.  You can start with the swirl of the wine glass – it helps aerate the wine, which I like to think of as a bit of a “loosening up”.  (Just try not to get carried away and swirl that wine right out of your glass.  That’s embarrassing. – or so I hear.)

After swirling, get your nose in there and sniff that wine.  Don’t sniff it as if the aroma is wafting its way towards you.  Seriously get your nose in the glass and take a handful of small sniffs.  “Sniffing creates tiny air currents in the nose that carry aroma molecules up to the nerve receptors and ultimately to the brain for intpretation.” (The Wine Bible)

Now here’s the hard part.  Articulating that which you just sniffed.  The Wine Bible suggests not trying to think of what that aroma is, but to run through a list of possibilities in your mind.  We human creatures seem to have difficulty in our current evolutionary state with verbally articulating smell.  “Scientists call this the “tip of the nost phenomenon.” Smell, they hypothesize, is elusive because it is the most primitive of the senses.  … smell is not easily grasped by the verbal-semantic parts of the brain.” (The Wine Bible)  So true, right? We always say things like, “that smells like…”.  Nothing has its own smell.  Except maybe roses… which I hear is what my breath smells like early in the morning.

Here’s a little nugget of Wine Knowledge regarding wine terms… “aroma” and “bouquet” are often used interchangeably in the wine world.  But they actually are two different things.  Aroma indicates the smell of the grape, while bouquet should be used to identify the smell of the wine once it has matured or evolved in the bottle.   Next time you pop open a bottle, be sure to say something like, “My, oh my, this wine’s bouquet is lovely!”


The flavor of a wine may prove to be just as difficult to articulate as the smell.  Basically, one may want to be able to articulate the flavor so that the wine can be remembered.  I have so many memories of enjoying a bottle of wine… and while I can almost taste the wine from my memory, I would have difficulty describing it to anyone. As noted above, it may be easier to start with a general list of potential flavors so you can pick and choose familiar descriptors, and from there it will be easier to come up with something that may not be on your flavor list.  Everyone’s flavor list may be different, but I’ve copied a starter list from The Wine Bible to help get you started.  In general, I like this approach… I feel like many of the words below are often used on the back of bottles.

One thing my wine sipping sister likes to do describe a wine using her own words before reading the description on the back of the bottle.  Then she can see how her assessment matches up to that of the winemaker. It’s a great way to better understand your own preferences… I suppose in many ways, that is what Divine Wine Sundays are all about as well!

The below list of descriptions for Flavors and Aromas are taken directly out of The Wine Bible.

Flavors and Aromas of White Wines


Fresh – apple, apricot, banana, coconut, fig, grapefruit, lemon, lime, litchi, melon, dried orange peel, peach, pear, pineapple;

Cooked – baked apple, baked pear

Butter and Cream: Butter, butterscotch, caramel, cream, custard

Vegetables: Asparagus, bell pepper, green beans, olives

Grains and Nuts: Almond, biscuit, bread dough, brioche, hazelnut, roasted nut, yeast

Spices: Cinnamon, cloves, ginger, white pepper

Flowers: Gardenia, geranium, honeysuckle, rose

Earth: Chalk, flint, grass, hay, minerals, stone, straw

Barrel Aromas and Flavors: Oak, toast, vanilla

Other Aromas and Flavors: Honey, gasoline, rubber boot


Flavors and Aromas of Red Wines


Fresh – blackberry, black currant, blueberry, boysenberry, cherry, cranberry, dried orange peel, plum, pomegranate, raspberry, strawberry

Cooked – baked blackberry, baked cherry, baked raspberry, jam, prunes

Vegetables: Asparagus, bell pepper, green beans, mushrooms, olives, truffle

Chocolate and Coffee: Bitter chocolate, cocoa, milk chocolate, mocha, coffee, espresso

Spices and Herbs: Black pepper, cinnamon, cloves, licorice, mint, spiced tea

Tobacco: Cigar box, pipe tobacco, smoke

Flowers: Geranium, rose, violet

Earth: Cedar, damp earth, dried leaves, eucalyptus, forest floor, gravel, pine, stone

Animal: Barnyard, horse blanket, manure, sweat

Barrel Aromas and Flavors: Oak, toast, vanilla

Other Aromas and Flavors: Cola, game, leather, tar, tea, worn boot


Next time I taste a wine that I might describe as “asparagus like” or “like a worn boot”, you can be sure that I’ll post about that wine!!  Do you have any other wine flavor and aroma words that you often use in describing a wine??