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Perfect scents

Appreciating the smell of your wine will greatly enhance the drinking experience

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If you only heed one piece of advice I ever give you, dear readers, let it be that you smell your wine. Before tasting/drinking it, give the wine a good swirl in the glass (provided it's not filled right to the rim), shove your nose in and inhale.

Our sense of smell is so crucially linked to our ability to discern flavours in food, wine and more -- as we've all experienced when we lose the ability when we get stuffed up from a cold or allergies. While we have more than 10,000 taste buds in our mouths (mainly on the tongue), taste is actually the weakest/least sensitive of our five senses. Humans can typically discern five distinct flavours: bitter, salty, sweet, salty and umami (which can loosely be described as savoury). Our olfactory sense, meanwhile, can discern thousands of different smells, even when the chemical component in question is minute.

Smell is a sense often associated with memory, an association I find crucial as a wine writer/taster. When I first smell a wine, I focus on the first things that pop into my head when I take a whiff: blackberry jam, red apple skins, a Tootsie Roll, or whatever the smell may be is feverishly scribbled down in my notes before the memory slips away.

There are certain smells associated with a wine that can be revealing, and practice will improve your ability to pick out these smells. Oak aging, for example, often imparts vanilla, graphite/pencil shaving or spice characteristics on the nose of a wine.

But not all wines' smells are attractive. Cork taint (also known as TCA -- short for 2,4,6-Trichloroanisole, the compound that causes the defect) delivers a cardboard/newspaper/wet dog aroma that can result from a cork not being properly sterilized. If your wine smells like any of the above, pour it back in the bottle, stick the cork back in and exchange it -- the wine is defective.

You can sometimes catch a nasty sulfur aroma coming from a recently opened bottle of wine, especially younger white wines bottled under screwcap. This isn't a defect so much as it is a characteristic of sulfur dioxide, a preservative used by most wineries. The smell can be "shaken off" by swirling the wine fairly vigorously in the glass, which should release that stinky sulfur note and let the fruit shine through.

Beyond picking up the presence of oak, sulfur and/or potential faults in a wine, pay attention to the wide range of aromas you can pick up from the grapes themselves. Chardonnay, for example, typically shows apple, peach, fig and pear aromas, while Sauvignon Blanc is more likely to deliver lemon-lime, grassy and bell pepper notes.

So how to train your nose? First of all, smell your food -- both individual ingredients and finished dishes. I most often associate smells in wine with berries, stone fruit, spices, meat, and so forth. Smell fruit that you buy at a grocery store. Smell candy. Go with your instinct -- if you think a wine smells like soy sauce, sniff some to see if you're on to something (you probably are).

Another tip is to smell multiple wines at a time. When I taste a dozen Merlots at a competition, I go through and smell every glass, making notes as I go about the subtle differences in oak aging, ripeness of fruit, etc. Open a couple of different wines made with the same grape -- the differences are usually easily noticeable.

Smell your wine. You'll enjoy the wine-tasting experience so much more.


Cave de Rasteau 2009 La Domeliere

(Côtes Du Rhône Villages, France -- $18.55, Liquor Marts and beyond)

This blend of Grenache, Syrah and Mourvèdre (70/20/10) brings a mellow mix of coffee, cherry, strawberry, perfume, raspberry and spice notes on the nose. This medium-bodied, unoaked French red exudes class and restraint, with beautiful raspberry and cherry notes on the palate and some juicy acidity. 88/100


Concha Y Toro 2008 Casillero del Diablo Brut Reserva

(Limari Valley, Chile -- $16.95, Liquor Marts and beyond)

A sparkling wine made entirely from Chardonnay grapes, this Chilean bubbly delivers green apple, mineral, lime rind and crisp pear notes on the nose, with a light doughy note in there. It's a lean, crisp bubbly, with the green apple and citrus notes taking charge and with a hint of chalkiness that balances out the light acidity. 88/100


Bleasdale 2009 Potts' Catch Verdelho

(Langhorne Creek, Australia -- around $16, private wine stores)

Perfume, peach, light spice and red apple skin aromas are particularly attractive on this Aussie white, which spends no time in oak -- only stainless steel -- before bottling. There's some great mouth-watering acidity on the medium-bodied palate (thanks to a splash of Sauvignon Blanc), with tart peach and juicy red apple notes on the palate. 87/100

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition September 24, 2011 E4

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