The secret to name wine aromas

Your aroma description ability depends on how familiar you are with the smell and how it’s connected emotionally to previous experiences.

Published September 28, 2020

When I was six months old, my grandmother put a drop of Champagne wine on my lips during a family gathering. The story goes that I liked it, which is strange for a baby to enjoy the sour taste and tingling sensations.

I told this story during an interview recently, which I believe predisposed me to become a Champagne lover. For once, no scientific data is backing up my theory.

How memories can trigger our ability to identify wine aromas

Our love for wine is not innate and being a skilled wine taster is not innate either. 

Our ability to appreciate some foods and wine depends on our upbringing, the culture, and the rituals with which we grew up.

These personal experiences create memories deeply stored in our brains. 

The aromas and flavors we grew up with then become part of our sensory repertoire. They become so familiar to you that when you encounter them in a glass of wine, bingo, you know exactly what they are, and you call them out.

Usually, the memory of a tender moment (or not) comes to mind simultaneously. 

Some people call this burst of memories a Madeleine moment referencing Marcel Proust's famous story[1]. While keeping a Madeleine in his tea, vivid souvenirs came to his mind triggered by the sensory experience of drinking tea and eating a Madeleine.

Our ability to memorize olfactory sensations is weak when there is no emotional association with them. That's the challenge a wine taster faces when identifying unfamiliar aroma in a glass of wine. 

It will take many training sessions and practices to master the ability to identify these novel sensations. But it's doable if you follow a framework based on sensory and flavor sciences.

The path to harnessing wine aroma description

Describing wine aromas by smelling is more manageable than by tasting. 

You only perceive the aromatic compounds volatilizing from the glass. It becomes more difficult in the mouth. 

First, you need to learn how to sort out the three types of perceptions you experience almost simultaneously: taste versus aroma versus mouthfeel.

Then, you start learning how to describe these aroma, taste, and mouthfeel perceptions. First, you practice with simple solutions and progressively increase the level of complexity with different wine styles.

The keyword is practice. 

Like perfumers, we have to practice often, if possible several times a week, to keep our olfactory memory engaged.

I related in another article how we could practice when our sense of smell is temporarily impaired. I suffer from seasonal allergies and have started to implement the practice of imagining one or two wine aromas every day for a week. 

Suppose you are part of a tasting group. In that case, you can train together to develop a common language to describe these perceptions. It requires to define a frame of reference for the group to label the perceptions with the same words. You will use tools such as the wine aroma wheel and aroma kits.

During this training, you also develop tactics to understand the language used by wine tasters external to your training group.

It is a journey that needs constant reinforcement; the identification of wine aromas is a skill that we learn late in life if we have this chance. Indeed, school teachers and caregivers make sure we know how to identify shapes and colors, not how to name aroma or tastes.

How do you practice wine aroma identification?

Leave me a comment.


The Proust Effect: The Senses as Doorways to Lost Memories Cretien van Campen

Categories: Tasting education, wine aroma

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Isabelle Lesschaeve

Principal, Blog author, and Wine Tasting Coach

Internationally renowned wine sensory scientist, Isabelle demystifies wine tasting and helps serious wine lovers sharpen their tasting skills and tasting notes in a supportive community.

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