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Tasting Wine: The Aroma

The experience of tasting a wine is a combination of how it looks, smells and tastes. Some say the nose — or aroma — of a wine can be the most powerful indicator of taste. The aroma can account for 85 percent of a wine's flavor. Smelling a wine is where you'll examine intensity, age, wood, fruit and non-fruit (like spice or earth) characteristics.

As a server or sommelier, it's important to learn the system for smelling wine and what the aroma can reveal about the character and origin of a wine. These steps and the accompanying vocabulary can help you become more comfortable discussing wine and teaching others.

How to Smell Wine

Begin by smelling the wine. Hold the glass just below your nose and give the wine a couple of sniffs to set a baseline. Now, swirl the wine. This aerates the wine, causing it to release aromatic compounds, so it will smell and taste different. Now, take long, slow sniffs, allowing yourself time to take in the different characteristics. Sniffing different areas of the glass will bring forward different aromas, such as rich fruit near the lower lip of the glass, and floral aromas and volatile esters on the upper lip.

First things first: is the wine flawed? If so, you may encounter cork taint, oxidation, volatile acidity, excess sulfur dioxide and more. See more detail on flaws below.

Wine Faults

It's important to know which aspects of a wine's profile and appearance may denote a fault in the wine. Begin by examining the unopened bottle, then proceed from there. Any of the faults listed below will indicate that the bottle may have been compromised and that you should consider opening a new one.

  • Trichloroanisole (TCA) tainted or “corked” wine is caused when treated cork reacts with chlorinated phenols and creates a compound TCA, contaminating the bottle. Corked wine smells like wet dog and soggy cardboard, and can happen in any level of wine, from expensive to low-cost.
  • Reduction is caused when a wine doesn’t have enough oxygen in the bottle. This flaw is characterized by aromas of boiled garlic and cabbage.
  • Oxidation in wine is caused when the wine is exposed to oxygen, and may be characterized by a brown color and a flat taste.
  • UV damage or “light strike” is caused by exposure to sun or supermarket lighting. White wines are particularly vulnerable to this, and it is characterized by a cabbage or wet dog aroma.
  • Heat damage or “cooked” wine has reached temperatures in excess of 82 degrees, and is characterized by flat flavor and a brown hue.
  • Spritz in a non-sparkling wine means that the wine has either not finished fermentation, or is undergoing an unexpected second fermentation in the bottle. When this occurs, the wine may be slightly hazy due to residual yeast particles.

Fruit and Fruit Character

Once you have concluded that the wine is free from faults, or "clean," begin exploring the different fruit aromas present in the wine.

White Wine Fruit

  • Citrus: lemons, limes, oranges, grapefruits, tangerines
  • Tree fruit: green, red or yellow apples; pears; quince
  • Stone fruit: peaches, nectarines, apricots
  • Tropical fruit: pineapples, mangos, papayas, passion fruits, melons

Red Wine Fruit

  • Red fruits: cherries, raspberries, red plums, cranberries, strawberries, pomegranates
  • Blue fruits: blueberries, boysenberries, marionberries
  • Black fruits: blackberries, black cherries, black plums, black currants

Fruit Condition

  • Ripe
  • Tart
  • Baked
  • Cooked / stewed
  • Dried
  • Peels / skin / pith
  • Jammy / preserved

Non-Fruit Aromas

Next, try to isolate the non-fruit aromas. These are generally pleasant odors that add complexity and character to the overall bouquet of the wine.

  • Floral
  • Vegetal
  • Herbal
  • Spice

Earth and Minerals

Finally, isolate the sub-layer of organic and inorganic scents. These smells don't necessarily make you think "food," but each one adds further complexity to the wine, and knowing how to recognize them is essential.


  • Forest floor
  • Compost
  • Mushrooms
  • Barnyard


  • Mineral
  • Limestone
  • Chalk
  • Slate
  • Flint
  • Wet rock

Wood and Spices

Next, let's look at the aromas that are associated with oak aging the wine. Here, scents of vanilla, caramel, mocha or honey — and their intensities — can indicate the kind of oak used, and the relative age and size of the barrel. The variables to be aware of when identifying oak in a wine's bouquet are:

  • Baking spices (vanilla, cinnamon, clove)
  • Sawdust, dill, coconut
  • Age (old vs. new)
  • Char (toast and smoke)
  • Barrel indicators (French, American, small or large)

What's Noble Rot?

Trust us, it's a good thing. Every year, under the right conditions, the parasitic fungus known as Botrytis Cinerea infects the skin of grapes, producing dried, sweetened fruit high in sugars — and this creates famed wines such as Sauternes and Tokaji Aszu, among others. Under these unique conditions in a few lucky vineyards, Botrytis Cinerea is known by a special name — ”noble rot.”