When you eat or drink anything, your sense of smell is what helps your brain comprehend what you are tasting. Olfactory sensors in your nasal cavity paired with your taste buds work together to send flavor information to your brain when you eat and drink. Have you noticed when you have a cold, you can’t taste things as well? Or if you eat food with your nose plugged? (Not sure how often the second one happens, but give it a try and you’ll notice the difference.) When your sense of smell is compromised, your tasting experience is dulled, this is especially important when smelling wine.

So what does this have to do with wine? It reinforces the importance of smelling your wine, both before and while drinking.

Giving the wine a good whiff before sipping will help your brain begin to put together the flavor profile of what you are about to enjoy. And lucky for you, the practice and exercise of smelling wine is good for your brain! A study by the Cleveland Clinic found that using the part of your brain that houses olfactory memory helps to keep your mind sharp and prevents neurodegenerative diseases like Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s and dementia.

When smelling wine, there are three layers of scents that you can identify – Primary, secondary and tertiary.

PRIMARY

Primary aromas are scents you should detect first when smelling wine, hence the name “primary.” These aromas come from the grapes themselves. Many red wines will smell like red and black fruits, while white wines will show tropical fruits, tree fruits or citrus aromas. Here is a fancy chart to better outline these aromas and which Oregon varieties display each type of fruit.

Aroma
Fruit ExamplesOregon Examples
Black fruitsBlueberry, blackberry, black cherryPinot Noir
Red fruitsRaspberry, strawberry, red plumPinot Noir, Rosé
Tropical fruitsMango, pineapple, starfruitRiesling, Chardonnay
Tree fruitsApple, pear, apricotChardonnay, Riesling, Pinot Gris
CitrusLemon, grapefruit, blood orangeRiesling, Pinot Gris

Don’t get down on yourself if the first thing you smell in your wine is “grapes.” That’s not wrong. Wine is made from grapes. Swirl the wine around the glass, inhale away from the glass and smell again. Sniff a few times until you can start to pick up on a few other fruit aromas.

Herbal and floral notes are also classified as primary aromas. Herbal notes can be anything from green peppers to sage to black tea. And floral notes can be, well, any flower you can imagine. Common floral notes are rose, lavender, and violet.

SECONDARY

If you’ve listened to anyone talk about smelling wine, you might have heard the words “aroma” and “bouquet” used interchangeably. But they aren’t always describing the same thing. Aromas describe the primary scents in wine, i.e. fruits, herbs and flowers. A wine’s “bouquet” is actually describing the wine’s secondary scents. These come from the fermentation process that happens when the added yeast eats the sugars and creates ethanol (alcohol) as a byproduct.

Common secondary aromas (or wine bouquets) can be scents associated with yeast like freshly baked bread and beer, fermented dairy like yogurt and buttermilk, or earthy aromas like crushed rocks, petroleum, mushrooms or potting soil.

TERTIARY

The final layer of a wine’s scent is derived from aging or exposure to oxygen. The most common tertiary aromas come from aging wine in oak. This produces notes of vanilla, butterscotch, toasted marshmallow, tobacco or baking spices.

Tertiary aromas can also help let you know if a wine is passed its prime. These aromas won’t be as pleasant – wet newspaper or cardboard, bandaids, nail polish remover. It may be hard to imagine wine smelling like that, but once you’ve smelled it once, you will never forget.   

SUMMARY

In the process of tasting wine, (look, smell, taste and conclude) smell is probably the most important. It warms up your mind for what you are about to taste, as well as activates a part of your brain that doesn’t get much action otherwise.

And remember, there are no wrong answers. It is worth noting that the brain can only pinpoint aromas you’ve already experienced. Aka, you can’t identify a smell you’ve never smelt before. So a group of people can be sniffing the same wine and pick entirely different aromas, and they can all be right.

So next time you are at the grocery store, farmers market, a meadow full of flowers, get your nose in there and sniff away! Your wine tasting skills will thank you.