As someone who makes a living drinking and writing about wine and other potables, I’m expected to have a pretty sophisticated palate. I like to think I do. Taste is, like, 85% smell and I have a nose like a hound (I once detected what was in a friend’s freezer by smelling one of his ice cubes). But could I pick out the mulberry note in a glass of Bordeaux? Well, maybe.
When describing wine, I tend to use broad strokes. I’ll say it tastes of red fruit or dark fruit, as opposed to cherries or plums; or use the word “herbaceous” instead of specifically labeling it tarragon. I hope that by being less specific, readers will be less freaked out if they don’t taste exactly what I do. (And, OK, maybe I also want to avoid making a mistake.) But what if we all tasted and smelled the same things in wine?
Some 30-odd years ago, a man set out to create a tool to help people taste the same way – or, at least, help them describe aromas using a common vernacular. Jean Lenoir, a professional wine taster and teacher from Burgundy, was known to collect smells. He spent about a year buying vials of vanilla and almond extract from the baking sections of supermarkets and bottling other smells commonly found in wine. Eventually, with some 400 aromas amassed and catalogued, he developed the first Nez du Vin kit.
Nowadays, you can purchase Le Nez du Vin’s Master Kit starting at $399. It features 54 aroma vials divided into categories like fruit, floral, vegetal, animal and grilled. The kit comes with flash cards and an instruction manual. It’s designed to help people learn how to better recognize and express what they’re tasting in a glass of wine.
Isn’t taste supposed to be subjective? you may be asking yourself. Well, yes. But the chemical composition of a wine is rather rigid. A wine is comprised of specific compounds, each of which corresponds to a given aroma. Take ethyl acetate, for example: it’s one of the compounds associated with the smell of strawberries. A wine containing this compound may very well, then, smell of strawberries. A wine containing 4-ethylguaiacol, conversely, might smell of smoke or bacon or spice.
“Smells are the same as colors,” says Sebastien Gavillet, the chief wine office at Wine Aromas, the exclusive distributor of Le Nez du Vin. “A red car is a red car. The red might be different from one person to another, but if you learn your colors you know red.”
So, how can the kits be useful in real life? Well, being able to detect hints of violet in a glass of Gamay may not seem like a very practical skill. But if you’re looking improve not only your wine tasting, but also your wine ordering aptitude, Le Nez du Vin is invaluable.
There are certain smell combinations that are commonly associated with specific grape varietals and wine regions, for one. Get to know a couple of the aroma combinations you tend to like — raspberry, blackcurrant, cherry, violet and licorice for Pinot Noir, say — and notice your ears perk up the next time a sommelier mentions them when describing a wine. These are the words the pros use, after all. Le Nez du Vin allows anyone to crack the code and improve his command of the language of wine.
“People confuse strawberry and raspberry, for example,” explains Gavillet. “But if you want to become an excellent wine taster, that doesn’t work. You can only find strawberry in maybe three or four grape varietals, but raspberry is in almost every red wine. If you think it’s strawberry and it’s really raspberry, you could be making a huge mistake.”
He says that everyone from master sommeliers to restaurant owners to people who are just crazy about wine have bought Le Nez du Vin. One of the top sellers is the “faults” kit, which features aromas you might find in a wine that’s corked or otherwise faulty (such as rotten apple, rotten egg and cauliflower). Pretty much every winemaker has one, he asserts, and it’s now mandatory for students at UC Davis’ winemaking school. Other specialty kits includes Le Nez du Vin Rosé, Armagnac and Coffee.
“It’s like a memory game,” says Gavillet. “Even I like to keep five or six aromas on my desk; I smell them regularly just to stay sharp. It’s really about practice. You never close the kit and put it away for good. Some people can, but most of us have to keep going back again and again. It’s an ongoing education.”
Kits are available at makescentsofwine.com. Prices vary.
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