The Art of Smelling

Something often overlooked in tasting books or even tasting classes is basic instruction on how best to pick up a glass of wine and, for lack of a better term, address it. Further, the value of discovering the best angle to hold the glass and smelling techniques to get the most out of a wine’s aromas is not often emphasized enough. This post covers all that and more. I include the concept of eye positions as it relates to smelling wine, specifically the need to discover one’s starting eye position and how critical it is to becoming a consistent taster. While the subject of eye positions may be new to you, behavioral scientists have known about their importance vis a vis language patterns and sensory memory for some time. With all that, read on and discover!

Sometimes I think the process of smelling and tasting wine is a lot like playing golf. Both are very complex sequences that involve the use of multiple senses to process a great deal of information in the moment all to achieve a single goal. To point, addressing the golf ball consistently before making a shot in golf is probably the single most important factor for success in the game. Likewise, consistency in technique when picking up a glass to smell wine is incredibly important. I call the process “glassware stance.” Here’s a breakdown of the essential steps.  

The Angle of the Glass
Every wine glass has a “best angle” or sweet spot for smelling wine—the angle where the aromatics can be most easily perceived and recognized. To find the best angle, start by placing the glass vertically just underneath your nose and slowly tilt the glass up. Don’t go too far! You’ll inhale the wine. At some point, when the angle of the glass is between 45 and 50 degrees, the aromas of the glass will begin to “sing” and be easy to detect. It’s important to note that different kinds/shapes of glasses (Bordeaux vs. Burgundy stems) have different “best angles.” Remember to check for this every time you pick up a different glass.

Smelling Techniques
Practically every source on tasting I’ve ever read suggests smelling wine using several short and gentle sniffs. I completely agree. The opposite—smelling wine with one prolonged intense hoover/inhalation–is anything but effective. For one, the alcohol in the wine can quickly overwhelm your sense of smell. I call that carpal nasal. It’s also a bit awkward.

Passive vs. Active Inhalation
Most of the human race smells wine by placing the lip of the glass directly on the upper lip just beneath the nose, then sniffing. I call this passive inhalation as it relies almost entirely on orthonasal smelling or, technically speaking, detecting the volatile compounds (aromatics) in a wine by inhaling through the nasal passages. For the record, this doesn’t work for me. It quickly overwhelms my sense of smell. Instead, I use a technique I learned at a Cognac master class decades ago. I call it “active inhalation.”

For the rest of the steps, and go deeper, please check out this post. This post is re-printed here with permission. 

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