The number of wine clubs in India are proliferating like, well, bubbles in champagne. It is no longer enough to swirl, sip and swallow your Chardonnay or Merlot. In order to be a bonafide member of, say, the Delhi Wine Club, you need to sniff into your wineglass and spout berry-ripe stuff about blackcurrant on the nose and “ripe fruit notes” of raspberries and cherries.
Which is all very well, except that very few of us in India have smelled a blackcurrant, or for that matter, truffles, violets, hazelnut, licorice, or any of these flavours that are supposed to suffuse a wine. How then to sound knowledgeable about this nectar of Dionysius without sounding like a stuffy pompous corker? Enter the nose.
For wine tasting, the tongue is not the only important organ—the nose also plays a vital role. Some of the world’s leading wine tasters—like Katsuyuki Tanaka of Japan—are teetotallers. They rely on smell to differentiate the tasting notes—paradoxical as that seems.
In India, so caught up are we with the noise and colour of our surroundings that we barely smell. In fact, we go to great lengths not to smell—on trains or while walking through streets. This may be wise for a flaneur strolling through Indian streets, but is a mistake when it comes wine. In order to properly enjoy wine, we need to be able to recognize olfactory layers. We need to develop our scent memories in other words.
Philippe Starck, the designer, once said that the Juicy Salif lemon squeezer that he designed wasn’t a mere juicer; it was a conversational opener. With its spidery legs and unusual shape, it was functionally useless, but as Starck said, served to open conversation. Function was irrelevant when form was so interesting. Wine is like this. It isn’t simply a drink; it is an invitation. It is a way to show off; to impress; to get a date, or even a proposal of marriage.
I once went to a fancy New York City restaurant with the man I fancied. We had barely sat down when a snooty-looking sommelier presented him with a wine list the size of a dictionary. The man looked through the Burgundy wines and asked if they had a particular Domaine.
The sommelier’s eyes widened. He said that they didn’t have wine from that particular village, but owned bottles from adjoining villages. The man asked for a sample bottle. Two sommeliers showed up with a bottle.
The man examined the bottle and said that it was a poor vintage. They brought a different vintage, opened it respectfully. The man swirled and sniffed and pronounced it corked. By this time, the chef walked out from the kitchen as did the maître d’. We had a whole cast of people hovering around us. Finally, after much iteration, my date chose a wine and it was divine.
This then is the power of your nose. A scent memory helps you recognize varietals and vintages, of course. More importantly, it helps you impress dates. It makes you unforgettable.
Even though the terminology occasionally becomes pretentious—does a wine really smell of wet shoes and tar?—wine tasting is a learnable skill. Millions of sommeliers worldwide will attest to this.
To pass the rigorous Master of Wine exam, you need to do a series of blind-tastings (drink wines without knowing their provenance, varietal or vintage) and come up with accurate answers such as, “This is a 2011 vintage from Rioja, Spain. The scent of blueberry pie makes me believe that this wine is from the Artadi winery: Viña El Pison to be accurate.” Name of varietal, vintage, location and winery. How much more GPS targeted can you get?
For a casual, if passionate, consumer of wine, a base level would be to recognize the varietals (chardonnay, merlot, cabernet sauvignon) and to tell if a wine has gone bad.
Smell is arguably the most ancient of senses. The average human can discern 3,000 to 10,000 distinct scents. Over the years, we become lazy smellers, unable to recognize and categorize, let alone articulate what we smell. Wine tasting is a good way to develop your nose.
The Aromaster kit is about as niche a product as you can get. It is not for casual wine quaffers who don’t care about smell or taste. They merely want to get buzzed. This kit is geared towards serious wine drinkers: people who join clubs, collect wine, and make pilgrimages to wine regions.
The kit comes in a dramatic square box. Inside are 88 colour-coded bottles placed in lines. Each bottle contains a fragrance that is intrinsic to wine. Some are floral: orange blossom, honeysuckle, jasmine, lavender. Others are vegetal: capsicum, cut grass, mint, tobacco. There are fruits: blackberry, guava, passionfruit.
And then there are substances unique to wine. Open a bottle and smell tar, or smoke. If you have wondered why “minerally” wines are described as “flinty”, try the bottle labelled flint. Ditto with iodine or cedar.
The shock is in the smelling. Open one of those tiny vials and sniff. A typical response is, “Hey, I know this smell. What is it? What is it?” Your memory struggles to place the scent. This is the stuff of party games. Get a group of wine-loving friends around the table and get them to smell the vials labelled gooseberries while tasting a New Zealand sauvignon blanc. Or get your kids to sniff the bottle labelled strawberries or caramel. It will calm them down immediately, and make them giggle.
Linking the smell in that tiny vial with the one in a glass of wine is the endgame. It is not easy. It is one thing to have an unadulterated whiff of licorice. It is quite another to spot the layer of licorice in that Malbec you are drinking.
There is booklet that is broadly based on the aroma wheel, developed by oenologist Ann Noble. It lists all the fragrances within wine along with beautiful illustrations. There is enough equipment in the box, in other words, to teach you about all the scents held in a wine bottle. The fact that it comes at a price that will give you bottle-shock is another matter.
Perhaps the most useful part of the product is learning the smells of the wine gone bad: the vials containing vinegar, nail polish remover and rubber. Once you smell these, it is hard to remove the memory from your head. The next time a fancy sommelier tries to palm off an old bottle with wine got bad, you can say with confidence that it is “corked”, and demand a replacement.
An unanticipated negative is that once you learn how to smell, it is hard to switch off. You will learn to pay attention to all those smells emanating from within a crowded bus, whether you want to or not. The old Indian trick of forcing your nose to shut off when you get on a train will be harder to do once this organ is activated through this box.
Too much smelling of the concentrated scents in the vials can give you a headache. This is a product that, like wine, is to be savoured.
Available online and shipped worldwide.
At €310.00, this is an expensive way to learn how to smell. It is definitely cheaper to smell capsicum au naturale than in a bottle. The question is will you do so, and if you will, why haven’t you done so already? Why haven’t you become an expert sniffer of smells? Spending this money will force you to pay attention to scents of wine.
Learning about aromas will give you a blueprint of how to think about the flavours within wine. It will teach you regions where different varietals grow and how to distinguish their aromas. It showed me how blackcurrants—that all important scent in a Cabernet Sauvignon—smelled.
Put it this way: it is cheaper than buying an airline ticket to France.
Disclosure: this product was loaned for purposes of this review.