How to use an aroma wheel and a wine journal to hone your wine tasting skills
We here at Heringer Estates are avid wine tasters. Each month our team gathers to dine and taste all the future new releases before anybody else. And boy do we get into it. But what sets us apart from other wine professionals is that we understand fully that a wine might smell and taste completely different from person to person – and that’s okay! So although we are very enthusiastic about what we taste, we are all about helping you find what you love and learn why you love it.
First of all, we didn’t all start out as wine professionals. So there is a definite learning curve when starting out. Luckily, there are some really great tools that we use to help us hone our tasting skills and get better at doing what we do.
Have you ever heard, smelled or tasted something and it struck a very familiar cord but you just couldn’t place what it reminded you of? This is where the aroma wheel kicks in! It is a fantastic guide when trying out a new wine.
Usage Rules: there are no rules. Most commonly, tasters work from the inside out. Say, you smell a wine and you know you smell something very fruity but you can’t pinpoint what it is. Bust out your aroma wheel and jump to the fruity category in the center. Then use the following spokes to guide your questions. Is it citrus, berry, more tropical fruit? Or is it more of a dried fruit you’re detecting? Once you determine the main fruit type (i.e., “I’m definitely sensing some variety of fresh berry…”), then you can break it down further (i.e., “it’s smells just like a strawberry!”).
You can also go from the outside in to determine what component of the aroma is catching your attention. You might think a wine smells immediately like honey. That’s very specific. But you can back track to the more general category (in this case caramel) and see if you also smell caramel or some of the other aromas in the same category like molasses, butterscotch or chocolate. And who wouldn’t want to be smelling all that?
There are some rather specific and strange aromas on the wheel that you may never have thought of finding in a wine before, but you’d be surprised what you start discovering the more you train your nose and use the wheel as a guide.
Back up! What is the first thing you notice about a wine when it is poured into your glass? Although the aroma wheel is an excellent instrument to train your nose when wine tasting, the most important tool is the tasting journal where you can record each wine you experience. It is a great way to keep track of all the wines you’ve loved (or hated) and what aspects of the wine were most memorable.
We start with color. Is it see-through clear, more straw-colored or does it have a golden or even copper tone to it? Is it a rich, bright red, or a deeper maroon? Get as specific as you want.
Then, use your aroma wheel to help you define the full bouquet of the wine (much like a bouquet of flowers, wine can have a great composition of aromas). It’s determining those individual flavors that can be an interesting challenge.
Next we taste! As we explore a wine’s profile we focus on 5 main aspects: Fruit, Body, Tannin, Acidity and Alcohol.
Fruit: So you smelled a lot of fruit but can you taste it? You’d be surprised at how often wines don’t taste like the fruit you smelled or strongly taste like a different type of fruit.
- Body: You hear people talk about “big” wines but what does this really mean? Does the wine seem to fill our mouth with flavor? How long does the wine linger after a sip? The more encompassing a wine feels the “bigger” or fuller the body tends to be.
- Tannin: This one can be tricky. Tannins are usually attributed to the bitterness of a wine but they are oftentimes responsible for a wine’s balance and complexity. How much does the wine seem to dry out your tongue? Does the sensation remind you of what it feels like when you have very dark chocolate or strong black tea? These are usually good indicators of the level of tannin in a wine.
- Acidity: Much like a hint of lime over a dish can give it that extra something that makes it stellar, so can the right amount of acidity affect a wine. Pay attention to the amount of “zing” or zest you notice as that typically indicates the acidity of a wine.
- Alcohol: This is sometimes described as the “heat” of a wine. The alcohol level is usually stated right on the bottle but if you like to test the accuracy of your palate, take a sip and focus on the feeling as it hits that back of your throat. Does it feel hot. Or is it smooth? The hotter it feels, the higher the alcohol content.
Use the “extra notes” section to explain how it progresses on your palate. Does it delight or disappoint? Do the flavors differ greatly from its aroma? Does it start out very fruitful but suddenly finish with a full-bodied complexity you weren’t expecting? Enjoy the process and challenge yourself to find nuances as you learn more about different wines and your preferences. Use these tools as a starting point and as a way to help hone your skills. But don’t let a lack of experience hold you back. Because at the end of the day, finding out that you really love a wine is far more important than pinpointing the subtleties of the aromas and flavors. But it sure is fun!
~Written by Mariana Seda