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How to Sniff and Taste Your Wine Like a Boss

Rachel Tepper Paley
May 6, 2014

Photo credit: Johner Images/Getty

Relax. Breathe deeply. Let your mind wander. Nope, this isn’t yoga. It’s how you’re supposed to be sniffing—and tasting—your glass of wine.

"Flavor is a combination of aroma, which is perceived through the nose, and taste, which is perceived in the mouth," Wine Spectator's executive editor Thomas Matthews recently explained to us. “Everybody knows that intuitively—if they have a cold and their nose is stuffed up, they can't taste anything!”

In the world of wine, some sniffs are superior to other sniffs, says Matthews. Getting a decent whiff isn’t a difficult skill to master; here are some tips for getting the most flavor out of your wine.

Use the right glass. ”In order to smell wine, you have to have the right tool … the right glass can either magnify aromas or diminish them dramatically,” Matthews said. For example, a Champagne coupe is shallow, which causes aromas to dissipate quickly. If you can only own one wine glass, Matthews recommends a standard tulip glass, which is shaped in a way that helps concentrate a wine’s smell.

Pour yourself the right amount. Too little wine in the glass, and you won’t be able to smell it. Too much, and you won’t be able to swirl the wine without sloshing some right out of the glass. Matthews suggests filling your glass only a third of the way to the rim.

Give it a swirl. When wine is swirled, it travels up the side of the glass and creates a thin layer of liquid that evaporates very quickly, making it easier to smell. “It may look kind of pretentious, but actually it’s a methodology that’s essential,” Matthews stressed.

Position your nose just right. Opinions vary on where it’s best to place one’s honker. Does one stick her whole nose in the glass? Or perhaps keep it hovering a few safe inches above the rim? “I try to put my nose at right about the [rim] of the glass,” offered Matthews. “I feel that way not a lot of aroma is escaping into the air, but I don’t look like a complete idiot with my whole head inside the glass.”

Take a whiff. Again, opinions vary: “Some people believe in short, strong sniffs, and some people believe in one, long sniff,” Matthews said. “I’ve even seen people do one nostril, and then the other,” though he admitted that this last one might elicit stares.

Keep smelling. A great wine’s smell lasts long after the first sip. Here’s why: After you swallow, retronasal passages—airways that connect the nose and the mouth—perceive smells as you exhale. ”The aromas that you sniff before you swallow and the aromas that you perceive after you swallow can be quite different,” Matthews said. Generally, the longer a wine’s finish—the time its aroma lingers—the finer the wine.

Be imaginative! However you choose to sniff your wine, the most important thing is to give your brain free rein. “[Knowing] what you’re smelling is a feat of imagination, of memory, of sensitivity, of day dreaming,” Matthews mused. Sure, picking out notes of cherry or hints of oak can be fun, “but you really have to let your mind wander. Suddenly you’ll think, ‘Oh, strawberries!’ Or [you’ll think of] your grandmother’s ginger cookies. Or your mother’s perfume.”

And don’t let snobby sommeliers intimidate you. Matthews’s general advice is to relax. “Smell is the most primitive sense we have,” he said. “If we just relax and dream over the smell of the wine, it’s amazing the smell and the feelings that can be conjured up—it’s about letting the aromas wash over you and take you somewhere else.”

And isn’t that point of drinking wine anyway?