Wine View: The nose knows when it comes to wine and whisky

The sense of smell is what makes the difference in a wine tasting, says our Wine View columnist Jacqueline Corrigan. Photo by Laura Peruchi on Unsplash.


Nothing takes you back to a moment in time so quickly, automatically and completely as your sense of smell. It is primal and instinctive. It can dictate our mood, happy, sad, relaxed, excited.

It is the one sense that is most closely linked to our memory.

Smell is a silent invisible force. It’s our internal GPS system. It can provide us with clues without any other sense coming into play. Your mind’s eye is instantly able to visualize, recall a place, a time, a person, a sound, an experience.

It can also signal “danger Will Robinson, danger”. It can save your life in the middle of night while sleeping. You don’t need to see fire to know something is burning.

Part of the exam to being a sommelier is blind tastings. This means that you know absolutely nothing about the wines and or spirits that are in the glasses other than their colour.

For wine you are required to identify the grape variety, region and country of origin, vintage year and does it have ageability.

People think that it is by tasting that you are able to identify but alas ‘tis not. When doing blind tastings the most important sense is smell. First you look at the colour, then smell, and last is taste.

It is in nosing the wine that you are given the major clues as to the grape variety.

Tasting last is only to confirm or not what it is that you have just smelled. If you can’t smell it then you can’t taste it!

I often do an exercise to show the importance of our sense of smell. Four glasses are filled with a gold colour liquid. Each glass has a different spirit. One has whisky, another an orange liqueur, a rum and a brandy.The objective is to identify the whisky.

Your eyes tell you that they must all be the same but it is upon nosing that you discover they are completely different, one from the next. You don’t taste them. You simply sniff.

Perhaps you have experience with the scent of orange or maybe you are familiar with caramel and can pick out the rum. By process of elimination you can whittle your way to the whisky.

This is a simple example of testing your sense of smell. I have been known to throw in a clear spirit as whisky is clear when first distilled. It is through barrel aging that it gains its colour.

This often confuses people and suddenly they are really tested to rely on and trust what their nose is telling them. Do they believe me or am I tricking them?

As a perfumer catalogues thousands of scents in their mind so too does a sommelier, able to retrieve and identify for instance a barolo from a barbaresco (both are nebbiolo varietal), or a shiraz from syrah. Same grape variety but subtle differences.

Like anything, the more you practice the better you get!

“Smell is a potent wizard that transports us across thousands of miles and all the years we have lived.”

— Helen Keller

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