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How to Make Your Own Wine Aroma Study Kit

Get better at identifying what you smell in wines. Create an inexpensive set of aroma standards using common supermarket items

Gloria Maroti Frazee
Posted: May 21, 2010

When it comes to evaluating wine, your sense of smell is most important. Our ability to detect aromas is much more acute than our sense of taste, and wines contain thousands of scents and only a handful of tastes. More than 800 different aroma compounds have been identified in wines, making it perhaps the most aromatically complex food or beverage we encounter.

When describing wine, experts will often refer to aromas that include fruits such as lemon, peach and cherry; spices such as nutmeg and black pepper; vegetables or herbs such as green pepper and mint; and non-foods such as tobacco or smoke. Numerous chemical compounds are responsible for these aromas. Some compounds come from the grapes; most form during fermentation and some develop during maturation.

But what if, when you stick your nose in a glass, all you smell is … wine? How do you get better at identifying all the distinctive aromas that characterize the reds and whites you drink?

When they sniff a wine, experts activate their memory banks, comparing what’s in front of them with aromas they've experienced in the past. You can build your memory bank by carefully concentrating on the aromas you experience day to day, from the contents of your spice rack and refrigerator to the flowers and grass in your yard. You can also purchase a wine aroma kit to help you study.

But it’s easy, cheaper and even more effective to make your own set of aroma standards, using inexpensive wines and items you may already have at home or can pick up at your supermarket. You can enlist your local wine retailer to help you pick out neutral wines to serve as a base.

Once you have experienced known aroma standards in a neutral wine, you will find it easier to identify those aromas when you encounter them in more complex wines.

Supplies

  • One glass for each aroma standard you plan to make
  • One bottle of an inexpensive, neutral white wine such as Pinot Grigio or Colombard is enough to make 10 to 12 white wine aroma standards
  • One bottle of an inexpensive, neutral red wine such as Merlot or Beaujolais is enough to make 10 to 12 red wine aroma standards

Directions

  • Mark each glass so you know which aroma it will contain; write the name of each aroma on a small sticker (the removable kind are best) and label each glass.
  • Pour 2 ounces or 4 tablespoons of wine into each wineglass.
  • Add the indicated amount of each aroma ingredient to its own glass of wine and let it soak for an hour or so.
  • After the hour is up, remove any solid ingredients.
  • Swirl and sniff each glass of wine so you can become familiar with the aroma that has been added to it.
  • Next, test yourself by transferring each sticker to the bottom of its glass where it can’t be read. Then shuffle the glasses. Swirl and sniff the standards. Can you identify any of them?

 

White Wine Aroma Ingredient
Lemon A small portion of fresh lemon peel and one teaspoon lemon juice
Grapefruit A small portion of fresh grapefruit peel and one teaspoon grapefruit juice
Pineapple One teaspoon pineapple juice
Melon A chunk of ripe cantaloupe
Peach A chunk of ripe peach or one tablespoon syrup from canned peaches
Pear A chunk of ripe pear or one tablespoon syrup from canned pears
Green grass Three crushed blades of green grass
Honey One teaspoon honey (stir to dissolve)
Vanilla One drop vanilla extract
Nutmeg A pinch of freshly grated nutmeg
Smokey Oak One drop Liquid Smoke, available in many supermarket spice sections

 

Red Wine Aroma Ingredient
Strawberry Two crushed ripe or frozen strawberries
Strawberry jam One teaspoon of strawberry jam (stir to dissolve)
Cherry Two crushed ripe cherries or a tablespoon of juice from canned cherries
Mint One drop of mint extract or a crushed mint leaf (spearmint or peppermint)
Green Pepper A quarter of a green pepper, diced
Black Pepper A few grains of freshly ground black pepper
Chocolate One teaspoon of powdered cocoa or shaved chocolate
Coffee About 1/8 teaspoon ground coffee
Tobacco One small pinch of cigarette or pipe tobacco
Vanilla One drop vanilla extract
Smokey Oak One drop Liquid Smoke, available in many supermarket spice sections
Matilde Parente
Indian Wells, California, United States —  June 2, 2010 4:15pm ET
A commercial aroma kit I purchased last year was a bust - only about half the vials had identifiable aromas and some were not usable for my seminars. I will try these DIY instead! What are your favorite ingredients for cassis, blackberry and plum?
Gloria Maroti
NY, NY —  June 2, 2010 5:26pm ET
Hi Matilde.

Although kits can be helpful, stability is difficult to achieve and the aromas definitely have sell-by dates. The concentrations can also be an issue. I once worked on a kit with some aroma scientists and we ended up pulling some aromas. One funny story was about the TCA aroma, which is so pungent that we couldn't allow people to carry it on airplanes because, if it leaked, we might be liable for replacing all the upholstery!

> Cassis could be jam, which would be directional, or fresh cassis berries.

> For blackberry, I'd do frozen blackberries (unless it's blackberry season, which is all too fleeting).

> As for plum, there are so many varieties available fresh! I'd go ahead and crush a few ripe varieties together.

Happy sniffing!
Shawn Duriez
Montreal —  March 4, 2011 3:31pm ET
Is it possible to keep the standards afterwards or do they go bad in a matter of hours?

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