Wine “tastings” are the most common way people find the wines they like. But “tasting” is not what really leads one to his choice of wine. There are only five tastes - salty, sour, bitter, sweet and savory - which do not begin to explain the complexity of wines. No, the important element is smell, not taste, in discerning different wines. In contrast to the limited range of taste, there is an almost endless variety of smells.

There is a time honored way to “taste” a wine. You carefully pour a bit of wine in the glass, swish it around, stare at the “legs” or moisture left on the sides of the glass as the liquid falls to the bottom, sniff the contents, sip it, swish it around in your mouth and then spit it out since you do not want to overload on wine too soon. While all of this has a reason, the “legs” tell alot about the substance of the wine, light wines leave little and heavier wines leave lots, swishing it around your mouth allows the wine to fill your palate, and so on, the crucial test is the smell when you sniff the wine.

Why the smell? Easy, as I have said you have an almost infinite range of smells to attribute to the wine. And even more important, the smell is what tells your brain the difference between one wine and another. I can differentiate between truly great wine and good wine from the smell alone. I can also spot bad wine from the smell alone, thus saving my stomach from unpleasant surprises. Really expert wine people can tell everything about a wine from the smell alone.

So why taste the wine? This is to confirm your general impressions of the wine and insure that your sense of smell is not deceiving you. To sum it up, your nose will tell what wine you want to drink, your taste will confirm your decision.

How many elements can you smell in a wine? In presenting wines to groups I use the same terms familiar to anyone who has attended a wine seance - fruity, fresh, aged, oaked, plum, cherry, citron, grass, vanilla, cinnamon, leather, tobacco and more. All of these are smells , not tastes. I go on to point out that, no matter what aromas they may sense, the wines being presented are made only from grapes. Yes, there are wines made from other fruits, but I only deal in grape wines.

I remember once being on a buying trip with a group of wine merchants from the USA touring some wineries in Spain courtesy of the wine makers. Here we were on an all expense paid trip to Spain where we went from one winery to another drinking great wine and eating fantastic food. Tough job but someone has to do it.

We stopped in the town of Rueda where we met with some dozen wine makers. After a briefing the dozen or so of we wine importers went one maker to another’s exhibit sampling their wines. Rueda specializes in white wine so almost all the wine offered was white made from two grapes used there, the Viura and the Verdejo. I smelled and then tasted one wine which I immediately said smelled and tasted of bananas. Knowing that I was the “newcomer” to the business, all the other importers immediately began to explain that what I smelled and tasted had nothing to do with bananas. They went on to say that I was influenced by the barrels used to store the wine or other factors.

I bought the wine and imported it into the USA where I dubbed it the “banana” wine. My staff and all our clients used to smile about my mistake. However, while writing sample notes to put on the bottle for its presentation at a wine show I reread the notes from the winery. The winery said, “while we use traditional methods to produce our wine, we also incorporate some new techniques. For example we use banana yeast.” There it was, they used “banana” yeast to ferment the wine and I had detected this subtle note. I was correct in my initial and continuing impression of the wine. From then on no one questioned my ability to determine the quality and characteristics of wine. I subsequently learned that the “banana” yeast was not made from bananas, but when used to ferment wines, produced a banana aroma.

So in finding your wine of choice, follow your nose.