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Can a Wine Be Judged on Smell Alone?

Sommeliers report that more people are approving wine by smell, not taste

Leyden Pavlova By April 29, 2022
woman smelling wine in a rose garden
Illustration by Peter Ryan

Working in wine means always being one drink away from an eye roll or a cliché. Techniques like swirling wine in a glass can turn cartoonish when misunderstood. That’s one reason why industry people are always vigilant for pretension in wine, especially those that might turn into trends.

Last spring, while at a hip wine bar in New Orleans, the manager of a restaurant with a more classical Old World wine program looked over the wine list at the bar and predicted, half tongue-in-cheek, “I think Grolleau is the new Beaujolais.”

Sure enough, that summer Grolleau began popping up on wine lists all over the city.

This year, the radar picked up something else. More and more people are ordering wine and approving bottles with a brief swirl, sniff, and a head nod.

Suddenly, everyone is smelling.

Why they’re doing it

Proofing bottles by smell alone is a common industry practice, though wine professionals are divided on the issue. Its purpose is to check for flaws: “Is this wine correct?” rather than, “Do I like this wine?” 

But can a wine be judged by nose alone? 

“Most of the time, yes,” says Mark Andrew, co-founder of London’s Noble Rot restaurant and wine bar, “Though there are exceptions and gray areas.” 

Haley Moore, sommelier and founder of Acquire Wine in San Francisco, associates smell only with a certain level of wine education, recalling her experience coming up in the industry and seeing other wine professionals just smell and approve bottles. 

Morgan LaCroix, beverage director and sommelier at Twin Farms in Vermont, agrees. In certain contexts, she will approve bottles without tasting, such as when she is already familiar with a wine, or when evaluating screw-capped bottles.

“I’ve absolutely done it myself but there’s this hubris of just smelling it,” she says.

Sniffing out faults

In his 2018 book “Flawless: Understanding Faults in Wine,” author Jamie Goode explains 14 distinct wine faults. While he describes some faults, such as cork taint, as never desirable, Goode also believes that subtle flaws enhance beauty. 

“The most attractive, compelling wines are those that have elements of their character that if they were in a different context, or present at higher levels, might be considered faulty. It all depends on the wine, the context, and the consumer,” he writes.

Some flaws, like mousiness — the flavor or aroma of mouse cages — are not detectable on the nose. This flaw only appears on the palate after a few seconds in the mouth. The aroma becomes evident through retronasal smell, as saliva acidity raises the pH of the wine.

Additionally, explains LaCroix, it’s possible to pick up temporary flaws on the nose that will not manifest on the palate. Some examples are reduction, or the smell of matchsticks from sulfur compounds, common in white Burgundy, or volatile acidity, which is common in Nebbiolo. Moreover, when wines are past their prime, many still have a very pretty nose while the palate is gone. LaCroix holds up a bottle of 1997 Domaine de Trévallon Marsanne as an example of a wine that retained its bouquet but was completely oxidized on the palate.

“I think it’s very much a case of you can’t judge a book by its cover, cover being the nose,” she says.

Wine importer Debra Lewis, who has traveled the world drinking great wine, has no qualms with the ritual of tasting. “I always taste,” she says. “It’s there. Why wouldn’t I?” She explains that cork taint is not always detectable on the nose, and that even screw caps and compound closures can have flaws. 

“I’ve had corked water!” she says, but agrees that if it’s a wine she knows well, she can more often tell by smell alone. She maintains, however, that tasting is important to “feel it and know it.”

An unsound cork can be a key indicator that a wine wasn’t stored properly. Judging the wine by the cork can sometimes be misleading, however; mold or discoloration can cause people to erroneously assume the wine is bad.

Andrew views the smelling and presentation of the cork as generally superfluous. “Regardless of what you detect on the cork, you’re going to need to go to the glass to corroborate that anyway,” he says, “so that additional step in the protocol to me seems to be a little bit pretentious.”

“It’s much easier to smell something and put it down if you’re not comfortable with that whole process, if you don’t know what you’re tasting for,” explains Lewis. “It’s the easiest way out.” 

The role of the sommelier

At Noble Rot, every bottle is checked by the sommelier before being poured at the table. Mark estimates that 15% to 20% of their clientele completely trust the somm’s judgment and waive their opportunity to taste, “But we try and involve the customer in that process if we can, and I think it’s the right thing to do.”

For LaCroix, the crux of this is the understanding of service. “My job,” she says, “is to make people feel comfortable with this very important but kind of archaic system.” 

Sommeliers recognize that the tasting ritual can feel intimidating, though its purpose is to check the condition of the wine. But lack of clarity on this point, explains Mark, “makes the bigger picture of wine appreciation more difficult to get into a non-pretentious place.”

“It’s much easier to smell something and put it down if you’re not comfortable with that whole process, if you don’t know what you’re tasting for,” explains Lewis. “It’s the easiest way out.” 

LaCroix can relate. Even when she is the most qualified person in the room, she sometimes dislikes the pressure of approving wine for the table. Besides, when people are having dinner, they might not want to be put on the spot. They want to enjoy themselves. Tasting, especially when multiple bottles are involved, can interrupt the flow. But bottle variation does occur, Lewis explains, and the tasting ritual is an opportunity to have a real conversation with an expert. 

Andrew says occasionally the sommelier and customer may have a difference of opinion, like the premature oxidation of wines from Burgundy. “It might be that somebody thinks that the wine is in a worse state than we do, and if there’s a sensible conversation on that then we’ll almost always defer to the customer.”

But, ideally, when a somm makes recommendations, she can impart knowledge about vintages, producers, and techniques, illuminating things about the wine. “Once that wine is poured,” says Lewis, “you’ve missed your chance.”

At the highest level, wine enjoyment is subjective. The best way to judge any wine is by drinking it. Though a swirl and a sniff may look like expertise in action, the point of wine is pleasure. To maximize this, bring all five senses to the table.