By Greg Masinton
Wine Consultant and Club Carboy Manager

The whole idea behind a sensory wine tasting is to explore sights, aromas, and flavors of wine beyond just the simple look, smell and sip of casual wine drinking. In sensory tastings, the goal is to actually compare and contrast what you experience in the wine with what is in nature.

How do you do that? You need to get things to compare. That’s how we learn. The best way to know if there is the essence of vanilla in your wine is to compare what’s in the wine with actual vanilla. Smell some vanilla. Smell some wine and taste some wine. Did you get the vanilla? What else? Our senses are powerful and can identify thousands of smells and tastes. To break it all down and learn how to focus on specific elements of wine, you need to experiment and practice finding your way through the maze of your senses.

What you need

For a proper sensory tasting experience, you need to go out and collect some elements from nature – and your local grocery store. Read any description of a wine and you probably find references to different fruits, berries, woods, and other elements. Your goal is to collect them.  

For those do-it-yourselfers out there, here is a basic list of products you need to make it happen. This can seem a bit overwhelming, but I’m betting you already have some of these around the house, more than a few on your weekly shopping list, and the rest can be had with some simple scavenging around town.

Fruit and Berries

Apple, Apricot, Banana, Blackberries, Cherries, Figs, Grapefruit, Lemon, Lime, Melon, Orange, Peach, Pear, Plum, Raspberries, Strawberries

Nuts and Dairy

Butter, Cream, Bread, Toasted nuts (almonds)

Floral. Mineral and Herbs

Mint, Red Rose, Asparagus, Green Pepper, Earth, Stones

Sweet, Spicy and Savory

Chocolate, Toffee, Honey, Vanilla, Oak, Cedar, Tobacco, Black Pepper, Cinnamon, Ground coffee, Leather, Cooked Bacon, Mushrooms, Star Anise or Liquorice

If you don’t want to go through the work of collecting smells, you can always dop some dough anbd buy an aroma tasting kit like this one:

They’re expensive and oils tend to have trouble being shipped to higher elevations, but they work and will last you a long time.

Next, you’ll need a whole lot of glassware. Why? First, for the wine. Second, for all these groceries. Can’t you just put these things in plastic bags? Sure, if you want. I’m not here to tell you how to live. Lots of people collect these elements for sensory tastings and put them on plates or in mason jars or zipper bags. But our brains have a big problem. You see, our senses are designed to work together and to make it easy for our brains to figure things out. The raw data in the world is too complex for our brains, so we take shortcuts known as familiarity.

Simply put, when you hold up a glass of wine, your hands, arms, and eyes try to make it easy on your brain by telling it to prepare to experience a glass of wine. But you’re not trying to experience a glass of wine, are you? You’re trying to note sensory elements in the wine. You’re trying to find the cherry, leather, and smoke in the wine. So, we have to train our brains to stop taking shortcuts.

By putting these elements in wine glasses, you start to teach your brain to expect different things when you lift a glass to your nose, sniff – or really, what not to expect. You’re getting your brain used to lifting a wine glass and noticing the sights and smells that are in the glass, not what is expected and familiar. Not the shortcut. The more you do that, the more your brain will be ready to experience what is really happening.

Of course, you should have proper wine glasses for the different wines, but let’s not go there now. The right glass can affect the smell and flavor of wine immensely. But. for our purposes, just get similar, consistent glasses. If you don’t have that many – and who does – you can buy them pretty cheap, find a rental shop, or make each of your guests bring four, or six, or eight. Whatever is necessary.

What wines to get

Get good wine, but more importantly, get wines that are representative of their nature and that have more prominent characteristics. Yes, you want to enjoy drinking them, but you want to be able to pick the smells, too. So, no blends yet, and no boutique wines from out of the way regions. Stick with the big boys for now.

Sauvignon Blanc – Marlborough, New Zealand
Chardonnay – Napa Valley, California
Riesling – Germany
Prosecco – Italy
Pinot Noir – Burgundy, France
Merlot – Bordeaux, France
Tempranillo – Rioja, Spain
Cabernet Sauvignon – Chile
Zinfandel – Central Coast, California
Malbec – Mendoza, Argentina

Ideally, you would research and pick wines that are known to have specific qualities, then put those theories to the test. For example, pick a Malbec that is famous for its smoke and tobacco essence. Then, you know what to look for. However, the more adventurous will just pick wines and try to discover the qualities through the sensory process. It’s your call.

The Process

So, that’s ten wines and forty smells. The rest is in the mix. Invite your friends over, set out the glassware, arrange the sensory elements, pop some corks, and start experimenting. An easy one to start with is the Napa Valley Chardonnay. Most will display lemon, honey, vanilla, stone, and pear. So, put those together and explore. New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc will go with peach, grapefruit, lime, green pepper and almonds. These are the easy ones, but explore and see what you can discover.

Start with the wine. Experience the sight and smells. Then grab the sensory elements. Give one a smell, then go back to the wine. See if you can track the qualities. Sniff and sip. But take it slow. Your nose and taste buds get easily overwhelmed. A couple deep breaths when sampling smells and you’re ruined for about 5 minutes. So, relax. Have some bread or water crackers. Talk and share notes and stories. It is a party, after all.  

Last, but not least, be flexible and creative. There is no wrong answer. Every wine is different, and every person experiences something different simply because we all pull from different memories. Can you explain the smell of a lemon? No. But you know what it is, and everyone has their specific and personal knowledge of it. What you might smell and register as a black cherry, others might conjure thoughts of Jolly Ranchers or grandma’s preserves. Someone gets smoke and tobacco. You get campfire and dad’s cigar. It’s awesome and will enhance your love of wine more than any other practice.

Note: Carboy Winery is now offering private tastings – including sensory tastings – at our tasting room in Littleton, Colorado. Contact us to inquire and to schedule.