Quick! What is one of the most sensual, aromatic products in the world, right up there with exquisite perfume and exotic flowers? Wine, of course. The ability to describe the aromas and flavors of wine in a way another person can understand is a fine art, a cross between poetry and effective copywriting. So you can imagine how impressed I was to hear the attractive young female sommelier at New York’s five-star Le Bernardin restaurant artfully describe the aroma of a few wines we considered ordering.
“Well done!” I responded, before asking her secret in teasing out and remembering the flavors specific to each varietal.
“Le Nez du Vin,” she whispered.
What is Le Nez du Vin, you ask? It is a very well organized tool for teaching yourself and others how to identify the signature scents and flavors in a wine, basically helping you to develop your olfactory (scent) memory. Based on the groundbreaking book Making Sense of Wine by Jean Lenoir, Le Nez du Vin is available in a series of kits (12 aromas red wine, 12 aromas white wine, the Master Kit, the 12 aromas Faults Kit, 12 aromas New Oak kit) that help you learn how to identify isolated flavors in wine.
The Master Kit, for example, comes with 54 vials of scents, an illustrated 119-page book, and 54 illustrated, two-sided Explanatory Cards. On one side of each card is a number that corresponds to a scent in a vial, along with a color picture representing the scent. On the other side of the card is the name of the scent, a short descriptive paragraph that helps you understand what the scent smells like through associations with other scents, and the wines the scent is commonly found in (along with the regions).
For example, let’s pretend I have just poured you a glass of 2006 Smoking Loon Pinot Noir from California. Perhaps you are just beginning your wine education and detect a fruit scent, but can’t really express what you are detecting in words. You would pick up the book, look up Pinot Noir (found on page 32), and read the following:
Raspberry, Blackcurrant, Cherry, Violet, Liquorice
This grape variety doesn’t stray much from its homeland of Burgundy, and has made its great red wines famous. It is resistant to cold weather, which might explain why it grows well in the Champagne region. It is rarely blended with other varieties.
The best Pinot wines are a startling ruby red. The bouquet of Pinot Noir wines displays an incomparable finesse, dominated by blackcurrant and raspberry, sometimes with a touch of smoke; Cherry, Morello cherry to be precise, is also typical of this variety. Like all the great varieties It loves oak aging, which often adds to its complexity.
Pinot wines are passionate, generous, and bursting with bouquet, at once delicate and solid.
Outside Burgundy, Pinot Noir can be found in Alsace, where it is one of the few red varieties grown, and in certain vineyards in the centre of France. Pinot Noir is also well established in Germany, in the Geneva, Switzerland area, and in Burgenland, Austria. It gives spectacular results in California and Oregon, USA, and is currently developing well in New Zealand.
So if you knew nothing of Pinot Noir (save for the fact it was popularized by the film Sideways) in that short segment you’ve learned a great deal. Of key importance, at least as far as Le Nez du Vin is concerned, you’ve learned the characteristic aromas of Pinot Noir. While Pinot Noir from New Zealand, California, and Burgundy do have variations, these basic aroma characteristics will remain the same.
Let’s assume, for now, you don’t have the opportunity to smell much fresh fruit, and you can’t really recall the scent of raspberry. Maybe you’re not even sure what blackcurrant is or what it smells like, but you know you want to improve your wine recognition and vocabulary. So you pick up the illustrated card key (presented by family, such as “fruity,” “floral,” “vegetal,” “animal,” and “roasted). You look under “fruity” until you find the aromas that match Pinot Noir, namely Raspberry (card 13) and Blackcurrant (card 15).
You pull these cards from the deck and read more about them. Additional information about these aromas is also available in the back of the book. Then open the vials and smell them. Try contrasting the blackcurrant with redcurrant and note the differences. Then try contrasting the vials containing the blackcurrant aroma with that of strawberry, raspberry, and other fruits.
Many educators use Le Nez du Vin in the classroom to help students map what they smell in the glass to specific fruits or other aromas so they can better describe the wines to customers or others. Roddy Kirshenman, general manager of Oceanaire Seafood Room in Indianapolis, first learned about Le Nez du Vin when taking a wine class led by a sommelier a few years back. “We would smell the aromas, try to identify them, and discuss them among ourselves. I found it so helpful I plan to implement this training with my own staff. It’s important for the servers to have the ability to communicate wine accurately to our customers.”
Maria Liberati, chef and author of Basic Art of Italian Cooking, is often invited to give seminars on wine and food pairing and leads culinary and wine tours to Italy. She often uses Le Nez du Vin in her classes because, in her words, “it brings a description to reality.” Maria says you can tell someone they are tasting a fruity wine, or that it has a taste of cherries, but it’s not something you can thoroughly describe.
“People have to experience what you are talking about,” she says, explaining Le Nez du Vin’s value. “When I teach food and wine pairing, I am also training their senses to pair different wine with foods. They must understand the flavor profiles of a wine to pair it with certain foods. Not everyone is on the same page as far as flavors are concerned. Telling someone that a wine has a nutty flavor is meaningless unless you can share the aroma and discuss its traits as a group.”
Tracy Ellen Kamens, Ed.D, CSW, wine educator and co-owner of Grand Cru Classes, enjoys using Le Nez du Vin in her classes. Typically, she’ll select several wines, taste them to identify their flavor components, and then take these vials for the students to smell. “As an educator,” she says, “you always want to make things as interactive and hands-on as possible.”
Jennie Thorton-Dean, a wine educator in the process of getting her Masters of Wine, often uses Le Nez du Vin in her classes and makes something of a game of it. She distributes a handout called “Can You Smell that Smell” which has two columns, one containing the glass number (1 – 10) and a corresponding column for aroma. “Many students, novices and expert tasters alike, find the aroma challenge to be the best part of the wine class,” Jennie reports. “Many students specifically request that I include this activity for private events and parties. Le Nez du Vin makes my job of wine education more interactive and exploratory than traditional wine tastings.”
Dilek Caner, Director of Tasting World (TastingWorld.com) based in Manhattan, says she uses the faults kit quite a bit. “I actually relied on it when I was describing corkiness. It is pretty much impossible to describe it in words to a person who has never experienced it. You can say mouldy, wet cardboard, old attic, and all other terms that we use for it, but none of them is as good as passing that vial around the class. Among similar products, it’s the one that imitates the natural aromas the best.”
Many lay people who are not in the wine business, yet enjoy wine, purchase Le Nez du Vin as a fun way of entertaining guests. Instead of serving wine with hors d’oeuvres before dinner, they will open four or five bottles of wine, break out the Le Nez du Vin, and have guests try to identify the flavors.
As a wine educator, I had the following experience teaching a client to blind taste wine. Picking up a glass, she attempted to note its characteristics.
“What do you smell?” I asked.
“Prune, prune, prune!” she cried in frustration, unable to make an association between the fruit aroma and the winel.
Picking up the Le Nez du Vin illustrated card with the prune picture, we read the varietals the aroma is frequently found in.
“The wine is a blend of Syrah, Carignan, and Grenache from Corbieres!” she guessed, correctly naming the region in the Languedoc the wine is from. According to the card, the aroma of prune is common find in both Corbieres and Chateauneuf-du-Pape, and the wine clearly was not the latter.
Le Nez du Vin is an exceptional training tool! To buy Le Nez du Vin, visit Wine Aromas. You will find a wide selection of kits to suit your needs, starting with the Master Kit described above (containing aroma vials for red, white, dessert, champagnes/sparkling wines), 12 aromas red wine, 12 aromas white wine, 12 aromas oak casks, and 12 aromas faults.
Mastering the ability to blind taste and describe wine accurately is a skill everyone can learn. It takes practice, a willingness to apply oneself, and the helpful aromas available from Le Nez du Vin.