Expanding Your Smell Vocabulary via Wine Tasting

How to improve both your sense of smell and your ability to speak about aromas via wine tasting? Elisa explains.

A few months ago I read a sentence in the Atlantic that gave me serious pause: “In English, there are only three dedicated smell words—stinky, fragrant, and musty—and the first two are more about the smeller’s subjective experience than about the smelly thing itself.” Excuse me, what? I can think of a lot more smell words than that. How about aromatic, acrid, pungent, yeasty, perfumey, resinous, skunky?

wine tasting

And those are just the “dedicated smell words” – but most descriptive terms can be used for multiple types of sensory experience. “Rosy” could refer to a perfume or a complexion, “silky” to a fabric or a voice, “sharp” to a taste or a smell or a sound or a feeling. Our senses aren’t as distinct as we think – most of “flavor” is actually smell (that’s why you can’t taste your food when you have a cold), and sound effects or different color packaging can make your chips taste fresher or your soda taste sweeter. (See also the “McGurk effect” – seeing a different mouth shape makes you “hear” a different sound.)

As I bemoaned the Atlantic’s lack of fact checking, a Twitter follower sent me a link to a fascinating article on “odour character and thresholds” (PDF) published by the Environment Agency, a public body dedicated to environmental protection in the UK. It contains an image of an “urban odour descriptor wheel” used by the UCLA School of Public Health, with primary categories including “auto exhaust,” “wastewater bathroom,” “parks and fields,” “coffee shop,” “fast food,” and “roadkill.” These are further broken down into descriptive terms mapped to the responsible chemicals. Pairs include:

  • Rotten egg: hydrogen sulfide
  • Sour milk: butyric acid
  • Nail polish: acetone
  • Hay grass: cyclocitral
  • Honey: phenylacetic acid
  • Roasty: decadienal
  • Dead animal: putresine, cadaverine

Naturally, the wheel design reminded me of the aroma wheel commonly used in wine tasting, one of example of which you can see below, via www.winearomawheel.com. It’s a tool developed by Dr. Ann Noble, Professor Emerita of the University of California at Davis, for consumers and wine professionals alike:


Right away you’ll see a bunch of wine aroma terms that apply equally well to perfume – cut grass (remember Gap Grass?), “horsey” (as in animalic jasmines), medicinal (an edge present in many Guerlains), nutty (tonka bean), clove (carnation), raisin (see Shiseido Feminité du Bois). Except for the underdeveloped floral section, it wouldn’t make a bad starting point for anyone new to describing perfume.

Trusting Your Nose

One thing I love about wine tasting (aside from the fact that you get to drink wine) is that anything goes. Sometimes, when describing a perfume, you have the nagging impression you might be “wrong,” that whatever you’re smelling is not actually in the materials. Not so with wine – while each grape tends to have its own typical profile, weird things happen in the fermentation process, and all kinds of unexpected aromas can bubble up due to process and weather. So if a wine smells to you like buttered popcorn, you might as well say so. (Buttery notes are usually associated with chardonnay, but I love when I find a lactonic red. Once I had a marvelous red that smelled like coconut.)

So describing a wine is mostly about instinct and confidence – and these traits come in handy for a perfume reviewer too, since you can’t trust the marketing materials to be accurate. I’ve learned to follow my nose and its associations in both contexts. Pinotage is a grape that has fallen out of favor at least among wine snobs – when I asked for an opinion on one at a shop a couple of years ago, the seller said, snottily, “it’s a typical pinotage.” But I fell in love with this cultivar as a vegetarian because it’s so smoky it smells like cured meat – bacon, ham, even hot dogs. You get a similar barbecue effect from birch tar – Winter Woods from Sonoma Scent Studio is distinctly meaty.

The Power of Suggestion

Wine tasting must be fun for the very suggestible, those who hear a description and immediately recognize it. As I write this I’m sipping a Nebbiolo that the shop described as showing characteristics of “rose and vanilla.” I picked it up hoping for a perfumey wine. Unfortunately I’m getting none of that; it’s quite dry and not very floral. (You know what is floral though? Dogfishhead 90-Minute IPA from a tap.) I sometimes wish my nose was a bit more suggestible. Once at a wine tasting I heard a sparkling wine described as “toasty,” and while I didn’t think it smelled like toast, I’ve always remembered that, due to the pun.

My dad, though a genuine a wine lover, likes to mock the copy on wine labels, pretending to taste things he clearly doesn’t. Holding his glass up to the light, he’ll pompously pronounce “Shades of boysenberry!” But the label descriptions really can steer you in the right direction, getting you in the general aroma neighborhood. There’s currently a fashion for very chocolatey reds – if you’ve had the Apothic red blend you know the style. They are usually described as having “vanilla” notes, but vanilla in a red often translates into milk chocolate.

Even the experts can fall prey to suggestion. See that term “foxy” up there, in parentheses next to methyl anthranilate? If you google “what is a foxy wine,” the first result is from Wine Spectator, and a “Dr. Vinny” explains that “foxy” wines have “a sort of wild, musky, animal smell that reminds me of the odor of a fur coat.” Like a fox, get it? However, that’s not what it means! “Foxy” refers to the methyl anthranilate note of Concord grape juice, from vitis labrusca, AKA “fox grapes.” It’s also present in jasmine and gardenia, and you’ll find it in spades in Thierry Mugler Alien (which has always smelled to me like grape soda).

The Gestalt of Wine

Perfume and wine descriptions can be terribly lengthy, leading you to expect a parade of distinct notes one after the other. The actual experience is often much more holistic, a single overwhelming impression, however complex the actual parts. When I’m first smelling a wine or a fragrance, I generally start by noting just one or two words that most capture what I’m smelling, rather than trying to pick out ten or twelve distinct scents.

If I’m writing a review, I’ll take my time and eventually pick it apart, but the wines and perfumes that I return to again and again are easily “compressed” in my mind to a kind of scent shorthand, a few words that best represent what I experience. I’m fond of the two-word descriptions in Turin and Sanchez’s Perfumes: The A to Z Guide (such as “brassy peony” or “waxed lemon”) because they feel true to the way the mind encodes memories of smell. I don’t remember all the nuanced details of, say, Midnight in Paris when I’m not wearing it; I just think “leathery tonka.”

So, too, when I drink wine, I’m happy to notice a sulfuric grapefruit in a New Zealand sauvignon blanc, or dried cherries in a Zinfandel, and leave it at that. When you’re ready to “graduate” into more detailed description, the absolute best way to sharpen your senses is by comparing similar types side by side: compare a flight of rosés or three rose soliflores and the differences leap out at you: One rosé is bone-dry and another tastes like mint and strawberries; Tea Rose smells like a long-stem pink rose in a florist’s bouquet, while Rose Flash smells like a wild red rose on the vine.

Extra Reading: Speaking Perfume and How to Improve Your Sense of Smell

First image: wine tasting by Bois de Jasmin. Second  image: Wine Aroma Wheel, Copyright A C Noble 2002 www.winearomawheel.com.



  • Michaela: Excellent, Elisa, thank you! I marked your article and I’ll return to it from time to time. The links are interesting, too.
    I totally feel your ‘compressing’ sensation. I tend to simplify, too, and I remember the single overwhelming impression rather than countless facets of a dear scent. February 29, 2016 at 9:12am Reply

    • Elisa: I was just thinking about this last night. I wore a perfume I hadn’t worn in a while (Celadon by DSH), and when I’m not wearing it I never remember how complex it is! It really unfolds on skin in a way that sniffing from the bottle doesn’t capture. February 29, 2016 at 9:54am Reply

  • Nick: Methyl anthranilate is what gives the tuberose in Poison, if I am not mistaken. It makes sense to see it in white flowers like jasmine and gardenia.

    I remember Victoria once mentioned that the horsey aspect of jasmine is due to p-cresol?

    Thank you for a wonderful diagram, Elisa! February 29, 2016 at 9:38am Reply

    • Elisa: Thank you Nick! I believe Pat wrote a whole article about perfumes that go well with horses 🙂 February 29, 2016 at 9:55am Reply

  • Mlle Marie: Thank you for a great article! When I was invited to my first ‘real’ wine tasting, I ended up with describing one of the samples as a ‘saint on lit de parade’ thinking floral, lilyesque, kind of sacred, with a slightly decomposing note to it, and won the ‘best description’ of that night! Sadly I can’t even remember what wine it was… February 29, 2016 at 2:51pm Reply

    • Elisa: Ha, good for you! I’d like a wine that smells like lilies! February 29, 2016 at 2:58pm Reply

  • Lindaloo: My biggest (recent) scent regret was not buying a Le Nez du Vin aromas kit. It was the 54 scent version that someone received as a present, didn’t want, hadn’t opened, and was selling for about 1/6th of the cost.
    I so regret not snapping it up as it would have been very useful for training myself to recognize specific scents in perfumes (and in wine too 🙂 ). February 29, 2016 at 5:07pm Reply

    • Elisa: Oh, that looks so cool! I didn’t know that existed. February 29, 2016 at 5:13pm Reply

    • Jennifer C: Ah man that would have been awesome! I’ve wanted one of those, but they’re so expensive. March 3, 2016 at 5:16pm Reply

  • Mia: Very interesting, thank you Elisa! I got stucked with the “anything goes” when describing wine. Could it be that because in wine testing we use vocabulary related to “other senses” than taste, that is, smell, often, that gives greater freedom in describing? If we for example started to use (well, we do, but not exclusively) adjectives mostly related to sight (light, colors, etc.) maybe we would have more freedom in describing exactly our individual perceptions of smells?

    Anyway, inspiring! February 29, 2016 at 7:31pm Reply

    • Elisa: Using other senses to describe anything sensory (music too!) always gives the fullest impression of the thing being described, I think! March 1, 2016 at 12:10am Reply

      • Mia: So true! Synaesthesia in general is intriguing. March 1, 2016 at 2:39am Reply

  • Surbhi: …… and for months I have been telling people smelling perfume is like wine tasting just a different sense but the idea is same. Almost feel vindicated 😀 March 1, 2016 at 12:03am Reply

    • Elisa: It’s a metaphor I use often! Too many similarities to ignore 🙂 March 1, 2016 at 12:11am Reply

    • Michaela: So true, Surbhi!
      These are highly similar. March 1, 2016 at 8:14am Reply

  • Hamamelis: Very enjoyable and informative article Elisa, thank you! Last summer we made a trip through France which ended in the Bourgogne and Champagne area’s. I rarely drink wine (or any alcohol), my migraining head just can’t cope. But I did then, and was happily surprised how two years perfumistahood had really awakened my wine-tastingbuds. This cross sensing is so enriching. I bought a Lyric travelspray in the Middle East and to my nose it has a rich red wine note to it. I need to apply with care! Are there any perfumes that smell like wine to you? March 1, 2016 at 10:24am Reply

    • Elisa: It’s a bit hard to find but Hanae Mori Haute Couture is a white floral that reminds me of white wine. And Bois de Paradis smells like mulled wine.

      There is a line based on wine notes that I have wanted to try for a while — Victoria of EauMG reviewed them positively. March 1, 2016 at 10:36am Reply

    • Aurora: Phaedon Dzhari smells like Porto (and dates) to me Hamamelis and I really enjoyed this article Elisa. I wish the association between wine and perfume went further and to have vintages labelled for all to see on bottles of perfume, it would make life easier. March 1, 2016 at 1:09pm Reply

      • Elisa: YES YES YES to vintages on perfume!

        Feminite du Bois smells a little like port too. I know I’ve noticed the port smell in other perfumes but they’re escaping me. March 1, 2016 at 1:11pm Reply

    • Bastet: Thanks for the interesting article, Elisa.

      And I believe Botrytis (by Ginestet) is supposed to smell of wine and honey, although I have not yet had the chance to smell it myself. March 2, 2016 at 11:00am Reply

      • Elisa: Yes, it’s actually named after a kind of fungus. I wrote about it last year in an article on boozy perfumes! https://boisdejasmin.com/2015/02/winter-favorites-10-boozy-perfumes-to-warm-your-bones.html March 2, 2016 at 11:50am Reply

      • Jennifer C: Botrytis is great stuff. I haven’t smelled it in some time, but if you like honey in fragrances, you’ll probably like it. It’s supposed to smell like Sauternes wine, which comes from grapes that have been infected with botrytis (also called “noble rot”). I’ve never actually tried Sauternes because it can be a bit spendy when I’ve seen it in stores, so I can’t vouch for its accuracy. March 3, 2016 at 5:28pm Reply

        • Elisa: It really is reminiscent of Sauternes (which is delicious). I find Viktoria Minya Hedonist to be similar. March 3, 2016 at 6:14pm Reply

    • MrsDalloway: Voleur de Roses smelt like wine to me, but in a bad way – festering red wine dregs. Those who love it say it smells like wine in a good way though! March 4, 2016 at 7:25am Reply

  • Joy: I love the first, deep inhalation from a glass of good wine. I just let the smell circulate into my brain. A second glass never has the same impact. It is creative and a lot of fun to put names to those smells that come out of the glass. I chuckle at the recollection of a winery’s description of one of their wine fragrances as “golf pencils”. It made sense when I thought of the combination of the smell of cedar wood and the metallic smell of the lead.
    I love the “smell wheel” above.

    Thank you for a great article! March 1, 2016 at 1:52pm Reply

    • Elisa: Thanks Joy! I once had a wine so cedar-y it smelled just like a cedar chest. It was hard not to laugh at the smell. March 1, 2016 at 1:55pm Reply

  • Kelly Jones: Victoria, what a lovely and luscious description of the worlds of wine and perfume! Thank you! and cheers… -Kelly Jones March 1, 2016 at 3:59pm Reply

    • Victoria: It’s Elisa’s article! March 1, 2016 at 4:00pm Reply

    • Elisa: Oh, Kelly & Jones is the name of the wine-y perfume line I was just blanking on! I have been meaning to try it out. Thank you for reading! March 1, 2016 at 4:01pm Reply

    • Kelly Jones: Dears, how wonderful! Apologies, Elisa, that I missed that. Hope we can all cross paths for some wine and perfume sometime! xo March 1, 2016 at 5:14pm Reply

  • Figuier: Thanks Elisa for such a rich & well-written article on a subject I don’t know that much about. Both my dad and my husband are keen wine-tasters, but I find it very hard to remember wines in the way I do perfumes. Your article makes me think that maybe I should draw on my perfume ‘experience’ more consciously when trying new wines.

    Strangely, after having given up alcohol during pregnancy I find even my perception of the different flavours in wine have blunted. But giving up perfume (ish) has had the opposite effect, it’s massively heightened my sensitivity to it, and perfumes that I used to perceive as barely-there now seem very ‘audible’ (to use another cross-sense metaphor).

    I agree with Hammamelis about oriental roses (in general) having a red-wine aroma, as does the earthy facet of vetiver. No coincidence that two of DH’s favourite perfumes are Sycomore and Kiilian Rose Oud! March 3, 2016 at 2:02pm Reply

    • Elisa: Thank you!

      Sometimes those switches happen for me spontaneously — something that seemed weak in the past will suddenly smell strong. Almost like you train yourself out of an anosmia to an ingredient! March 3, 2016 at 2:06pm Reply

      • Victoria: It happened to me in the past.

        I also remember Maurice Roucel mentioning how he learned to smell a particular musk he was anosmic to. March 3, 2016 at 3:30pm Reply

        • Elisa: There have also been times where I became oversensitive to a musk and had to avoid it until I “desensitized.” I didn’t wear Flower by Kenzo for about a year when one of the musks suddenly seemed overwhelming to me. Luckily it went away! March 3, 2016 at 3:35pm Reply

          • Victoria: This happened with Rahat Loukoum for me. The combination of musk with sweet heliotropin made me very sensitive to this combination. But oddly enough, I like Nicolai’s Kiss Me Tender, which is even sweeter. March 3, 2016 at 3:45pm Reply

  • Jennifer C: Now I’m really curious what that lactonic red was! I’m not sure I’ve ever encountered one, and I’d love to try it. I’m also really curious about pinotage too. Your description has me kind of intrigued.

    I do think that getting into perfume has helped me be more perceptive when drinking wine. I feel like trying to pick apart notes in perfumes has helped me do the same with wine. March 3, 2016 at 5:58pm Reply

    • Elisa: I don’t remember the name — I had a glass in a restaurant, and when we tried to go back for more they were sold out! I’m pretty sure it was from California though.

      I love Pinotage! Try it! March 3, 2016 at 6:17pm Reply

      • Victoria: Have you ever tried Vin Jaune from the Jura region of France? A friend brought a bottle last weekend, and it was so unusual–rich vanilla and peach notes, almost edging into the direction of Madeira and Marsala, but without any sweetness at all. March 4, 2016 at 3:20am Reply

        • Elisa: I haven’t! I will look for it. Sounds intriguing. March 4, 2016 at 10:56am Reply

  • Solanace: Unlike that Atlantic writer, you packed a lot of interesting stuff here, Elisa. Lovely article, great smelling tips. You comments on the links between senses and the multiple uses for words such as soft or grainy make me think of the Aristotelian notion of a ‘common sense’, a mental place of sorts where all kinds of perceptual information from a given object, say, a rose, are composed in a complex ‘image’. So, even though vision rules (as the very choice of the word ‘image’ shows), input from other senses also play a role as well, and since the complete ‘images’ from the common sense are the basis for imagination and thought, it would make sense that adjectives refer to the common sense ‘images’ and not to data from particular senses. Of course, this is all over two thousand years old, but many contemporary cognition science people like Aristotle’s insights, so I thought it was maybe worthy pointing out how good this part of his theory of perception is for thinking these phenomena you mentioned. Now I’ll have to buy some wine for the weekend. Cheers. March 4, 2016 at 5:53am Reply

    • Elisa: How interesting! There’s just so much crossover in the sensory world. I’m thinking about how a word like “smooth” can apply to any of the five senses. March 4, 2016 at 10:58am Reply

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