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Getting Your Nose Into Wine

Wine doesn't have eyes, ears or teeth, but some say it has a "nose."

I won't say the term is snobbish, but I'd feel uneasy about standing around, glass in hand, chatting about a wine's nose. This one's aquiline, that one's pug, the one over there's had an operation?

For that matter, I'm not too comfortable with the distinction some tasters make between a wine's "aroma," referring to the natural smell it takes from the fruit, and its "bouquet," the complex overtones it may develop with age in the bottle.

Three terms to refer to one sense? It reminds me of the Eskimos, who reportedly have scores of words to define subtleties in snow, from snowball-packing quality to bricks for igloos.

So let's strike a blow for clarity in wine language by agreeing to use plain English here.

I'll talk about how a wine "smells," and if I feel the need for synonyms, I might refer to its aroma or scent. I'll warn you if I find one that stinks.

One thing makes common scents: Smell is important to the wine taster. Much of what we think is taste really comes through our noses. If you don't believe it, try to enjoy a wine - or a meal - the next time you have a bad head cold.

When it comes to smelling, we take a distant second place to dogs and cats. Still, we humans can train our sense of smell, and you don't have to be an expert wine taster to learn to sniff out the differences among wines.

The aroma of Cabernet Sauvignon and the closely related Merlot grape, for example, often reminds me of cedar wood and pine needles mingled with a good fruit smell reminiscent of currants.

Some add hints that wine tasters call "vegetal:" green olives, green peppers, tobacco leaves or grass.

Aging the wine in oak may add touches of vanilla, cinnamon, cloves and almonds. Extended bottle aging may lend a toasty quality and impart earthy scents as variable as mushrooms, old leather, roses and wildflowers.

Other grapes have their own trademark aromas: Zinfandel often evokes berries. Pinot Noir, the fine grape of Burgundy, may recall violets and spice. The pungently floral quality of freshly ground black pepper signals Syrah, the French Rhone grape.

Among whites, Chardonnay recalls crisp, ripe apples and may add notes of butter, coconut, figs and other tropical fruits, particularly if it's aged in oak.

Riesling, the queen of German grapes, may evoke apples, too, and sometimes citrus fruit, canteloupe and pine.

Sauvignon Blanc often shows a grassy smell and sometimes grapefruit.

Chenin Blanc reminds me of melons and, occasionally, orange blossoms. A smell of peaches identifies Muscat and Gewurztraminer; the latter may add elusive spice.

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