What Does the Nose Actually Know?

By: Sam Fox

Review of Aromaster Master Wine Aromas Tasting Kit
Editor’s note: This is not a sponsored review. We purchased a kit for our own evaluation although they did kindly provide a slight discount.

The sense of smell is perhaps the most difficult to put into words. It is the sense most intimately connected with memory and emotional response. Because of this, it can be tricky to translate that elusive feeling you get from a scent into plain words. How often have you caught of whiff of some familiar aroma in a glass of wine that you just weren’t able to articulate?

Wine aroma training kits claim to help you train your nose and memory to be a better smeller — we decided to try one and see if it’s true.

The kit we tried was the Aromaster Master Wine Aromas Tasting Kit, advertised as a professionally designed wine tasting educational tool, friendly game, and library of wine scents all in one. This collection of 88 aromas is meant to “gradually develop your wine tasting skills allowing you to identify grape varieties, winemaking techniques, the age of the wine as well as winemaking faults, when present.” A tall order, but a challenge we were ready to tackle.

Knowledge informs what our noses perceive

The first step was go through each of the 88 scents and try to identify them, without an answer key or even a rough idea what to expect. Upon trying a ‘blind smell’, the first vial I cracked open was pretty simple to detect. Lemon, I wrote down cockily. Easy. This is going to be a breeze. Then I tried the second one…uh, lemon again? Maybe I overestimated my abilities.

The lesson learned here is that identifying scents with an untrained nose is pretty darned hard. Our score was only 26 correct out of 88 on the blind smell test. However, once we looked at the answer key some questionable aromas became very obvious. We could sniff for minutes with no clue, but as soon as we know we’re supposed to be smelling honey it’s like a switch flipped, and of course it’s honey, how could we have missed it? It’s amazing how much our knowledge informs what our noses perceive. And hence why one might want to train their olfactory senses to be more discerning.

We did find that your ability to identify a smell can completely depend on what you smell immediately before. Even with a palate-cleansing sniff of coffee beans (highly recommended), snuffling up a strong odor impaired our ability to identify the next vial. Later, testing vials in a different order proved to be a very different experience. (Note: Highly NOT recommended is trying to get through the whole kit in one sitting. You should not attempt to sniff all 88 vials without taking plenty of breaks. Was it fun though? Yeah it was!)

Olfactory Russian Roulette

While the majority of the aromas were right on, a small number of the scents just did not smell like they were supposed to. What is labeled leather smelled like pool water, and the banana smells nothing like the actual fruit, but is a spot-on match for the imitation banana in Runts candy. Some odors are deeply unpleasant (both the gravy and the horse sweat aromas made all the testers literally gag) which made the exercise a bit like playing olfactory Russian Roulette, but hey, no guts no glory, right?

One gripe is that a few of the aromas are just a bit too obscure. Fern, what the heck does a fern smell like, it’s just a leaf! Toast? Flint? C’mon, You’ve got to have a genius nose to sniff out a specific type of rock. And quince jelly? What am I, Martha Stewart?

Perhaps the most helpful (but least pleasant) aromas were of wine faults. If you’ve never been unlucky enough to experience a wine that’s gone off, then this kit gives you a good frame of reference for the most common types of ailments wine can suffer. Cork taint, high sulfides, and wild yeasts that add a strong horsey smell are some of the problems you can learn to identify. And since smell is so closely linked with memory, whenever I smell horse sweat, I will now always think of this kit.

A few of the aromas leaked on transit, causing the case to retain an unpleasant odor I can’t seem to get rid of.

The very nice box itself reeks of all those mingled aromas, perhaps due to a few leaking on transit — and I can tell you the leak was one of those nasty ‘wine faults’ not something pleasant like rose or pine. Airing out the box outside several days hasn’t helped either and unfortunately the stench of the box interferes with using it.

In addition to the 88 aromas, there is an educational board game included to help recognize the scents in wine, and it was interesting but not much of a game, really. It requires your group have a bottle of wine from each major wine producing region in the world (24 in total!), so not exactly a practical choice. Definitely a great way to get a large group of folks to taste a lot of wine though!

Conclusion?

A wine aroma kit can definitely be a good learning tool to broaden your aroma vocabulary, and it’s great for wine novices and connoisseurs alike who want to invest in their own training. Overall, the Master Kit includes a wide range aromas, with the vast majority being helpful in training.

The Wine Aroma Wheel is also quite useful, and I could see myself bringing this handy little booklet to wine bars or tastings and having an occasional peek to narrow down what citrus notes I am detecting in my chardonnay.

You can visit Aromaster at www.aromaster.com where they have a number of aroma kits from wine to cognac, coffee, cigars and more — including 3 smaller aroma kits for wine — red and white with 12 or 24 scents each, and a wine fault kit with 12.

A Helpful Tool for the Aromaster Kit

One piece we found missing was a helpful tool for testing and bench-marking improvement.  We’ve put together an answer key that will allow you to record your answers!

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