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Sniff then Swirl?
Copyright 2002 by Robin Garr. All rights reserved. Originally printed September 9, 2002. For more information go to

As just about everyone who enjoys wine knows, swirling the wine in your glass is an important part of the wine-tasting ritual.

Holding your glass in the air or placing its base on the table, you rock or turn the glass gently until the wine sloshes up its sides. This coats the inside of the glass with a thin layer of wine, which evaporates quickly, sending up a waft of aromatic elements for your sniffing pleasure. (This procedure explains why it's best to fill your wine glass only halfway, or less, to allow plenty of room for swirling.)

Eyes, nose, mouth and throat...that's the simple sequence of steps that makes serious wine-tasting an analytical experience.

But here's a nuance that you may not know about the swirling step: Watch a wine judge or sommelier at his work, and you may notice an unexpected thing: The experts will usually sniff the wine BEFORE they swirl it, then sniff again AFTER the swirl-and-slosh move.

What's going on there? Under some circumstances, swirling the wine doesn't merely increase its aromas but may actually yield different scents than you find in the unswirled wine.

This may seem strange, but the explanation is simple enough: Fine wines offer a variety of scents, including aromas that come from the natural fruit in wine, scents that stem from the wine maker's hand (such as the use of oak barrels or yeasts that impart recognizable smells), and the so-called "bouquet," elusive characteristics that develop with age in the bottle. Some of these elements are more volatile than others, and those are the aromas that gain impact when you swirl the wine. So taking your first sniff before swirling, then checking again after giving the glass a spin offers a deeper insight (or maybe "in-smell"?) to analyzing the wine.
It is absolutely not necessary to take this extra step. You can certainly enjoy wine without analyzing it at all. But if you're the kind of wine hobbyist who enjoys putting a wine through its paces and keeping track of your impressions, it's worth giving this two-stage sniffing process a try.


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