Trust Your Nose When it Comes to Wine


I want to share a story.

One of my earliest wine memories is when I worked for an Italian-themed coffeeshop in my twenties, a place that served wine in addition to coffee.  The bosses had a training for us to learn about the wine, and poured us each a tiny bit of Barbaresco, an Italian red.

“What does it smell like?” they asked.

I took a sniff and a familiar green plant flashed in my mind.

“Bamboo,” I said suddenly.

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Bamboo in Piedmont, Italy

The room became quiet.  You could hear a pin drop.  The bosses said nothing, clearly not knowing how to react to this weird statement.  Some people looked down at the floor, embarrassed for me.  Several seconds went by that felt like an eternity.

“Cherries,” said my friend, to break the silence.

“Yes, cherries,” said the man in charge, clearly relieved that someone had said something that made sense. (Cherries is a common red wine, and sometimes Italian wine, note.)  No one said anything about the bamboo ever again.  I felt deflated.

Despite my embarrassing experience, I knew there was something to what I had smelled.  Bamboo in Italy didn’t make sense, but I thought somehow some bamboo particles had washed over in the rain from Asia or something, and fell on those grapes.  I knew it came from somewhere.

Fast forward ten years, and I went on my honeymoon to northern Italy, including to Barbaresco, the birthplace of that wine.

Driving along the winding, bucolic roads, I saw patches of a familiar green plant…bamboo!

Bamboo in Siena, Italy

The more we drove around Italy, the more we saw it–it grows wild everywhere.  I knew this was what I had originally smelled in that Barbaresco so many years ago.

I felt triumphantly vindicated as I made my husband stop by the side of the road so I could take photos.  I told him over and over again the story.  The embarrassment I originally felt, the confusion as to why my observation didn’t make sense…it was all coming together now.

I smelled bamboo because it grows near the wine, the same way you can sometimes pick up herbs de Provence in southern French wine.

I know this will be my story I tell over and over again to anyone at the nursing home who will listen, in my old age.

So I wanted to brag about this cool story (winky face ;)), but also wanted to say, we should all trust our noses.

Sometimes we smell things that are specific to us, like a memory of a childhood home, or a vacation meal.  Sometimes it’s just so specific as to be weird, like the sommelier in the movie Somm who keeps smelling fresh-cut garden hose.  I met a woman who smelled fire hydrant in a wine.

There’s no wrong answer, and if you can observe and share with people without getting self-conscious, the benefits are twofold:

  • the other people in your party may smell it too, and everyone has a more enjoyable experience.  My husband sometimes points out his grape popsicle stick note, and I can’t smell it until he points it out, then it’s a lot of fun. So much more fun than just the typical berries and vanilla.
  • you will only sharpen your own nose.  The more you sharpen your nose, the more you know about a wine.  For instance, you may start noticing that all wines of a certain region smell similarly to you.  I often notice that Italian reds from Piedmont and Tuscany smell like wet, dried leaves to me, and this helps me identify those wines.

Sometimes you may just get a flash of an image, or a sensation of something.  That was my case with the bamboo, as I don’t really know what bamboo smells like.  I just got a vivid image and shouted it out.  These are equally to be trusted as smells.

Have you ever smelled anything strange in a wine?  What was it?  Do you get self-conscious?  Tell me in the comments below.





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