I’ll be forthright: Improving your ability to smell various aromas in a glass of wine is not a major concern for most people. Correcting your friends by saying, “That’s not blackberry you’re smelling, it’s blackcurrant” is less likely to engender respect and more likely to guarantee your disinvitation from the next soirée. Smelling better—with your nose, not your bodily aromas—is ultimately a personal endeavor.- Advertisement -
The sole exception to this is in serious wine education, and for those who want to become wine nerds. There’s also some layperson value to connecting aromas with wines: If you’re preparing a dinner that includes mushrooms, green peppers, and bay leaves, someone appropriately trained might suggest that a Cabernet Franc, which echoes those aromas, could pair well with it. Enjoying and identifying wine revolves predominantly around your sense of smell. If you want to body-hack your way to a better one, try a wine aroma kit.
The concept is pretty simple: Break the wine world down to its most common aromas, then bottle the essences of those aromas into a series of small vials. You then use these vials to train your nose to more easily identify these aromas when they’re mixed up in a glass of vino. Sniff the vials every day at random, quizzing yourself on each one, and soon you’ll find you can catch a whiff of these scents even in a big goblet of mystery plonk. In theory, anyway.
Wine aroma kits are designed to go further than that, though. They don’t just help you improve your sense of smell and aid your olfactory identification. The final trick is to use those aromas to help you blindly identify what type of wine you’ve been served. Admittedly, this is a bit of a parlor trick that only sommeliers (and wannabe-sommeliers) will find much of a use for, and even then only in an exam setting. How often do you find a bottle of wine with no label and are pressed into trying to guess what’s inside? Nonetheless, this is what certified sommelier candidates are asked to do, and it is one of the most nerve-wracking parts of the examination process. Aroma kits have basically become the CliffsNotes of the wine industry.
I tested three wine aroma kits and found that, while they’re conceptually equal, their execution can be quite different. These kits—all tiny vials of various liquids—include anywhere from 12 to 88 different aromas, and range in price from $70 to nearly $400.
Let’s look at each one in turn.
Sold in the US by Wine Enthusiast, Aromabar offers an excellent place to get started. While the 60-vial version runs $485, the company also markets a series of 12-vial kits, each with a particular focus on a subcategory of the wine world. I tested the $70 red wine kit, which largely revolves around various berry aromas, with a few wild cards in the mix. The Aromabar scents—largely distillates from the original fruits and some alcohol-based extracts—smell strong and feel authentic, for the most part. The violet vial smelled particularly like roses to me, and I had trouble distinguishing the cherry aroma from the almond essence. Otherwise, this kit was outstanding at helping to categorize tricky fruit notes, bringing oft-named but actually hard-to-identify notes (like plum) into focus.
The 12-vial kit is too limited for the serious olfactory student, as it’s missing wood-centric barrel aromas (sold in a separate kit) and, of course, white wine aromas. That said, for just $70, this is an easy way to segue into the product category without much risk.
At the other end of the spectrum is Aromaster. Its massive Master Wine Aroma Kit, which costs about $370, offers 88 aromas arranged in a daunting grid. The breadth of these aromas is hard to fathom, including 23 different fruit smells, nine flowers, and 20 barrel-driven scents. Nine “wine fault” aromas are also included. If you’re smarter than me, you’ll ensure the lid holds tight on the “horse sweat” vial, lest a single droplet escapes and fills the room with its powerfully greasy, lingering funk.
I found the aromas in the Aromaster kit to be slightly funky and not as clear as the Aromabar ones. A milder experience isn’t necessarily a bad thing, since it means you have to try to “smell harder”—the equivalent of adding weight to your bench press. Aromaster’s aromas are all based on oils (some natural, some chemically reproduced) and while most seemed reasonably accurate, a few didn’t feel authentic to me. More problematic was a lack of reference points for some of the more unusual aromas. Fern? Tree moss? Gooseberry? What to do with these oddities besides use them as spoilers in the included can-you-identify-this-smell board game? If 88 aromas is too much, you can craft your own kit from 100 available scents, and target other categories including Cognac, beer, coffee, and even cigars.
Le Nez du Vin
For those seeking the ultimate in nosing experiences, Le Nez du Vin is the top of the line – and it’s widely considered to be the gold standard of aroma kits, for good reason. The $399 kit includes 54 aromas—significantly fewer vials than Aromaster, though I found I didn’t really mind the omissions. Le Nez’s aromas are a mix of wine extracts and essences made by a French perfumist. I found the aromas authentic, and nosed side-by-side, most were just a hair stronger than Aromabar’s vials. The biggest exception: Aromabar’s blackberry vial was the clearer expression.
The biggest plus of Le Nez du Vin is the extensive printed material included, including flash cards and a sizeable booklet which enhances the utility of the vials themselves. Look up any major grape and you’ll find it cross-referenced with all the aromas you might find within, and vice versa. It’s a simple thing but, oddly, neither of the other kits I tested does a great job in this department.
So, do aroma kits work? I was skeptical going into this little experiment, but I dutifully endured a daily ritual of sniffing the vials and trying to guess the scents, then sticking my nose in a glass of wine to see if I could detect anything different. It’s not a lot of work, but it is time consuming to open, sniff, and shut even a dozen vials in one sitting. Plus, as a veteran of wine tasting and reviewing, I figured my senses were already as sharp as they would get.
I was wrong. After just a week of aroma testing, I detected an unusual note in a glass of pinot noir: It was black pepper, I was sure of it, thanks to my experiences with the kits. I found that various fruits became somewhat easier to categorize, with strawberry and raspberry notes easier to put in the correct buckets. I even began to find that tap water had a particularly off-putting smell that I hadn’t previously picked up on. The sharpening effect only grew in power the more I trained my nostrils, and it’s a habit I hope to continue down the road.
These kits aren’t cheap, so if $70 is too much to invest, you might check out Richard Betts’ The Essential Scratch and Sniff Guide to Becoming a Wine Expert, which offers a great way to get started for just $9. You can also try to make your own aroma kits. Wine Folly’s $30 DIY kit is heavy on spices, while Wine Spectator‘s kit offers a more rounded collection of aromas. Just remember to keep them out of the sun and, for the love of god, make sure those lids stay on tight.