Some biologists discovered recently that human beings’ interaction with alcoholic beverages likely stretches back as much as 10 million years (or perhaps even more). In all that time, one would think that we would have a better handle on what it is we smell when we lift that glass of fine Cabernet to our nose and breathe in its wonderfully perfect bouquet.
Sure, we think we know what’s going on in there, and some have gotten rather good at faking it (“Night-blooming Jasmine?” Is that really what you’re smelling?), but there is more to that tantalizing perfume than meets the eye, and what there is to it has quite a bit more to do with the taster than with the wine.
Do You Have ‘The Right Stuff’ for Wine Tasting?
Newcomers to the world of wine tasting can sometimes feel a bit frustrated by their inability to pick out that perfect bouquet the average wine connoisseur can. Some can even feel a little bit intimidated by others’ seeming ability to suss out even the tiniest notes in a single sip. It can make a person think he or she doesn’t have “what it takes” to really enjoy tasting wine.
If that describes you even a little bit, take heart. You are in good company. Many people have the same thoughts about their own wine education and their ability to identify specific elements of a wine.
Making Scents of Things
So why smell your wine if all you’re going to smell is… well… wine? The answer is simple: We do it because we like doing it. It is no different than any other indulgence. A more complex answer would be that smell and taste are closely linked to one another, and that is also true. The question is whether or not someone can really enjoy a wine with scents he or she cannot place. The answer is, “Of course you can!”
Think of it this way: You pass by a restaurant, and you can smell the food cooking — all the food being prepared in the kitchen. You can’t distinguish between the bouillabaisse and the beef Wellington; you just know that everything smells good. So it is with wine. It smells good, because everything that makes its perfect bouquet, can be appreciated and admired as a whole.
From Your Nose to Your Brain
The clinical reason why we have such a hard time of identifying the things we smell is that we try to define those smells with words and mental pictures. The problem is that the part of our brain that analyzes smell has nothing to do with language or abstract images. Our brains smell wine and record the information as “wine.” We have to delve deeper to make any connection beyond that.
When we raise that glass and breathe in through our nose, the olfactory data we receive is sent directly to a part of the brain called the amygdala. This is the same part of the brain that manages emotion. Is it any wonder why a good glass of wine makes you feel good even before you ever take a sip?
The amygdala also manages memory, and memories themselves are not concrete either. Some memories are anchored to sights and smells, so when we smell something in the wine that triggers a memory, our brains assigns a subjective value to the smell.
Complicating things further is the fact that we can associate words to relate to many of our thoughts and memories. Whenever we see or hear something, the sensations we experience travel through many parts of the brain prior to being picked up by our language centres.
Scientists have discovered that the things we smell, on the other hand, seem to get deposited almost directly into our language centre. It arrives as raw data that has not been refined by other processes. Just the opposite is true of things we see and hear.
Training Your Brain
So why do we smell so many things in wine if it’s “just wine?” The answer is that we have trained our brains to process certain smells in certain ways, and many smells are directly linked to specific memories. If a smell is linked to an event in our long-term memory, anything remotely similar is going to trigger that portion of the memory, even if a similar smell is hiding out in a glass of wine.
The more we experience, the more we link smell to those experiences. Our noses are not discriminating, nor are our brains about how they handle olfactory data. If you can’t smell the earthy endnotes in that expensive Merlot, maybe it’s because you’re not the outdoor type (and, you know, that’s all right). Maybe you pick up hints of cedar or oak instead — woods from which furniture is often made.
Bottom line: Don’t worry if you can’t pick up all the subtleties and nuances in the bouquet. Breathe deep, savour the goodness that is about to pass your lips, and make a memory out of what is in your glass. Odds are it will be a good one.