12.02.2012

Wine column no. 44: Making sense of wine scents

At first, it always seems easy. Case in point: I opened the 2010 Louis M. Martini Cabernet Sauvignon from Sonoma County, Calif., poured the liquid into my glass, swirled it around and then inhaled the aroma.
Then suddenly, I was stumped. Was I getting blackberry, or black currant? No wait, it might have been something else. Black cherry maybe? It definitely wasn't strawberry. But I think I got some chocolate, too.
Welcome to the world of wine aroma uncertainty. It's subjective, of course -- that goes without saying. What your nose gathers from the glass may likely be very different from what your friends gather from across the table. But assuming that each of us has a consistent sense of what blackberry, for instance, smells like to them, determining wine scents should be easy. Right?
Not exactly. Joseph LeDoux, professor of neuroscience at New York University and the author of two books on the brain, says that smell isn't as important now as it once was.
"As primates went from ground dwellers to tree dwellers, smell became less important and vision, especially color vision, became more important," he's quoted as saying in an article in Enology International. "The relative amount of the brain devoted to olfaction was reduced while the amount devoted to vision has vastly increased."
That's the layman's version of a conclusion three scientists investigate in a study published in the journal "Brain and Language" in 2001.
In "The Color of Odors" by Gil Morrot, Frederic Brochet and Denis Debourdieu, these wily scientists resorted to trickery to make their point: They used an odorless artificial red dye to color a 1996 Bordeaux containing semillon and sauvignon white wine grapes. Then they asked a panel of 54 undergraduates from the Faculty of Oenology of the University of Bordeaux in France to smell that white wine that now looked like a red wine. What did these tasters find? Put simply, they used language used to describe red wine to describe the white wine, because the white wine looked like a red wine.
The scientists explained that identifying odors is difficult for humans, who have trouble verbalizing what they are smelling. That's partly because odors can generate emotions (think of the scent of your wife's perfume) and can evoke past situations (does the sweet smell of chocolate chip cookies baking in your mother's kitchen remind you of anything?) But another reason odors are so hard to describe is that it takes about 10 times longer to detect an odor than it does a color. The study concludes that what you see appears to mislead your perception of what you smell, and that perception of what you smell can impact your ability to judge flavor.
Further, "the hypothesis that the identification of an odor results from a visual identification of the mental representation of the object having this odor could be the reason why humans never developed specific olfactory terms to describe odors."
Additionally, the brain systems that handle language were formed many millions of years after those that control olfaction (smell), and there are relatively few connections between the parts of the brain that process smell and those that control language, added Richard Robertson, professor of neurobiology at the University of California at Irvine, in Enology International.
But if the words used to describe the aroma of a wine are difficult for you to find -- if they are at the "tip of the nose," as Enology International puts it -- there are tools to help. One we use is a wine aroma wheel, which separates scents and flavors into different categories. Since many wines tend to fit a certain flavor profile (New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc, for instance, often has a strong grapefruit scent and flavor), this wine wheel will help you identify other flavors and scents that might also be present in that wine but that are hard for you to come up with on your own. Our own wheel, for instance, has an herbaceous/vegetative category (for scents like cut green grass, bell pepper, eucalyptus and mint), a woody category (for scents that are smokey, coffee, tobacco, oak, cedar and vanilla), and it also has a spicy category (for scents that remind you of licorice, black pepper or clove.) There are others, too.
So what does this all mean? Basically, it means that it's normal for we humans to feel stumped over the aroma and flavors of a wine. But as with anything, learning the vocabulary of a subject can go a long way toward helping you get a better sense of what you like and why you like it. As for those who seem to have already put their collective finger on that "tip of the nose" aroma? They are either already familiar with the terms described in a wine wheel, or they're just making things up. As wine lovers, we'd hope they're doing the former.
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The 2010 Louis M. Martini Cabernet Sauvignon from Sonoma County was a great deal for only $14 at Schnucks. This isn't the most gentle of wines texturally, since it has some ending tannins, which dry your tongue. But it's flush with flavor, and if you seek to please your taste buds, and your wallet, this one will do both. Plus, if it matters, Robert Parker's Wine Advocate says this wine will likely cellar for longer than three or four years. A wine that'll only grow in importance and value for a starting price of only $14? We're sold.