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What's in a nose? The basics of wine-smelling.

Posted by miles on 2004-10-05 11:59:28 (11292 views)

[The Pedestrian Wine Drinker]
Now that you've allowed your eyes to drink in the beauty of the color and general appearance of your glass of wine, it's time to smell it. The how-to part is easy. Take your glass, and gently swirl the wine around inside of it. Try not to slosh it over the edge; this gets easier with practice. (It also teaches you not to fill your wine glass so full, Mr. Oinky.) Stick your nose into the opening of the glass--you can go pretty far and still be appropriate, but remember, the object is to SMELL the wine, not to stuff your entire body into the glass starting with your nose. If it begins to look or feel like the latter, back off a tad. On the other hand, don't sniff daintily several inches above the mouth of the glass. You'll miss most of the hot nasal action.

For whatever reason, scent is often the most neglected sense, yet it's the most strongly linked to emotion. Scent goes straight to the most primitive "reptile" parts of our brains, bypassing those logical, reasonable sections of the mind that filter senses like sight and hearing. This links it in with all of our instinctive, animal urges and emotions. It also, I believe, makes it more difficult than other senses to describe in words. Though it's much weaker than the noses of other animals, the human nose can distinguish over 10,000 different smells. And yet how do we describe smells? Two ways. We have a few general terms that generally separate smells into pleasant or unpleasant categories: heady, stinky, rank, odor (bad connotation), aroma (good connotation). And the other way we describe smells is by relating them to other things with a similar scent. This smells like…flowers. Roses. Perfume. Sh*t. Rotten eggs. Dirt. The sidewalk after a rain. Yet the smell we're describing is almost never the exact same smell as the thing we're comparing it to. That's just the only language we've developed for this least word-accessible of senses.

This helps to explain why describing the scent of a wine can sometimes sound weird, even unappetizing. Your wine smells like wet leather? Tobacco? A barnyard? Yuck, what kind of wine are you drinking? But that's just our best approximation, our attempt to make that smell relevant to another by comparing it to something familiar. And remember, the wine may not taste exactly like that one scent. If your wine has a hint of tobacco smell, it may have half a dozen other smells mixed in, with a result that is more pleasant than the sum of its parts. I find that a gin-and-tonic smells exactly the same as scotch tape smells. Now, I've never purposely tasted scotch tape, but I have tasted it incidentally in a desperate attempt to separate a piece without a dispenser, or maybe in a fit of my own special brand of really poor gift-wrapping. And it tastes horrible and bitter--not at all like a gin-and-tonic, at least not a well-made one. Smell does have a huge influence on taste; remember, 10,000 smells, and yet science tells us that our taste buds can only distinguish four basic tastes: sweet, sour, salty, and bitter. And yet as my boring scotch tape story shows, smell influences our experience of taste. It does not create it wholesale. Even when you have a cold, you can tell the difference between ice cream and sour cream. (Report back if you find that's not the case, please.)

Okay, back to wine. You've swirled it. You've sniffed it. You've attempted to find some way to describe what you're smelling in words. And it's hard. You keep coming up with "it smells good" or "it smells like wine." That's okay. Give it time. Experience it. Keep trying with new wines, and listen to others describe what they're smelling. You may find that you can detect the same smells once they've been identified for you. And over time, you may find that you suddenly figure out a smell for yourself. The other day, on my third glass of a dessert wine, it finally clicked: raisins! That familiar smell was raisins!

Let's face it, too: some of us have better noses than others. I personally find it tough to differentiate between smells that are not very distinctive. When I run into a wine that smells like bacon frying, I'll do great. But can I tell by the smell whether I'm sprinkling basil or oregano on a pizza slice? That bottle had better be labeled. However, in smell detection like so many other things, practice makes perfect, or at least better. The more wine you drink, the more you try to identify the scents you're smelling in them, the better you'll get at it. Isn't that great? Another reason to drink more wine. "Honest, I'm just trying to hone my skill at scent identification. Now, pour me another glass."

Coming up: The neglected senses…and an intro to taste.
Modified by perle0 on 2004/12/02 20:46


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