Anatomy and physiology of smell in wine tasting.
The sense of Smell in wine tasting
Two of our five senses respond to the chemical stimuli from our surroundings: taste and smell. Both depend on chemical interaction, known as chemoreception. Taste is: contact chemoreception, because to sensing the taste of anything requires contact with it. Smell is: remote chemoreception, it is airborne, and can be sensed from a distance.(from The Sense of Smell (Brief Overview for Primary/Secondary Grade Students) http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dIDBG-UPRUI
In 1990 BBC books published a small (soft cover) book, by Jilly Goolden, titled “The Taste of WINE“, for me it was one of the basic ABC’s to wine tasting. It meticulously described all the “Smells of wine”, not TASTE (divided by country of origin, grape variety, local blends etc.). Semantically, it follows the title of the reference book by Emile Peynaud: The Taste of Wine: The Art Science of Wine Appreciation (1984). Both books are titled mistakenly: The taste of wine. But it is by the aromas of wine (the sense of smell) that wine is “tasted”. It occurs mainly by accumulating information from smelling the wine in the glass before tasting and retro-nasally through the back of the mouth as the wine is swirled in the mouth, It is here that vapors of wine smells travel via the Nasopharynx to the olfactory bulb, and finally translated in the form of flavour by the brain. The human tongue (sense of taste) is limited to the primary tastes perceived by taste receptors on the tongue: sour, bitter, salty, sweet and savory (Umami). The wide array of fruit, earthy, floral, herbal, mineral and woody flavours perceived in wine derive from aroma notes which are interpreted in our brain through chemical information obtained by the primary receptor cells in the olfactory membrane.
.In professional wine tasting, a distinction is made between wine odors: “aromas” and “bouquet“.
The term Bouquet refers to the smells that arise from the chemical reactions of fermentation and aging of the wine in the bottle as part of the wine aging process, these are more complex kind of smells, combined together to induce an odor from our memory bank of smells (ground coffee, cigar box, leather, Tarte tatin, toasted bread, compost, caramel, toffee, mint etc.)
Apart maybe from wines made from the Muscat grape no wine smells like the juice of the grapes variety it is made from. Aroma refers to the smells unique to a certain grape variety, and is most readily demonstrated in varietal wines–such as Raspberries and blackcurrants with Cabernet Sauvignon, exotic fruits and canned Leeches with Gewürztraminer or Gooseberries and freshly cut grass in Sauvignon Blanc. These are smells that are commonly associated with a young wine.
As wine ages chemical reactions between the acids, sugars, alcohols and phenolic compounds, create “new smells” that are known as a wine’s bouquet. These can include honey in an aged Sauternes or mushrooms even truffles in a Pinot noir, and others listed above. The term bouquet can also be expanded to include the smells derived from fermentation and exposure to oak. Wine aromas are sub-divided into three categories-primary, secondary and tertiary aromas.
Primary aromas are those specific to the grape variety itself. Secondary aromas are those derived from alcoholic fermentation and oak aging. Tertiary aromas are those that develop through bottled aging.
Wine contains volatile and non-volatile compounds that contribute to the overall wine aroma. The majority of volatile compounds responsible for aroma combine with sugars in the wine to form odorless glycosides. Through the process of hydrolysis, caused by enzymes or acids in the wine, the odorless compounds revert into an aromatic form, thus the act of tasting wine is essentially an act of smelling vaporized aroma compounds
Of the human senses, the sense of smell is the most precise, with high sensitivity to minute amount of odorant. It is also the most fragile. Most of us have experienced detecting an aroma of bread baking, even from a long distance and certainly in the bakery, yet after a fairly short but continuous exposure of just a few minutes, that same smell is less noticeable. This “fatigue” is really an accommodation process of the sense of smell by means of sensory adaptation and occurs in other senses as well.
Since olfaction is connected directly to the Limbic system in our brain that supports a variety of functions, including emotion, creativity, long-term memory, and olfaction. Being primarily responsible for our emotional life, the formation of memories and smells in the same brain center facilitates connection of certain emotions that were evoked with a certain odor “background” a memory of that smell will be unconsciously related to an emotion. A connection between emotion memory and smell is created in our brain. The memory/olfaction connection plays a major role in the ability to relate (by association) wine odors to groups of smells fruity floral vegetal etc. which is a basic requirement in wine tasting. In fact of all our senses, the sense of smell is the most intimately connected with the brain.
The amount of odors in wine and their inner intricacies present a huge vocabulary from which to choose when coming to describe a wine. Ann C. Noble of University of California, Davis, formulated an aroma aid called the “Aroma Wheel”. It divides the various wine aromas to groups and sub groups within them covering the most commonly aromas encountered in table wines this was a means to try and “standardize” terms used to describe wines to a point that wine tasters, wine journalist, wine novices and readers of wine articles will “know” what was meant by a certain description:
The Aroma Wheel provides a visual graphic of the different categories and aroma components that one can encounter in wine.
The wheel breaks down wine aromas into 12 basic categories and then sub-divides them into different aromas that fit those main categories:
Fruity – Aromas like blackcurrant, apricot, apples and plums
Floral – Aromas like rose, acacia, or Jasmine
Spicy – Aromas like cloves, cinnamon or anise
Microbiological – Aromas like yeast and lactic acid
Nutty – Aromas like pine nuts walnut and hazelnut
Caramelized – Aromas like butterscotch and molasses
Woody – Aromas often imparted by oak like vanilla and coffee
Earthy – Aromas such as mushroom compost and mildew
Chemical – Includes aromas like sulfur and petroleum or nail varnish
Pungent – Aromas like alcohol and vinegar
Oxidized – Aromas like Sherry or acetaldehyde
Aroma Wheel: property of Aromaster wine aroma kits http://www.aromaster.com/product/wine-aroma-wheel/
A drawback of the wheel is that it does not contain terms used to describe the sense of touch on the palate, like texture or astringency, which affect the overall “tasting experience” and are a major factor in determining a wine’s quality, balance.
Prior to tasting the wine, a good swirl of the glass releases wine odorants into the glass bowl. Some glasses are specifically designed to enhance aromatic qualities and characters of different wines, these assist in capturing more aromatic compounds within the glass for the taster/sniffer, to detect. Wines served at warmer temperature will be more aromatic than wine served cooler due to heat’s ability to increase the volatility of aromatic compounds in the wine. Swirling aerates, the wine and increases available surface area, increasing the amount of volatilized aromatic molecules. Some subtle odors can be hidden by a more dominant smell that arise after swirling, so most professional tasters will sniff the wine briefly first before swirling.
The deeper our nose is stuck inside the glass, the greater the chance to capture the specific wine aromas. Our nose can detect and distinguish between thousands of different smells, which increase by means of training through exposure.
When wine is sipped, it is warmed in the mouth and mixes with saliva to vaporize the volatile aroma compounds. These compounds are then inhaled “retro-nasally” through the back of the mouth to where it is received by the millions of nerve receptor cells in the olfactory bulb. An average human can be trained to distinguish between thousands of smells but can usually name only a handful at a time when presented with a wide variety of aromas. Professional wine tasters will use their vast “library” of memorized aromas, for those with a lesser collection of memorized odors a visual aid like the aroma wheel.
Detecting an aroma is only part of wine tasting. The next step is to describe or communicate what that aroma is verbally. In this step subjective nature of wine tasting is most prominent. Different individuals have their own way of describing familiar scents and aromas based on their unique smell experiences, memories and “smell vocabulary”. Furthermore, there are varying levels of sensitivity and recognition thresholds among humans of some aromatic compounds. This is why one taster may describe different aromas and flavors from another taster sampling the very same wine.
In 1981, as a result of his research into vocabulary used to describe wine, Jean Lenoir created Le Nez du Vin®, a unique and learned combination of written works and collection of bottled aromas covering a large array of odors which form a part of the scents of wine.
“Le Nez du vin is a The 54 Aroma Master Kit has been the reference for wine aromas vocabulary. Our sense of smell is very delicate and highly sensitive. Practice through daily training allows us to recognize and identify the 54 aromas most commonly present in wine; thus, improving our appreciation and enjoyment of wine. These are the typical aromas found in red and white wine (including Champagne) from France and around the world. They give us an indication of the wine’s origin, the grape variety as well as the vineyard, the winemaking techniques used and the aging conditions. Memorizing these aromas provides an accurate and coherent vocabulary to further stimulate our appreciation of fine wines”
The 54 Aromas of Le Nez Du Vin are:
23 Fruit Aromas, 6 Floral Aromas, 10 Vegetal Aromas, 5 Spices, 3 Animal Aromas and 7 Grilled Aromas (full list could be found in: http://www.winearomas.com/master_kit.html
“It is widely accepted that sensory interactions can, and do, occur during wine consumption. To this concern, many studies have dealt with aroma-taste interactions which have been attributed to physicochemical interactions in the product itself, interactions at the receptor level or cognitive interactions. Although the understanding of these interactions has grown during the years and it has been demonstrated that they are strongly product-dependent, investigations have seldom gone beyond that of model solutions with a reduced number of components (volatile and/or nonvolatile molecules). Recently some investigations carried out in this field have been conducted with more complex matrices in an attempt to simulate interactions in real wine samples. The aim of this chapter is to review these latest advances in the research of wine sensory interactions, and to highlight the magnitude, relative importance and qualitative nature of such sensory effects.” (From: Sensory Interactions in Wine: Effect Of Nonvolatile Molecules on Wine Aroma and Volatiles on Taste/Astringency Perception Authors: (María-Pilar Sáenz-Navajas, Eva Campo, Dominique Valentin, Purificación Fernández-Zurbano, Vicente Ferreira).
The “correct” scent of wine can quite easily be reached at the winery level but the quality of wine starts at the flavour’s level which is a combination of taste and smell add to those the sense of touch on our palate and the balance of the wine can be judged to give a complete view of the wine’s quality.
Next post of the sense of taste continues “our” journey through the symphony of senses in relation to wine tasting.
I beg to differ, Aged wines? Yes please!
Thoughts on Matt Kramer’s recent essay: Is It Worth It to Age Wines Anymore? (Subtitled: Wines have changed and so have our palates).
On January 8, 2013 Matt Kramer; an American wine critic since 1976 and a regular contributor to Wine Spectator Magazine, who has been described as “perhaps the most un-American of all America’s wine writers” “HAD AN ENLIGHTENMENT “, an insight to the true nature of reality. (As far as I know, He is not a practicing Buddhist)
He rushed to write an article titled: Is It Worth It to Age Wines Anymore? Wines have changed and so have our palates. This was posted in his column drinking out loud in the wine Spectator web site, read it on:
“My greatest wine dream, was a wine cellar, so full that I could easily forget about whole cases of wine for years at a time, the better to let them age to a fantasized perfection. That dream came true… I was motivated, obsessed even, by a vision of what might be called futuristic beauty. How soaringly beautiful it would be in 15 or 20 years! I wasn’t wrong—then. But I wouldn’t be right for today. What’s changed? Surely me of course.(He says), I’ve had decades of wine drinking to discover that my fantasized wine beauty only rarely became a reality. But I had to find that out for myself. And I’m glad I did…. In recent years it’s become obvious that an ever greater number of wines that once absolutely required extended aging no longer do”
Really? And if so, I am quite sure that if only one odd GREAT wine on his “list of grandeur”, it was still worth it. I bet you that this is the only wine he really remembers most, a memory that focuses on the finest, minute detail of taste, flavor, aroma and even appearance, from all the other hundreds even thousands of wines he had since 1976. After all, he had all the great wines of the 60’s 70’s 80’s and 90’s of the 20th century to sample and enjoy. He continues in saying: “Simply put, most of today’s fine wines—not all, mind you—will reach a point of diminishing returns on aging after as few as five years of additional cellaring after release. Stretch that to a full 10 years of additional aging and I daresay you will have embraced fully 99 percent of all the world’s wines, never mind how renowned or expensive”.
I agree that less than 1 percent of world wines are really Great, but how many bottles of wine is 1%? Well, in 2011 248 million hectoliters of wine were produced, 1 hectoliter = 100 liters, that is 24 trillion 800 million liters of wine, more than 33 trillion bottles, one percent of which is 330 million great bottles! each year! That is a lot of great wines (if 1% is an accurate measure according to Kramer). Between us 1% of excellence in anything is reasonable, when counting the number of wine writers or any other group of professionals who really know what they are talking about (1% would be just right). When excellence is the sought after, high quality of 1% is a very good starting point, and ultimately this is not such a small quantity. Allow me to beg to differ yet again, on the “5-10 years at the most will improve by aging” maybe this is the best American wines can get to (I am no expert on American wines so I will take Mr. Kramer’s word for it. Is it the trends in new world winemaking methods that initiated Kramer’s Enlightenment? Is it an American way of always looking at their own as a reference for the best of the rest? or maybe it is the odd, rather new “varietal taste” that had led to this horrific conclusion?
He continues: “Well, what about them old great Old world wines (he lists French, Italian from great wine regions). Yes, all of those wines and still others, such as German and Alsatian Rieslings, Napa Valley Cabernets and Hungarian Tokajis, reward aging. But let me tell you something: With only a handful of ultra traditionalist exceptions, the modern versions of even these wines don’t require anywhere near as much aging as their forebears.”
And I beg to differ again, after all these “ultra traditionalist exceptions”, are the reference wines for all “great wines” of the present and future, the summit all those “modern versions” strive to achieve, copy, imitate, taste like, feel like, affect our senses like… of course, most imitations are “groupies” of the real thing. They may succeed in each and every aspect of excellence separately but Alas fail to stand out as a complete product, lacking the overall balance that separates between the many: good, very good, excellent and EXTRAORDINARY wines.
“… it’s that fine wines have universally changed, sometimes radically so. And our tastes have changed, too… Modern wine offers us a fuller, richer, more rewarding view sooner. Think of an old oil painting carefully and respectfully cleaned of an obscuring varnish, allowing both color and texture to leap out almost three-dimensionally, and you’ve got it.
Well, I think the beauty of an old painting is in the craftsmanship rather than it’s cleanliness. Please do not clean or fix Michelangelo’s or Da Vinci’s work, don’t fix the Sphinx’s broken nose and don’t tell me that modern wines can even be compared with the good old traditional wines of the old world made by hundreds of beacon bearers around the world, if that’s the wines you like fine just don’t tell me “our (my) palate have changed”
The bottom line: Today’s wines are far more drinkable, far more gratifying, far more rewarding when drunk younger than their counterparts of 20 years ago.Can they age as long? Yes, I think they can. But that’s not the issue. Rather, the key question is: Do they need to? I think not. Only a very small handful of even the best wines truly require more than five years aging—10 years tops—in a cool space.
I find most “modern wines” harsh, over alcoholic, lacking in Elegance, Finesse and Balance, still they are designed to fit a general taste those so called modern winemakers “brainwashed” their consumers to like, basically they are sales orientated and I expect respected wine critics not to fall in the same trap which is a PR stunt directed at wine novices rather than “wine experts”.
Of course there are wines today that stubbornly withhold their favors, such as Vintage Port and those few white wines that do not go through malolactic fermentation, such as Trimbach Rieslings, Mayacamas Vineyards Chardonnay or the white Burgundies of Maison Louis Jadot.
How can you put in one sentence Wine Houses that make very few wines mostly single vineyards (Trimbach make only 4 different wines) to Maison Louis Jadot (with all due respect) that produces approximately 150 different wines each year many of which from the general area?
…I am now convinced that today’s wine lover is well advised to buy fine wines, cellar them in a cool space for five years—10 years, tops—and then drink them in secure confidence that the great majority of their full-dimensional goodness is available to you. After that, it’s all just fantasy—and the very real likelihood of an increasingly diminishing return on your already delayed gratification.
Kramer describes in one of his books how he began his career as a wine writer in 1976, then a food writer of a weekly paper, in a meeting with his publisher. As the advertising department had altered the food page contents to include a “wine of the week” column, to the advertisers’ approval, Kramer was told that he would write this new column. Kramer resisted, saying, “But I don’t know anything about wine”, but the publisher replied, “That’s all right. Neither does anyone else”. Kramer went on to become a respected wine writer yet I hope his publisher did not convince him, because I for one do know quite a few who know A LOT about wine! Most of who have a gift of extra sensitive sense of taste and smell and flavour, I envy them from time to time and know that they do poses a gift that make them better judges of overall quality of wine in a broader sense than I would ever achieve.
Kramer once criticized wine critics in his New York Sun column, pointing to “almost desperate attempt by some of today’s wine tasting potentates to bolster their credibility by suggesting a physical superiority”. Kramer summarized that, “suggesting a linkage of taste buds to wine judgment is like confusing eyesight with insight”. Robinson later addressed the issue in an article that suggested Kramer may not have read Robinson’s own account before publishing his column, stressing that to suggest physical superiority “was the last thing [she] was attempting” (from Wikipedia)
Since Jancis Robinson cannot suggest physical superiority herself, let me say that without a doubt she and a few others I know do poses it, they should not be ashamed with the gift they possess, it is a blessing, Kramer and I can only be envious! Some people poses better sensibility in various sense organs you must admit you heard of people with absolute pitch, perfect pitch when it comes to the sense of hearing/sound, some people have a perfect sense of smell or taste and when combined with knowledge be it perfumes or wine or food, they are better judges! Their vocabulary is richer!
Thank God for wine writers like Matt Kramer of Wine Spectator, if only more and more people will be convinced in this assertive fallacy, more well aged and sublime wines will be left for us wine lovers (of excellent aged wines whose palates have not changed overnight) at more sensible prices. I for one, promise not to “touch” wines from their list, as long as they leave my 1% of suitable wines to enter the “aged wines” list alone. All the wines in my “top ever wine list” that I remember with pleasure and longing, are wines of well over 15 years of “aging”.
Wine is a live commodity, it keeps changing in time and the ones that change for the better are worth all the patience and endurance, they are the hope of every winemaker, the completion of his aspirations and his expression as an artist of wine making and not simply a maker of wine.
Kramer by the way is the guy who wrote: “How to Really Taste Wine, The six most important words in wine tasting” He very sensibly lists: Complexity, Texture, Midpalate Density, Proportion, Finesse and Balance as his “six pillars of wine tasting wisdom”…quite a good reading (and writing) http://www.winespectator.com/webfeature/show/id/47792 , I do not know what came over him recently but when one has many followers/readers, they should be careful with the effect of the written word on the less informed.
I beg to differ is: a polite way of saying that you disagree with something that someone has said (from the free dictionary dot com) and so my friends, allow me to BEG TO DIFFER! (I hope Mr. Kramer will take it in the polite way it is intended), I agree to disagree!