Monday, April 13, 2009

Sense of smell and the wine palette (or don't take it too seriously)

Some thoughts on wine descriptions and your sense of smell.

Years ago, I would read all the literature out there. Tasting notes, buy the wine, try it and then read the notes again. We get phrases like "...smells of Lychee, organge zest, pineapple, banana, buttery...." blah blah blah. For every 10 descriptions I would be lucky recognizing and picking up one of them. Perhaps my sense of smell wasn't as acute, taste buds dead, sensory memory lacking?? Maybe there is something wrong with me? Stop right there.

Years later and many bottles down the road - I have yet to meet too many people who were truly missing these god-given abilities to taste. People may not know how to surgically dissect and analyze the wine but they surely know if it's good or not very quickly - there is no fooling that. The exceptions were usually people with a flu, Chain smokers, some other overriding impediment or cranial damage. If you enjoy food and can smell and recognize it; you should be able to do this. This is not to exclude the supertasters - there are those among us with an extraordinary level of ths gift. Even here, there seems to be quite a bit of confusion or disinformation on this end.

  • On one side, the media and experts tell us that there are "supertasters" among us which have biologically more tastebuds than normal people. Great - no denying this is real.
  • On the other hand, the experts also tell us that much of the perception of wine comes from the olofactory organs rather than the tongue and mouth - our sense of smell. The tastebuds can only account for the very primitive tastes of sweet, sour, bitter, salty. I would say add a 5th one which is "mouth feel" or "tactile senes" - somethig which tells us the difference between round and coarse tannins. That's it.
  • My simpleton conclusion is then that most people are barking up the wrong tree in putting too much importance on tastebuds and not enough on the nose...??
Getting back to not recognizing or registering the smells.....

It may sound like heresy but perhaps it was the book that got it wrong??!! Maybe the author thought it smelled or tasted like which may not correspond to your experience?

Here is my favorite example:

Buttery - Perhaps thick, creamy and viscious but "buttery"??

To me there are too many loose ends:
  1. Does it mean cold or melted butter? In which case it looks, feels and tastes totally different.
  2. Is this salted or unsalted butter? Again completely different - not many wines are salty
  3. Is this clarified buter? Is it cooked and to what degree?
  4. Is this Normandy, Danish, Japanese, New Zealand butter?

Don't Give up

Long story short - don't give up if you don't seem to be able to pick up all these nuances that other people or the wine literature seem to have. It may not be your fault. The simple fact is the aromas and nuances in a wine cannot be adequately described in words - words only go so far. Wine more than anything seems to give people and the general public so many assumptions, myths, preconceived notions and BS. You have to take everything with a grain of salt and use your own judgment.

The only caveat is if you find someone who can consistently find good wines and recognize them blind or zoom in just on smell and taste without looking at the label - latch on to that person!!! You can probably throw everything all other rules out the window and follow their advise.

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