With the quickest of glances, we know if the vehicle ahead of us is a sports car or a sedan, a pickup or hatchback. Assuming we’re not color blind, we can easily identify its hue too. And, when we hear a siren, we instinctively know whether or not it’s a police car, a fire truck or an ambulance. We can easily make much more complex identifications as well. You can put a name to thousands of different faces. And you can recognize scores, perhaps hundreds, of people by their voice alone. Why, then, is it so hard to identify what we smell in a glass of wine?
There are three primary reasons: the way our brain works, our vocabulary and the complexity of wine.
Our Brain is Wired Differently for Smell
When we see, hear, feel or taste something, those signals travel through neurons, then through the spinal cord to our brain’s thalamus. The thalamus does some interpretation, decides which other parts of the brain need the information and then sends it to those regions.
Smell is the only sense not connected to the thalamus. And it doesn’t go through neurons or the spinal cord either. Our olfactory nerves are connected directly to the olfactory bulb, which is part of the brain’s limbic system.
Our sense of smell, therefore, moves to the brain more quickly and without the type of processing other senses undergo. From the olfactory bulb, aroma information goes to other parts of the limbic system, such as those associated with memories, emotion and motivation. Our reactions to these aromatic stimuli are immediate and instinctive, not considered or conceptual.
Because of the parts of our brain that deal with smell, our recognition of scents is dependent on our memories of previous scents. You can describe the appearance of a banana to someone who has never seen one. They will easily be able to pick it out of a lineup of 100 items. But there’s no way you can describe the aroma of a banana well enough for a person to identify it, unless they can see (or feel) that they are smelling a banana.
All of this is complicated further because smell is, by far, the most acute of our senses. That acuity gives us both a vast range of smell memories to pull from and a lot of stimuli to deal with as we try to identify individual aromas.
We Have Very Few Dedicated Words for Smells
The English language has about 180,000 words in current usage. Roughly 45,000 of them are adjectives. But, of all our words, very few apply only to smells: stinky, fragrant, fetid, odoriferous, petrichor, malodorous, musty, aromatic and, perhaps, a few more. Of these, only fetid, petrichor and musty refer to specific aromas—three words out of 180,000.
Rather than use dedicated words for smells, we liken aromas to other things or concepts. Smells can be powerful, delicate or restrained. Something may smell like strawberries, leather or tobacco. And, because of the association of smells and memories, we often describe aromas as being like a place or thing that is very personal to us: Grandma’s house or your old baseball glove.
Wine is Very Complex, with Layers of Aromas
In order to better identify things with our senses, we subconsciously filter out that in which we’re not interested. If we’re trying to identify a person in a crowd, we focus just on that person. You couldn’t name the person by looking at the crowd as a whole. And, if that person’s face is partially obscured be people standing in front of her, we may have to wait for those people to move or seek a better vantage point so we can see enough of the face to recognize her.
Our other senses are the same. Our hearing, taste, touch and smell can all be overwhelmed by multiple and/or dominating stimuli. Good wine tends to be aromatically complex. In fact, wine is the most aromatically complex thing we eat or drink. It has far more aromatic potential then the next two most complex items: coffee and chocolate.
There are usually at least one or two aromas in a wine that are particularly forward and recognizable. Those are easy to pick out. To identify more though, you have to consciously focus on those nuances one at a time. Anybody can do this, but it takes practice.
Getting the Most out of Wine
Aromas are at once core to the way we experience the world and difficult to pin down. It’s often said that smelling can represent as much as 90% of the enjoyment of a fine wine. How can you improve your olfactory chops to get more value out of every glass?
- Focus - Take your time when sniffing wine. There’s no hurry. Feel free to smell it several times for each sip you take. Try to single out aromas, one after another, to really examine.
- Focus - Other stimuli can impede our ability to identify aromas. It's best, especially when learning, to smell and taste wine in silence. You may also find, as I do, that your perception improves if you smell and taste with your eyes closed.
- Focus - Pay more attention to smells away from wine too. Smell your food carefully. Pay attention to the aromas as you walk to work, stroll through the park or drive down the road.
- Collect Aromas - Since identification of aromas is based on comparisons to other things, you need to smell—and remember—as many different things as you can. Pick up everything in the produce aisle and smell it. Open up and sniff all your spices, jams and dry herbs.
- Relax - Recognition of smells is instinctive, largely unconscious. The more you actively think about smells, the more you use the wrong part of your brain which then gets in the way. Memories, like dreams, come most easily when you’re relaxed.
- Practice - As with many things, the more time you spend trying to improve your ability to identify aromas in wine, the better you'll get at it. Tasting groups are great for this, because you can learn from other people's perceptions. And they can often come up with the word that's on the tip of your tongue but just won't come to mind.
Ready to put your nose to the test? Shop a variety of aromatic white and red wines at JJBuckley.com
JJ Buckley guest blogger Fred Swan is a San Francisco-based wine writer, educator, and authority on California wines and wineries. His writing has appeared in The Tasting Panel and SOMM Journal, where he is a contributing editor. Online, he writes for his own site, FredSwan.Wine (formerly NorCalWine), PlanetGrape, and the San Francisco Wine School where he also teaches. Fred’s certifications include the WSET Diploma, Certified Sommelier, California Wine Appellation Specialist, Certified Specialist of Wine, French Wine Scholar, Italian Wine Professional, Napa Valley Wine Educator and Level 3 WSET Educator. In 2009, he was awarded a fellowship by the Symposium for Professional Wine Writers. In that same year, he was inducted into the Eschansonnerie des Papes, the honorary society of the Chateauneuf-du-Pape AOC.