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Understanding Wine: Scent & Sensibility

Chef Daniel Patterson, an aroma innovator, considers the mysterious and powerful connection between wine, scent, memory and pleasure.

When a friend introduced me to a natural perfumer named Mandy Aftel a few years ago, I had no idea how my life would change. She taught me about essential oils, which I began using in cooking, and, more importantly, about how our sense of smell affects what we feel and remember. We eventually wrote a book together about food and fragrance, and that led to a culinary collaboration. Mandy made a perfume to accompany a dish at my restaurant that contains the same aromas: ginger, black pepper, tarragon and cognac. Diners rub the perfume on their wrists and sniff it before tasting the dish to highlight the relationship between smell and taste, as well as to create an indelible memory of what they ate. It usually works, although occasionally diners, encountering this idea for the first time, find this scratch-and-sniff approach ridiculous. The funny thing is that these same skeptics usually find nothing odd about smelling their wine before drinking it.

In fact, the first thing a novice wine drinker usually learns to do is to smell a wine several times before tasting it, because most of what we think of as a wine’s flavor comes from its aroma. If your sense of smell is blocked, it’s nearly impossible to distinguish red wine from white, let alone identify more refined differences.

Much of the reason we are so strongly affected by wine’s aromas is due to physiology. Smell goes directly to an area of our brain called the limbic system, which is also a center of taste, emotion and memory. Evolutionarily speaking, that structure makes perfect sense: Once upon a time, before we hunted plastic-wrapped dinners under a fluorescent sun, we had to find food in the wild. Aroma, and the way it links to pleasure and memory, helped us distinguish plants that would kill us from those that would nourish us.

So here we are, thousands of years later, using a survival mechanism to enjoy a beverage that, unlike food, is not necessary for survival (though wine buffs may debate this point). Our sense of smell, and the way it links to what we feel and remember, has everything to do with what we like to drink and why.

The range of aromatic experiences in wine far exceeds that in food. No matter how it’s cooked, food generally smells like what it is: No amount of aging or fermenting can make a lamb chop smell like a grapefruit. But a Sauvignon Blanc grape, which in its raw state neither smells nor tastes anything like a grapefruit, may make a wine that does.

In addition to smelling like all manner of foods, from berries to bacon, a wine can smell like many things we can’t eat: granite, tar, cedar. Often, wines have composite aromas that are tantalizingly familiar, yet not easily identified. A wine’s scent can remind us of the briny seashore or herb-covered hillsides in spring, of a basket of strawberries in the sun or a walk through a forest on a rainy day. Wine’s ability to evoke other places and experiences gives it a powerful emotional component.

And yet, despite all of our technological advances in recent decades, we still don’t know exactly where these complex aromas in wine come from. “Wine is a profoundly transformative process,” says California winemaker Sean Thackrey. “The aromas of a wine are not in the grapes in the vineyard, or the pressed juice, or the fermentation tank. Often they don’t come out until much later.” We know that aromas are affected by how the grapes are treated in the vineyard, by the natural conditions, and then by how the wine is made and aged. We know that the primary aromas in wine generally come from the juice of grapes and its interaction with yeast. The two tango together in chemical reactions so complicated that we’ve only begun to understand how they work.

And we know, even if we’re not yet exactly sure why, that there are some scents that can only be expressed under certain conditions; nowhere else in the world can a wine be made with the powerful mushroom, dust and orange marmalade aromas of those from the vineyard of Montrachet. The most distinctive wines come from a specific spot on the earth, and their aromas cannot be duplicated.

It is this unique ability to capture the relationship between a place and the people who live there that gives wine its cultural significance. In traditional winegrowing regions in much of Europe, the wines people enjoy most are the ones that they grew up drinking—the wines of their birthplace. Just as we learn to love certain smells through association, our sensory memories and the way they link to our experiences dictate what we enjoy.

My wife’s college roommate still occasionally recounts the time that my wife threw away her perfectly ripe wheel of Vacherin. It stunk up the refrigerator so badly that, having never encountered a cheese like it, she quite reasonably assumed that it must be rotten. That cheese would be a delicacy in France, where it was made. But bring it to a rural village in China, where fermented tofu is more the norm than fermented milk, and the people there would probably react much as my wife did. Disgusting and delicious are relative, and both responses are learned.

But that doesn’t mean that we’re doomed to only like what we know from childhood. In fact, the opposite is true: Because of the way our sense of smell works, we can train our palates to evolve. Outside of extreme bitterness or rotting aromas, there are few scents to which we are biologically averse. By smelling, thinking and talking about what we drink, we can create a personal catalogue of sensory pleasures—and, occasionally, disappointments. I have learned, for example, that I like Lagrein, a native red variety from northern Italy’s Alto Adige region, with its gamey, earthy aromas of venison and wild herbs. But I don’t much care for New Zealand Sauvignon Blancs that smell like cat pee. On a practical level, when I’m choosing a wine to drink, my past experiences help guide me toward something that I’ll enjoy.

And those experiences also tell me when there’s something wrong with a wine. When a restaurant server pours a wine to try, I usually only smell it—I don’t need to taste it to know if the wine is flawed. Sometimes those flaws are obvious, like in the case of a corked wine, where the tainted cork has produced a musty smell of wet cardboard that is pretty easy to discern. But experience with a wine’s aromas is more important when the flaw is subtle. Sometimes barely corked or oxidized wines aren’t completely ruined, but the brightness of the fruit is dampened. A few weeks ago, I brought a mature Bordeaux to a dinner party. Having tasted the same wine a few weeks prior, the second I smelled the bottle I had brought, I knew it was off. The other dinner guests enjoyed it, but I didn’t, knowing how the wine should have tasted.

My most vivid wine memories are pleasant ones, however, of bottles I’ve shared with friends. I still remember an old vintage from the Corton-Bressandes region of Burgundy that I drank with a friend 13 years ago, which smelled just like the black truffle risotto and grilled pheasant I had made to accompany it. It was a spontaneous and wonderful meal, and when I smell a wine from that region now, I feel a bit of its refracted warmth.

It is this intersection of aroma, memory and pleasure that gives wine its enduring appeal. It’s also the best reason—and, since there aren’t many poisoned wines around these days, probably the crucial reason—to sniff your wine. If paying attention to aroma helps to find, drink and remember wines that we enjoy, then that should be reason enough to pause before drinking. And breathe deeply.

Daniel Patterson, an F&W Best New Chef in 1997, is the chef and owner of Coi in San Francisco and the co-author of Aroma.

Published July 2008
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