The Sniff Test
Writer Lettie Teague adores perfume almost as much as she loves wine. As she sips and sniffs with two scent-obsessed sommeliers, she follows her nose to the most aromatic bottles.
Plus: 5 Top Aromatic Wines
My obsession with perfume began when I was 18. That was a full two years before I began to care about wine. In theory, I should have abandoned the former as my appreciation for the latter grew; instead, they have developed along parallel lines. I continue to wear perfume, and I continue to taste, drink and write about wine—though not at the same time, of course (except, perhaps, the writing part).
It's practically a given that perfume is deleterious to wine; its aromatic domination is so complete that it is routinely banned from professional wine gatherings. Yet I believe perfume and wine have a great deal in common: Perfume is all about aroma, and aroma is critically important to wine as well. According to famed enologist Émile Peynaud, aroma is what gives a wine its personality. In fact, wine pros often say that everything you need to know about a wine can be found in its aroma, or nose. Even the word nose is significant: A wine has a nose, and a great perfume artist is called a nose.
Both wine and perfume have transformative powers. A great wine can evoke a place, even a particular piece of ground, just as a great perfume can transform a person into a bouquet of flowers or the sea. Both stir conversation and debate and even stir strong emotions.
One wine pro who is as passionate about wine and perfume as I am is Belinda Chang, the wine director of The Modern restaurant in New York City and the creator of one of my favorite wine lists (which includes lots of wonderfully aromatic wines from Alsace). I found out about Belinda's love of perfume when I was at her apartment for a tasting party. I'd stepped into the bathroom to wash my hands and found several perfumes and scented candles lined up on the shelves. Two fragrances were from L'Artisan, one of my favorite brands. I buttonholed Belinda: Did she like perfume as much as I did?
How to Smell Wine:
Belinda, it turned out, not only liked perfume but was, in her word, "obsessed." In fact, she confessed, one of the best parts of her job at The Modern was its midtown location; it meant she was very close to the perfume counters at Saks. But wasn't a love of perfume at odds with her profession? Belinda gave a big laugh (she laughs a lot). "I guess I just want our world to smell better," she replied. But alas, like me, she can never wear perfume when she's at work.
It was easy enough to lure Belinda to Saks for a little perfume sampling. I felt the same thrill of possibility as I did when I was about to taste some promising wines. The Thierry Mugler counter was straight ahead of us, the Mugler salesperson poised and ready to spray. "Angel is the first gourmand fragrance," he said, showing us the bottle. "It's aged in a cognac barrel." (We heard this several more times throughout the store; cognac-barrel-treated perfumes are all the rage, apparently, although they don't smell like cognac at all.) Gourmand? "This is the first fragrance in the world without flowers in it," he said. I thought it smelled far too sweet. Belinda liked it more. "It smells like pastry," she said. "I think any woman should be allowed to wear this during the dessert course."
As we talked with the salespeople, I discovered more similarities between wine and perfume terms: A fragrance is defined as having a beginning, middle and end, just like a wine. Actually, perfume talk may be more complicated than winespeak. Even the formidable wine critic Robert M. Parker, Jr., might be impressed by virtuoso perfume writer Elena Vosnaki (perfumeshrine.blogspot.com). Here is what she said about the new Marc Jacobs fragrance, Apple: "Deliciously fruity, Apple is aromatic and energizing, built around a green apple impression full of freshness…. The unexpected surprise of rosemary, jasmine and soft stellata magnolia playfully join in. At last, warm driftwood, coriander and cardamom gently delight."
We heard a lot of this sort of thing at Saks, though Belinda and I couldn't stay in one place long enough to hear more than snippets. We liked Jo Malone's French Lime Blossom and Grapefruit fragrance, which was pretty if rather one-note. We both loved Chanel, my onetime favorite. "Coco Chanel is Napa Cabernet," Belinda declared. "Women who wear Coco don't switch," the saleslady said. (I didn't want to tell her I had long since stopped wearing it.)
But as much as we loved Chanel, it was Hermès that won Belinda and me that day, specifically the Hermès 24, Faubourg (named for the Paris flagship's address). I fell for it immediately; its layers of spice and citrus brought to mind a great Bordeaux. "This perfume makes me think of Haut-Brion!" I said to Belinda and bought a bottle of the eau de toilette.
Then we repaired to The Modern to sample some wines. Belinda had brought out a few of her favorites, along with some of her most beloved perfumes. "I think there is an obvious connection here," she said. "The perfumes are ones that I chose for myself, and these are the wines that I chose by the glass, all of which are pretty aromatic." She raised a glass of the 2007 Cuilleron Condrieu Les Chaillets, the great, fragrant white wine of the Rhône, and inhaled its heady scent of peach and apricot. "This is the first wine that I ever had that made me realize wine could smell great."
Belinda stuck her nose almost all the way into the glass, and I followed suit. We both took a few short whiffs (which convey aromas better than a long sniff). This is, of course, what wine professionals do to first assess a wine. The goal is not limited to determining whether the wine has notes of flowers and berries or minerals and earth: It's also to learn useful information about acidity. If the acidity is particularly high, the aromas will be sharp and lifted; if it's exceptionally high, it might even make your eyes water. You can even tell the type of oak in which the wine was aged (French oak is spicy, whereas American oak has more vanilla notes). All of this, and more, comes wafting out of the glass.
We tasted two wines that reminded us of Florascent's fragrance Mimosa, all primary fruit and floral notes: the 2008 Weingut Prager Hinter der Burg Grüner Veltliner from Austria and the 2008 Momo Sauvignon Blanc from New Zealand. Then we tried a wine that was as rich and layered as the Coco Chanel perfume: the 2006 Arietta Quartet. This Bordeaux-style blend from Napa was so fragrant that notes of red fruit, even licorice, billowed out of the glass. I was surprised, in fact, by its intensity, as many Napa Cabs can be aromatically restrained in their relative youth.
And then Belinda produced a half-bottle of 2004 Haut-Brion, a highly rated vintage of the legendary first-growth Bordeaux. "We have to test your Hermès," she declared, pulling the cork. The aromatic resemblance between wine and perfume was striking: In each there were notes of dried flower and spice—and equally deep, rich and penetrating aromas. They were both glorious. The wine and the perfume were so perfectly in sync, in fact, that I even wondered if I could wear the 24, Faubourg while drinking Haut-Brion.
Perhaps, I thought, a perfumer would have some insight into how the worlds of wine and perfume might be reconciled, so I called Fabrice Penot, co-founder of the acclaimed perfume company Le Labo. There are 15 Le Labo "perfume laboratories" in cities all over the world, including New York. There is no single Le Labo perfumer; instead, the company's scents are all created by different top noses. When I called Penot, he told me, "Like a great wine, a great perfume should make the world more wonderful; if it doesn't, then it doesn't deserve to exist."
To Penot, a great perfume has "a soul and a shape," attributable to both art and technique. The technical aspect of creating a perfume cannot be underestimated: A fragrance may have up to 75 components, real or synthetic or both. I wondered, did Le Labo offer a fragrance that I could wear while drinking wine? Penot suggested I visit his New York store and meet its COO, Sophie Deumier.
Le Labo's New York headquarters looked like a cross between an alchemist's lab and a downtown bar. The narrow all-white room was dominated by a steel bar, with dozens of brown glass bottles lined up where the liquor might have been stored. Three small displays of fragrances were on the opposite side of the room, underneath the French words for women and men and unisex. Sophie, a pixie-ish woman, approached me and, before even shaking my hand, took one of the bottles and doused herself completely in Tubereuse 40 perfume.
"I'm hoping to find a perfume that I can wear while drinking wine," I told her through a Tubereuse 40 cloud. "You will need a perfume with citrus notes," she said decisively. "Citrus is one of the important components in wine." (I wasn't sure about this, but I went along.) She handed me a tester of the Fleur d'Orange 27.
"The problem with most commercial perfumes is that you have no idea how long they've been sitting on shelves," Sophie said. "That's why we make a fresh perfume each time." She indicated the brown bottles on the shelves. "We date all our bottles and tell people to use their perfume within a year." None of my perfumes last that long, but I loved the idea. It's similar to how Champagne makers print disgorgement dates on their bottles, I told Sophie—a kind of freshness dating. "Very interesting," she replied. "I would really like to learn more about wine," she added wistfully.
My perfume tour was nearly over when I discovered a fragrance that grabbed me: Neroli 36. It was fresh, bright and clean; it had a quiet presence (not the kind you can sense across the room) that was practically visceral. "It smells like a cool breeze. Actually, it feels like a cool breeze," I said to Sophie. "That's exactly what it was made to evoke: a sea breeze," she replied. "It was made by Daphne Bugey; she is a very famous perfumer."
I knew just where I was going to wear it: to New York City's Café Boulud, where the sommelier, Emanuel Moosbrugger, was, according to Belinda, as obsessed with perfume as we were. In fact, when I called him up to confirm this, Emanuel confessed he was so scent-obsessed that he even pairs the perfumes he smells in the restaurant with wines in his head. Could I perhaps trail him around the restaurant some night? I asked. He hesitated until I assured him that I wouldn't start sniffing his guests.
I brought my two new perfumes with me to Café Boulud. "It's slow right now," Emanuel said by way of greeting. "There's not much to smell." He suggested I wait at Bar Pleiades next door. A black-and-white Art Deco space, the bar—appropriately enough—looked like something designed by Chanel.
Had Emanuel always been interested in fragrance? I asked him. "I like to smell things," he said. "Whether it's on the street or in the subway or in the restaurant, I'm always walking around in a cloud of aroma." His fascination with perfume came about almost unwittingly, he said. "I would smell a peach-and-apricot-based perfume and think of a German Spätlese Riesling. Or a cedary cologne that smelled like a Cabernet Sauvignon."
But his was a talent with a definite downside. "There's a perfume that smells like a corked wine," he told me. "I wish I knew what it was, because I smell it a lot. One time I opened a bottle of wine and the man who ordered it thought the wine was off, but it was really his date's corked-wine perfume. Of course, I could not tell him that."
Then he left to check on the restaurant. A few minutes later, he returned to the bar. "There's a lot going on now; you should come in." Emanuel installed me at a table in the middle of the room and said he would let me know when there was something to smell. A few minutes later, he came back and suggested a route through the dining room. "You'll find apricots and peaches to the right, and then you'll smell cinnamon and spice. As you walk to the back, you'll find the large man in the booth is wearing a cedary cologne."
As the dining room grew crowded, the amount of fragrance intensified, too, and the scents of peach and apricot hung in the air. Emanuel began bringing over glasses of wine. "This German Riesling, a 2006 S.A. Prüm Ürziger Würzgarten Riesling Kabinett, is just like that fragrance you walked through," he said, handing me a glass. Ditto the Condrieu, which was an aromatic double for a blonde woman's peachy perfume. The glass of Chateau La Vieille Cure, a red Bordeaux, turned out to be a strong echo of the fat man's cologne.
What did Emanuel think about my two perfumes, the Hermès and the Neroli 36? He took several whiffs. He admired the Hermès but seemed dubious about whether I could wear it while drinking wine. "It is too much, I think," he said. The Neroli 36, on the other hand, pleased him. "It's very clean; it smells like the sea." He brought me a bright white from the Loire, the 2007 Luc Choblet Muscadet—a vinous double for my perfume. "Do you think I could wear the 36 while drinking this wine?" I asked. "A little," Emanuel said judiciously.
And so, though I love the 24, Faubourg, I don't wear it often. It's like a wine I reserve for special occasions. The Neroli 36 I use occasionally, as Emanuel suggested, in small amounts. I wore it out to dinner with a winemaker, who didn't notice it until I pointed it out, much later.
And I guess that's my final answer to the question of whether wine and perfume can be enjoyed together: only in very small amounts. Or, as Fabrice Penot said to me, "Perfume, like wine, is beautiful when you know how to stop."