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The Magic of Wine Aromas

wine_smell.jpgOne of the most enduring and compelling attractions of wine for me lies in the nearly magical array of aromas that I can find in a glass of fermented grape juice. These aromas, which are actually airborne molecules capable of interfacing with our exceedingly complex sensory apparatus, appear nearly infinite in their variations and subtlety.

The science of smell, as it might be described, has gotten us to the point that we can isolate compounds in the air, and can associate some of them with objectively determined standards. We know, for instance, the exact molecular configuration that "is" the smell of peppermint -- we can literally construct it from scratch in the lab.

Just exactly what happens when that little molecule, natural or synthetic, floats up the nose, researchers have been clarifying over time. The nature of taste and aroma sensation, and in particular how our brains process these sensations (pure biochemical stimulus) and turn them into perceptions (conscious and unconscious processing, like "hey, do you smell pizza?") , however, continues to be one of the most complicated and thorny aspects of modern neuroscience.

As someone who revels in the landscape of aromas and flavors (which are really just aromas in disguise, most of the time) I'm fascinated by the science behind my perceptions, as well as the process by which we can learn to become more sensitive in our interpretations of smells and tastes. This obsession with aromas, along with a frustration at the various wheels and other inscrutable tasting aids out there led me to create my wine aroma card, which I offer here on the site for free download in six languages.

So you can imagine my delight when Hector, one of my long-time readers sent me a link to a recent New Yorker article which explores the intricacies and science of aroma perception (among other perceptions), touching both on wine and perfume in the process.

In typical New Yorker style, it's actually a book review of sorts, masquerading as an essay. I definitely recommend it as a pleasant and informative read, which, if you like it, might prompt you to pick up what is one of the authoritative tomes on wine, entitled Wines - Their Sensory Evaluation, by Maynard Amarine, the U.C. Davis professor who basically invented the modern scientific methods of wine aroma and flavor analysis.

Even if you're not an organic chemistry geek or neuroscience dilettante, I think you'll find the article a good read.

Photo courtesy of wickenden via Flickr

Comments (10)

03.08.08 at 11:08 PM

Luca Turin is an amazing person when it comes to scent. His book "The Secret of Scent", is a fascinating read for anyone, in or out of the wine business, who wants to learn more about aromas.

Erwin Dink wrote:
03.09.08 at 5:42 AM

I'd like to know what that wine was that smelled like pizza...

03.09.08 at 11:09 AM

There's also a book called "The Emperor of Scent" if I recall correctly, that's about Luca Turin; it's a great read.

Rajiv A wrote:
03.09.08 at 10:21 PM

I would also like to highly recommend Perfume: The Story of a Murderer, by Patrick Suskind. Filled with hauntingly vivid descriptions of all sorts of scents.

03.10.08 at 11:41 AM

Hi Alder,

A friend sent me the same article. The switch from educated discussion of wine aromas to perfume and book review threw me completely. However, I found the original premise, that wine tasters can communicate effectively with a smaller and smaller audience, the more adept they become at detecting and, more importantly, naming scents, a provocative one. Sorry about the run-on sentence there....i hope it still makes sense.

On this issue, do you have any recommendations for a relative neophyte regarding the actual identification and naming of wine aromas and flavors? I have considered purchasing "Le Nez du Vin', or similar, and wondered what you thought of these types of thing?

Max wrote:
03.10.08 at 12:56 PM

I also want some pizza wine.

Alder wrote:
03.10.08 at 6:03 PM


Yeah, the New Yorker can ramble sometimes. As far as training your nose, I recommend several things. The Nez du Vin is a good product, but expensive, and anyone who is serious about it can simply pay really close attention to the things you eat and drink and get much the same experience, albeit not in such a concentrated period of time.

I also recommend my aroma card (linked above) as a very valuable tool in tasting wine -- you will find that you are able to identify many more flavors by reading the card while you taste than simply trying to pull them out of thin air -- something about the way our brains work -- we're much better at multiple choice than fill-in-the-blank.

Jennifer wrote:
03.11.08 at 9:50 PM

As I read these comments, I see Alfonso Cevola has written and it reminds me that I want to thank him for opening my mind at the San Francisco Tre Bicchierri event.

As I was spitting out terms to describe wine, I used the term "minerality". Alfonso kindly asked me to describe what I meant by minerality. Although I actually had in my mind and emotions what it meant to me, I realized in being called upon to describe it in words was a "wake up" call in itself.

Not only was it difficult for me to describe, but I also realized that I was using a popular adjective without understanding my own feelings and thoughts around that adjective.

I always thought I was very present, in the moment, with great awareness. Alfonso gently showed me that I have some work to do.

Since then, I have been more aware of the words I use to describe things, whether it be out-loud or in my head. I want to use my own words and not lazily use someone elses words to describe what I am experiencing.

Think about it the next time you taste wine...

Thank you Alfonso!

Rajiv wrote:
03.26.08 at 3:54 AM

Jennifer - I've been having "minerality" thrown at me a lot at the local wine store. Still have no idea what it means. They say they haven't tasted minerals or stones, so... I don't know where they're finding this!

Reminds me of an interview of Robert Parker by Charlie Rose, where Parker describes minerality, but says "well obviously I've never put my tongue to the rock and tasted minerals but..." I don't remember what his reasoning was, precisely.

Alder wrote:
03.26.08 at 3:05 PM


Well, I recently was chatting with Karen MacNeil who mentioned that over the past year she's asked every major wine expert she's talked to what "minerality" was, and has gotten a huge variety of answers. So clearly there's no established "truth" about what it is.

Having said that, I HAVE tasted wet rocks, and lots of different kind of rocks, from slate, to granite, to sandstone, to chalk, etc. (I was a geology geek at one point -- probably still am one). And so I defintely have a sense of what stony/minerality/slate etc. taste like. There are real flavors/aromas there.

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