The Magic of Wine Aromas

One 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