What do You Really Smell in That Glass?

, that still doesn’t mean we can reliably stick our noses in a glass and figure out what it is we are smelling.

Night-blooming jasmine. Creme-de-cassis. White peaches. Graphite.

Ambitious newbies, eager to experience the breadth and depth of what the world of wine has to offer, often find themselves frustrated at their inability to pick out some of the tantalizing scents that wine critics offer up in their tasting notes.

In his book How to Love Wine, New York Times wine critic Eric Asimov describes the confessions he often receives from his readers:

“More than anything else, the single thought many people confess is that they don’t have what it takes to enjoy wine. They feel that somehow they lack the ability or the knowledge to appreciate what passes through their lips….’All those flavors and smells that people talk about, I just don’t get them!'”

Asimov goes on in his book to argue that most ordinary wine lovers live under the “Tyranny of the Tasting Note:”

“Somehow in the last quarter of the twentieth century, as the wine business began to grow, centering on tourism and consumer publications, the specialized vocabulary of the tasting note came to be understood as the common language for discussing wine. Nowadays, a vast majority of wine lovers who really ought to know better have convinced themselves that it is meaningful to know whether a wine has ‘aromas of apricot jam, guava, and jackfruit,’ or some equally overspecific description.”

No matter its meaning or relevance, many of us still enjoy smelling our wine, and just like encountering a delightful scent wafting from the kitchen of a restaurant we’re about to enter, our instincts often move us towards an attempt to identify the aroma.

But putting your finger on exactly what wine smells like isn’t easy, and researchers are beginning to better understand why.

We have long understood that the parts of the brain involved in processing language (sections of the cerebral cortex with somewhat obscure names such as superior temporal gyrus, inferior frontal gyrus and middle temporal gyrus) are quite separate from those portions of the brain that deal with olfaction, or what we smell.

When the marvelously delicate sensors in our noses pick up something in the air, they trigger a set of electrical impulses that go from the olfactory bulb to a part of the brain known as the amygdala, which handles emotion and instinct, and to the hippocampus, which plays a major role in memory.

With the operations of language and olfaction being handled by such disparate parts of our brains, it hardly seems surprising that putting words to what we smell and taste would be so difficult.

But scientists continue to be intrigued by this difficulty, and are beginning to better understand its origins.

According to new research described in an article in Wired Magazine, scientists have finally zeroed in on the part of the brain that manages the linkage between olfaction and language. This little structure is known as the piriform cortex, and it is one of several places in addition to the amygdala and hippocampus that our olfactory bulb sends neural stimulation when we smell something.

The piriform cortex, scientists are beginning to understand, acts as a relay station between the olfactory system and the language system of the brain. But contrary to past understanding, which suggested that perhaps the separation between these two systems might have led to the difficulties of linking language to smell, scientists now suspect that it is the very direct linkage between these two systems via the piriform cortex that may be the root of the problem.

When we see and hear things, those sensations go through many more processing areas of the brain, so to speak, before they are linked to our language centers. Smell and taste sensations, on the other hand seem to be more or less dumped directly there by this pirifom cortex without much filtering and massaging by other parts of the brain. As Greg Miller describes in Wired, “The information the olfactory system passes on to our language centers is crude and relatively unprocessed, like a few notes scribbled on the back of a napkin. The information sent on from the auditory and visual system, in contrast, is more like a polished draft, having gone through more steps, and presumably more refinement, in specialized sensory regions of the brain.”

Perhaps even more intriguing than this improved understanding of how we put words to what we smell, were researchers’ findings that the piriform cortex and its neural structures were just as plastic as many parts of our cerebral cortex.

In short, we are trainable.

Miller goes on to report of several studies performed with nomadic hunter-gatherers in Thailand and a distinct language group in Malaysia, both of whose languages for smell, by necessity it seems, have a much different character than English. The second group, in particular, proved much more adept at consistently identifying odors than colors, as opposed to English speakers, for whom the opposite is true.

The conclusions drawn from this research suggest that like many parts of our brains, consistent and vigorous exercise, so to speak, strengthens the connections we make. Exposed early and constantly to aromas and the language associated with them, members of these cultures develop stronger abilities to make connections between these two sensory realms.

Which happily brings us back to wine. Should you care to improve your ability to pick out those grace notes of tobacco in your Cabernet Sauvignon, you merely need to practice. Sometimes we all need a little help along the way, which was the impetus for my development of The Aroma Card, a handy little tool that the curious student of wine can use to help prod their piriform cortex along a little. You can download it for free, in seven languages, here.

But the best part of practice involves a deliberate effort to do more swirling, sniffing, and swallowing. It’s tough work, but I’m sure you’ll manage.

Photo of some cheesy male model smelling a wine courtesy of Bigstock