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NorCal Wine Blog

Why are Aromas So Hard to Describe

Smelling wine is one of the most important parts of enjoying it. The aromas of wine and the places they take our thoughts can be very pleasurable. They evoke memories and even generate emotions. Sadly, describing aromatics effectively to another person is very difficult.

562px-Smelling_the_wineIt turns out that aromas are so powerful for precisely the same reason they are hard to verbalize. I’m at the Symposium for Professional Wine Writers at Meadowood in Napa Valley this week. The first session today was by Sue Langstaff on Sensory Analytics and included a brief crash course on the physiology of smell. That was as eye-opening as the segment on wine faults was sinus clearing.

All of our senses — except smell — send information they collect through the thalamus. That part of the brain does some quick analysis then relays the data to the proper portion of the brain for further processing, the visual cortex for example. The thalamus is also very important in the processing of language.

Aromas bypass the thalamus entirely. They go from the olfactory bulb to part of the amygdala. The amygdala is also crucial for processing long-term memories and some aspects of emotion. So, with apologies to the brain surgeons among you who will be writhing in pain at this generalization, our sense of smell is uniquely tied to our memories and emotions but is more separated from our words than the other senses.

If someone points to a lemon and asks you its color, you immediately say yellow. If I tell you a car is fire engine red, you know exactly what I mean. If I tell you that a wine smells like blueberries, you will have a general sense of what I mean. But the association isn’t nearly as strong as that of red with fire engines.

When I say “blueberry,” an image probably springs to your mind, even though I’m talking about a scent. You may also think “round,” and “blue.” But your mind will not create an aromatic picture. To get a sense for the aroma, you will conjure up a memory, a time when you ate blueberry pancakes or had blueberries on your cereal.

When I arrived at Meadowood today, the weather was beautiful. The air was dry and cool. There was a slight breeze. It carried aromas from the surrounding forest. The woods here include various evergreens and laurel trees. The earth is dry and dusty. It is covered with leaves left from Fall, pine needles, an assortment of grasses, flowers and bushes. Nearby was The Grill, adding a trace of seared meat to the air. I took all this in almost instantly when I got out of the car. It gave me an immediate sense of this location. It made me think of camping in the woods as a teenager. I felt happy and safe. But my brain did not immediately generate a list of everything I could sense. Nor did it break down the melange of scents into its individual components. Yet, in the future, similar aromas will remind me of this day.

If you taste wine regularly with a group of people, you get to know each other’s descriptive idiosyncrasies. In my group, I’m known for associating wines’ aromas with memories of things from my childhood: construction paper, jumping in a pile of leaves, a baseball glove. They have aromatic associations that are very strong for me. Now I know why.

Alas, specific memories are powerful but personal. My baseball glove probably smelled differently than yours because it was made from different leather, lay on different dirt, was rubbed with different oil, etc. Using memories to describe an odor to someone isn’t as effective as “fire engine red” is for color.

I’m not sure if knowing all of this will help me better describe wine. I hope so. I also hope it makes you feel better about not smelling exactly the same things in a wine that I do, or not being able to conjure up a clear aromatic picture of a wine based on a mere list of fruits, flowers and minerals. The best thing, though, is knowing that by enjoying — and smelling — wine with friends, we can create wonderful new memories that may be recalled by a random whiff when we least expect it.

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This article is original to Copyright 2012 NorCal Wine. "Brogan Smells the Wine" photo by J. Nathan Matias. All rights reserved.