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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.

Follow NorCalWine on Twitter for breaking wine news, information on events and more. Become a fan and join the NorCal Wine community on FacebookAlso check out our comprehensive Northern California winery listings. They are very useful for planning a tasting trip or just getting in touch with a winery.

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

Comments   

 
Paul Small
#1 Paul Small 2012-02-22 02:40
Another lovely essay, Fred. You really write wonderfully. Thanks!
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Liza
#2 Liza 2012-02-22 05:57
Fred! This is awesome. Totally explains why my brain feels so disconnected when attempting to verbalize aroma descriptions. It is separate! As always thanks for the insight!
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Wandering Wino
#3 Wandering Wino 2012-02-22 23:46
How very true, yet so rarely discussed. I can still recall the smell of my grandparents home from over 20 years ago, and I assure you it was not of blueberries. Fantastic post!
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Brenda Board
#4 Brenda Board 2012-02-24 16:24
The first memory in my educational classes is a lasting question...."do you like the wine".
- Brenda Board, founder, sommelier (French cuisine)
for Oliver & Company Tea Room pairing events
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SUAMW
#5 SUAMW 2012-02-24 18:50
Smells are hard to describe for the same reason lay people can't name a pitch: repeated training in identifying is necessary.

It's like being asked to name people you have never met.

BTW, are you a neuroscientist?
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SUAMW
#6 SUAMW 2012-02-24 19:33
Incidentally, there recently was an article featured on Winebusiness.co m that discussed the fact that Americans tend to have a poor taste and aroma vocabulary and attributed that to cultural reasons: we are given something as a child and told it's "yummy".
The fact that tastes and aromas are difficult to describe IS a matter of language and vocabulary but not because of a lack of thalamic involvement (it is plenty involved in taste and oral texture/tactile processing). It is largely due to cultural and training reasons. The "idiosyncracies " you allude to are due to tasters not knowing their aromas and substituting the most approximate linguistic representation they can come up with. Thalamic involvement is not essential to this task.
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Fred Swan
#7 Fred Swan 2012-02-27 00:15
Thank you to all for your comments.

Arthur, I definitely admit you have superior knowledge when it comes to matters of the brain. Note though that I was speaking solely of smell, not taste with respect to the thalamus. Also, I can't agree that shortcomings in recognition and description of scents simply comes down to training.

Look at a show like Top Chef Masters wherein the competing chefs are tasked with identifying foods while blindfolded. It is very hard even for these highly-trained experts. In this case, the issue is neither an issue of brain structure nor lack of experience. It is a lack of context. Our smelling and tasting of a blueberry is almost always preceded by our seeing a blueberry. Without visual and textural cues, identification is much more difficult.

The difficulty is even greater with respect to wine because, while it may contain some of the same compounds that give a blueberry it's aroma, it may not have all of them and it certainly will have many in addition. Very highly trained wine tasters can identify many more scents in a given wine than a taster with less experience. However, even the expert descriptions are mostly approximations based on personal experience and recall. There's no equivalent of a Pantone color book for scents.
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Donn Rutkoff
#8 Donn Rutkoff 2012-02-27 04:48
Hey Fred, how you. Sue. Good to see her name again. She taught a lot of sensory classes at NVC. You learn a lot if you sit in her class. No sloppy words. No gushing. Try to exercise the brain, not loaf, and it will reward you. I would love to get her down here to teach for a day.
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gdfo
#9 gdfo 2012-02-27 16:26
Good article.

The thing is it does take practice. Practice not only sniffing wine but also having a good memory for things that a person has already smelled and also the powers of observations and discrimination.

Don't go fast either.

Another thing to consider is that some people have spent alot more time with wines and hopefully have developed not only a suitable vocabualary but also the discipline and please also remember that talent may also play a part.
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Loulou
#10 Loulou 2012-02-27 22:57
Very interesting subject and thanks for that.

Don't know if the brain surgeons were writhing but we editors were. Please check ALL your 'its' and 'it's' before publishing (text and your comments).

Everyone hates copy editors, but you are writing from a "writing symposium," after all...
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Fred Swan
#11 Fred Swan 2012-02-28 02:08
My apologies, LouLou. I had less than 90 minutes to conceive, write, edit and post the article between sessions. That's at least 4x less time than I spend on a typical article. I hope your eyes have stopped bleeding.

Fred
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