The Nose Knows

Have you read any Mary Roach? She wrote Spook: Science Tackles the Afterlife, Packing for Mars: The Curious Science of Life in the Void, and Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers, among others. Of these three, the only Mary Roach book I’ve read is Spook, and I highly recommend it.

That is, Spook was the only Mary Roach book I’ve read until last night, when I started Gulp: Adventures on the Alimentary Canal. Here’s the synopsis provided by Amazon:

America’s funniest science writer takes us down the hatch on an unforgettable tour. The alimentary canal is classic Mary Roach terrain: the questions explored in Gulp are as taboo, in their way, as the cadavers in Stiff and every bit as surreal as the universe of zero gravity explored in Packing for Mars. Why is crunchy food so appealing? Why is it so hard to find words for flavors and smells? Why doesn’t the stomach digest itself? How much can you eat before your stomach bursts? Can constipation kill you? Did it kill Elvis? In Gulp we meet scientists who tackle the questions no one else thinks of—or has the courage to ask. We go on location to a pet-food taste-test lab, a fecal transplant, and into a live stomach to observe the fate of a meal. With Roach at our side, we travel the world, meeting murderers and mad scientists, Eskimos and exorcists (who have occasionally administered holy water rectally), rabbis and terrorists—who, it turns out, for practical reasons do not conceal bombs in their digestive tracts.

Does this sound odd? Yes. That’s why I picked it out. I also picked it out because, after reading the synopsis, I knew I would never sleep again until I find out how much I can eat before my stomach bursts. And whether or not constipation killed Elvis. For the record, I haven’t gotten to those parts of the book yet, and even if I had, I would never post spoilers. You’ll have to get your own copy.

Anyway, let me set the stage. It’s Baltimore. It’s late at night. I am snuggled up. I am being soothed by the soft glow of my illuminated e-reader. I am really looking forward to reading about Elvis’ untimely, potty-related demise.

I sit straight up. The entire first chapter is devoted to sensory analysis and wine tasting!

Score! Bonus. I do some fist pumps. This is the best book ever, and I’m only on the second page!

In Gulp, Roach posits – and it’s true – that tasting really means smelling. What we refer to as flavor is a combination of taste and smell, but mostly it’s the latter. In fact, as the book informed me, 80 to 90 percent of the sensory experience of eating (and drinking) is olfaction. Your nose, not your tongue, is the most important tool you have when it comes to assessing and enjoying a glass, or glasses, of wine.

Your nose: that’s why tasting and describing wine can be so challenging. Humans are better equipped for sight than for smell. We process visual input ten times faster than olfactory input, and verbal skill as it relates to describing smells and flavors doesn’t come naturally.

As Roach describes in her book, as babies, we learn to talk by naming what we see. As children and adults, we communicate through visuals. In our society, it is important to know colors. It’s not so important to know the difference between cedarwood and cigar-box (both actual wine tasting descriptors, by the way).

Making things even more complicated, visual and cognitive clues handily trump olfactory ones, a fact demonstrated by a collaboration between a sensory scientist and a team of oenologists at the University of Bordeaux back in 2001.

As Roach explains in Gulp, fifty-four oenology students were asked to use standard wine-flavor descriptors to describe a red wine and a white wine. The white wine was a white wine. The red wine was actually the same white wine, but secretly colored red (tests were run to make sure the red coloring didn’t affect the flavor). In describing the white wine, the students used standard white wine terms. In describing the “red wine”, the students dropped the white wine terms they’d just used in favor of red wine descriptors.

“Because of the visual information,” the authors of the study wrote, “the tasters discounted the olfactory information.” They believed they were tasting red wine, because it looked like red wine, and they described it as such.

I wonder if I have a trustworthy nose.  I wonder if I would trust my nose if the visual information I received was counterintuitive to what I smelled. I went into the bathroom this morning and took a long look at my nose in the mirror. I contemplated asking Robert how he thinks my nose compares to other noses throughout history, but decided that he would probably just say “pointy.”

What does this all mean for you, the wine drinker? How do you overcome years of deeply ingrained biases and realize confidence in the nose on your face? Just like learning to speak another language or play an instrument, you learn by practice and exposure.

Quite simply, you follow the SSI model: swirl, sniff, identify.

  1. Swirl. Swirl the wine you intend to smell around in the glass. Do this for 10 to 12 seconds. There are whole YouTube videos devoted to swirling properly, but I think they are a crock. You just need to get oxygen in there. As long as you aren’t spilling wine out of the glass, don’t worry about it. And that’s more because it is sad to waste wine than anything.
  2. Sniff. A typical human sniff lasts about 1.6 seconds and has a volume of about two cups. Sounds good to me. You can take two or three sniffs, if you like. This is your party.
  3. Identify. What does it smell like to you? Forget all that stuff you’ve read on wine bottles, and in wine magazines, where they throw out a dozen descriptors. That’s not sensory evaluation. That’s marketing. Taste is subjective. Here’s a link to an aroma dictionary, to expand your wine vocabulary. Only if you want to expand your wine vocabulary…I wasn’t kidding when I said this is your party.

Practice and exposure will gradually hone your focus and deepen your awareness. By sniffing and contrasting different bottles and varietals, from different regions, you will slowly learn to speak a language of flavor.

Amateurs and novices alike can also learn to improve their nose power via aroma kits, like Le Nez du Vin, which are made up of many tiny bottles of reference molecules. The kit helps you recognize and identify the different aromas present in wine.

Nose Training Kit: Optional

I’m not convinced you need a kit, however. Smell your wallet (leather). Smell some flowers (violet). Smell some candy (licorice). Smell a cake (vanilla). I’ve just named four of the most common red wine aromas. Will you look like a weirdo? Probably. But smell everything, and learn to identify those smells, and picking out those same smells when you are tasting wine is easy.

One Comment

  1. I was so happy to see another post from you in my in-box. I haven’t had one in a while and didn’t know if I’d somehow been dropped from the list or if you’d just been too busy to post for a while? And of course I never remembered to ask or otherwise check it out. This is all very interesting! And now I have to buy that book as well, though I’m not sure I want or need to know about Elvis–isnt’ he still alive anyway (teehee)? But like you, I certainly do want to know for my own selfish reasons just how much I can eat!

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