In this vale of toil and sin where your head grows bald but not your chin, there are very few universal experiences. One of them is this: You’re in your car, at the club or listening to music in your friend’s Man Cave—or Mom Cave—and you hear a tune with which you fall in love. You buy the CD and listen again in a different setting only to discover that the song is nowhere nearly as good as you remember.
Oddly, the identical phenomenon happens to N’wabudiké Bobangi, a Mandinka shaman who lives in a real man cave in the foothills of Kilimanjaro and has no dash deck, no car, no electricity and no friends.
And something similar occurs in the world of wine. Victoria Moore, a canny Daily Telegraph scribe, recently wrote about South African vintner Chris Mullineux’s experience of drinking—and neither recognizing nor particularly liking—his own wine at a tasting in England.
Apparently, this is not an isolated ‘doh!’ moment. When French researcher Frédéric Brochet offered veteran tasters a pair of similarly-priced, mid-level Bordeaux reds decanted into two different bottles, one with a cheap Vin de Table label and the other wearing the logo of a ‘Grand Cru’, subsequent notes described the so-called Grand Cru as ‘woody, complex, and round’ and the identical pour in the plonk bottle as ‘short, light, and faulty.’
Lest this prove a one-off, Brochet conducted another experiment with an enology class during which he served two wines, one white and one red. The students described the white as typically ‘fresh, dry, honeyed and lively’ and the red as ‘intense, spicy, supple and deep.’ Unfortunately for them and their career paths, the red wine was the white wine once again, only this time colored with red food dye.
From this, what can we conclude? That professional wine tasters are mountebanks, cons, frauds and quacks who wouldn’t know their casks from a hole in the barrel?
Or that, like Edmond Dantès, this dastardly shit-disturber named Frédéric Brochet who feeds his pupils carcinogenic food dye should be chained to the walls of Château d’If until he agrees to stop mocking us brilliant Bangers Out of The Tasting Note?
I vote the latter.
But if I take baby-step away from such defensive caviling, it’s clear that these experiments illustrate something profound about the strange science of flavor perception and the ‘why’ behind the ‘how’. In fact, neuroscientist Gordon M. Shepherd at Yale University believes that the brain’s conceptualizing of flavors is the foundation of an entirely new scientific field which he calls neurogastronomy.
Any first-year wine student—with the possible exception of the ding-jimmies in Frédéric Brochet’s class—will tell you that taste is primarily smell, and part of Shepherd’s mission is to disprove the theory that human olfactics were diminished during the evolution process; rather, he believes that our sense of smell is far more powerful and essential than had previously been assumed.
“We think our lives are dominated by the visual sense,” he says. “But the closer you get to dinner, the more you realize how much your real pleasure in life is tied to smell. It taps into all our emotions…”
Here, the ‘catchy tune’ analogy comes again into play. Most of us have experienced the odd, overpowering sense of nostalgia that music can produce—even music we’ve never heard before. Likewise, day-to-day smells that we encounter—including those that waft up from a glass of wine—can (and should) foster a wealth of memories. Being able to recognize what these smells are, or remind us is of, is part of the ‘art’ of wine tasting, and comprises most of what we scrawl as tasting notes.
Because for some reason I’ve always been able to identify specifics behind scents, I figured that my sense of smell was unusually acute. Yet over the years, I’ve come to realize that in fact, my ‘nose’ is no better than average—but somehow, I seem to possess near total recall about things I’ve smelled in the past. I dream smells almost nightly and can summon up weird mental aromatics of virtually every house I’ve ever been inside—Shepherd calls these spatial pattern memories ‘images of smell’. When tasting wines, I can usually manage to nail down bouquets in fairly detailed layers—which is one of the reasons I pursued wine as a side-career. Not sure if this is an ability that everyone shares, but I think so—I have just spent more time obsessing about it, dwelling on it and talking about it—certainly, I have aroma-yabbered to the point where I’m told to shut up.
So I will—and allow Dr. Shepherd to regain center stage.
In his recent book Neurogastronomy: How the Brain Creates Flavor and Why It Matters (Columbia University Press, 2012), Shepherd offers a fascinating overview of the mechanics of smells—how the nose picks up cues from the back of the mouth and how, when eating and drinking the act of breathing in and breathing out work together to produce the most complex of human sensations—not ‘taste’, but ‘flavor’.
“In fact,” Shepherd explains, “Molecular biologists have discovered that the sensory receptors for smell form the largest gene family in the human genome.”
Wine tasters, therefore, spend more time sniffing than they do slurping, and the actual ‘tasting’ phase is more or less to see if the wine performs to the palate the same pas de bourrée as it does to the nose.
The problem is, as Chris Mullineux discovered the hard way, these sensations can be as volatile as a vendaval, and one man’s leather is another man’s brett, while one woman’s goût de pétrole is another woman’s kerosene funk.
And potentially, these smells are not even there. In what was perhaps his most telling experiment, Shepherd asked tasters at Brown University to sniff and summarize their impressions of a series of liquids which—unbeknownst to them—were all water, though some were dyed. Invariably, the notes on the colored water mentioned clichéd fruit juice descriptors and the subjects perceived non-existent scents that matched their expectations.
At the very least, these experiments point to the value of ‘blind tastings’.
French novelist Marcel Proust’s works—especially Remembrance of Things Past—delve so deeply into the precept of ‘flashback flavors’ that involuntary memory is often referred to as Proustian memory. In the classic ‘madeleine’ episode in the novel’s opening, such a flood of emotion is triggered within the mind of The Narrator after he nibbles a tea cake that the rest of the plot stems from it:
“…And suddenly the memory revealed itself. The taste was that of the little piece of madeleine which on Sunday mornings at Combray (because on those mornings I did not go out before mass), when I went to say good morning to her in her bedroom, my aunt Léonie used to give me, dipping it first in her own cup of tea or tisane. The sight of the little madeleine had recalled nothing to my mind before I tasted it. And all from my cup of tea.”
Would that my own tasting notes were half so eloquent—and indeed, whenever I read that passage I understand how soundly Proust rubs my nose in it.