The World Of Aromas
"I get plums … red maraschino cherries … nuances of English leather with a hint of mocha…" And I am getting bored, was my first reaction in my teens when I overheard the wine jargon my parents used. Perpetuated by their friends on Saturdays who would plunge their noses into balloon-shaped glasses… now and again coming up for air with another string of adjectives.
Wine was a part of our Sunday lunch ritual while growing up. I cannot remember a great diversity, but I did learn how to differentiate between "red and white," "sweet and sour" "and "this is too bitter and dry to drink!" The wine I consumed as a student communicated nothing more than grapy deliciousness poured between friends on a Saturday afternoon. Little wine whiskers on the corners of my mouth were the only incriminating evidence that I was not at that proposed study group.
But a renewed and intense interest was sparked when I started to travel the world; when my senses were awakened to new flavours and aromas. All of a sudden, I was overwhelmed with a foreign olfactory world. Not only did this broaden my perceptions, but the exposure also nudged the memories of more familiar smells that were a part of my world growing up.
All of a sudden, smelling the rain coming down on a dirt road in Hungary created a longing with a familiar smell that evoked a sense of nostalgia. There, in a small town outside Budapest, I would remember our July holiday when we visited the Karoo farm. Everybody would run outside to soak up the long-awaited rain. Today, that pleasant smell that accompanies the first rain after a long dry period is called petrichor – often associated with an excellent Sauvignon Blanc.
Smell In A Nutshell
The day we as human beings developed the ability to walk on two legs, we sacrificed an intrinsic ability to smell in return for a better depth of field to become better hunters. Suddenly we didn't have to depend on our olfactory ability for survival anymore. Centuries later, animals still possess up to 300 million olfactory receptors in their noses compared to us having about 6 million. For every 100 sensations that reach the human brain, 60-65 is acquired from sight, 20-25 from sounds, 10-15 from touch and only one from taste and smell. If our cats and dogs could participate in a blind wine tasting, they'd certainly put us to shame!
That being said, wine-tasting, wine-judging, and the culture of food and wine pairing have become a vital sport or form of entertainment despite our shortcomings. The question is: does everyone have the ability to smell and taste wines?
When you smell something, those aromas are transmitted by the cranial nerves and olfactory sphere that forms part of the emotional centre of the brain - where the smell is processed. Smells are closely associated with memory and the emotions attached to those memories. It is this same frame of reference that is applied when you are tasting wine.
Anyone taking a bottle of wine from the shelf will instinctively turn it around to read the back label: blueberries, violets … But what if you have never smelled violets? Should you still be able to identify that aroma? Nope. Back labels only serve as a guide or reference to assist you on your journey.
Sensation Versus Perception
Wine 101 requires the basic understanding between sensation and knowledge to add a method to all this aromas madness, or at least to create some platform from which we can form these judgments.
Sensation refers to the process of sensing our environment through touch, taste, sight, sound, and smell. One becomes aware of the aroma of wine when the molecules floating on the surface of the wine comes into contact with millions of receptor cells. It forms an electric and chemical reaction transmitting a nerve impulse to the brain. The sensation is there for a passive, physiological process that applies to everyone.
Perception is the way we interpret these sensations and therefore make sense of everything around us. It is a personal experience and an emotional interpretation of that sensation. It is an active and intellectual process that follows on sensation, requiring higher levels of consciousness. It is connected to memory and images associated with that. Your brain analyses these aromas based on personal experiences.
Professional wine tasters need a lot of training to add structure and apply a more systematic tasting approach. This training teaches you to find the clues, draw the correct conclusions, and to communicate these quintessential characteristics of a specific wine as objectively and thoroughly as possible. Wine is alive and complex, and the aromas alone can be derived from a combination of grape cultivar, soil, climate, oak regime, and the oxidation that occurs in your glass. And yes, your environment and company also play a role.
Developing Your Aroma Journey
Little did I know that my wine acumen was empowered by a vocabulary of smells that I encountered over many years of growing up, becoming a student, travelling the world and coming home to make wine the centrepiece of my career. Armed with a wine education (and of course an ample amount of different glasses of wine later; banking many, many aromas) I can understand the logic behind my love for wine tasting and the excitement of dissecting all its intricate layers. And the learning never stops.
Once you fall in love with the complex world of aromas, you can never turn back. All of a sudden, your spice world of salt and pepper is joined by whiffs of cumin, cinnamon, and hints of nutmeg. You are that person that picks up a plate in a restaurant to smell it close up, often greeted with disapproving looks from your fellow diners. Suddenly your herb garden will expand with lemon thyme, basil, and fennel, previously occupied with parsley laden flowerpots. The word 'citrus' will be unpacked in layers of blossoms, pith, pulp, zest, even oven-baked rind, and marmalade.
We need to build a vocabulary of smells and aromas when we cook, travel, dine out, or go for a walk in the mountains. Nature has all these little libraries of smells that can help you in your pursuit to become a good taster. And trust me; it is fun and a continuous learning process.
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Samarie Smith - Brand Business Manager
Benguela Cove Wines | Benguela Collection
Samarie Smith is a certified taster and committed to spreading the wine gospel where she goes, albeit on wine judging panels, educational tastings or sharing the love while cooking for friends and family.
Follow her on Instagram @Samarie.Smith