(the original article was written for I Love Chile newspaper)
Great discoveries on human senses were awarded with Nobel Prizes; in 1961 the sense of hearing and in 1967 the sense of vision. However, the sense of smell had remained a well-kept secret until 1991 when the New York Times’ science section published an article about smell. Linda Buck was searching the G-protein class in a paper about smell receptors with Richard Axel. An astounding 1 percent of human genes are devoted to olfaction and approximately $20 billion is generated every year by industrially manufactured smells.
Virtually all of these smells are made by only seven companies—the Big Boys. With wine, smell is one of the many aspects we use to recognize grape varieties, denomination of origin and even the vintage.Let’s review the scientific facts and dive into a wine glass to discover how powerful our sense of smell is.
The English scientist Malcolm Dyson in 1938 had become conscious of a specific, outstanding human power: we can smell and instantly identify the actual atoms hidden inside a molecule. Faster than our digestive system, our nose is capable of instantly identifying atoms and its vibrations. This has been key to human’s survival and evolution. Dyson wrote a paper called “The Scientific Basis of Odor,” which was inspiration for Canadian R. H. Wright’s paper in 1977.
But there is one man whose dedication and obsession led to the writing of a work that would open doors for him into the vast, secret world where perfumes are created: Luca Turin. From the French Riviera, he wrote about wave numbers and described odor as almost entirely nominative. He wrote the first perfume guide. With hearing, there are 88 vibrations for us to notice—every combination of atom-and-bond, its tone to its one particular frequency, is what scientists call wave number and they run from 0 to 4000. Shall we apply this to a wine tasting?
First, always hold the stem of the glass and never the body. Your hand transfers temperature to the glass and its content, and temperature aspects the smell: if too cold the wine is shy, if too warm you would smell alcohol. The visual examination helps us determine variety, style and age, among other aspects. There is a rich vocabulary to describe the wide spectrum of colors. Believe me; brick red is not good enough because it depends on where the bricks are made.
Hold the glass at a 45-degree angle. Look at the rim variation and colors in the horseshoe shape of the glass. With 4,000 wave numbers or frequencies to discover, there are no bad smells, and it is definitely as subjective as color or sound. Recognizing all of these smells is the quest of a lifetime. To do this, explore the scents of the world around you. When traveling, never miss the opportunity to visit local markets and wander in nature. Be aware of the smells on a sunny day or when it is raining, by the ocean or in the mountains. There is nothing better than linking a smell with a great story, which is the true spirit of wine.
Wine is a result of nature and culture, and therefore we should never forget the celebration of life and sharing our discoveries and experiences. We are all learning about wine, glass by glass.