During a recent spell of Covid-19, I was witness to the fact that the virus instantaneously paralyses one’s sense of taste and smell. For me, the temporary inability to detect an aroma of any sort was of more significant concern than the tightened vice-grip on the chest, the volcanic fever and the general feeling of lame lousiness. For trust me, without a sense of smell, the world is an empty, hollow and uninspiring place.
No whiff of salty ocean breeze to announce the impending arrival of a Cape Cold Front. A freshly-baked baguette appears out of the oven, bare and scentless. My neighbour lights up a Partagas Havana cigar, and all I can do is look at the blue smoke, unable to breathe in the heady, warm aroma of burning Cuban tobacco.
And for anyone in the world of wine, snorting scent-less air from a wine-glass is an unimaginable horror. Pretty much like trying to play snooker with one arm or attempting to write a novel using your finger-nail only.
Smell is known as the only one of the five senses connected to memory. That is why the odour of an eraser (that rubber thing on the end of a pencil) has you recalling the coldness of a primary school classroom and that heartless maths teacher who could not stop stroking his moustache. Just so, the scent of lentils and tofu simmering in a pan evokes memories of the communist vegan drama student you dated at university, as does anyplace burning incense or smelling of leather sandals.
For a wine enthusiast, thus, the nose is as essential a tool as a monkey-wrench is to a truck mechanic. In fact, if I were ever to qualify to partake in the lofty profession of wine-scoring, I would make a wine’s aroma count for at least 40% of the total points accrual. Smell is the first point of introduction to a wine drinker after colour. The aroma introduces the wine’s health, its living energy and its exuberance. It can also be deeply intoxicating: have someone pour you a tot of 80-year-old Madeira or a classy white or red Burgundy, and you won’t be admonished for spending ten minutes being satisfied by the scent alone.
I would also argue that when the wine-boffins analyse a wine’s grape variety, age and regional origin, their respective olfactory tools will have the final say in the appraisal. Anyone disagreeing is welcome to shut-off their sense of smell with a clothes-peg before pouring and tasting a vino. See how far that gets you. Even better, have someone present two wines – a regal, highly reputable number and alongside it a glass of plonk. Both unidentified. Thou shalt be shocked at the ordinariness of the liquid in both glasses when scrutinising them without access to the sense of smell.
This is obviously why some keen professional wine sniffers have their schnozzes insured. In 2000 Robert Parker had his nose underwritten for 1m US dolleros, to be paid in the event of some or other unforeseen circumstance laid him unable to detect one overripe fruit-bomb Cabernet Sauvignon from another.
A weird Dutchman, Ilja Gort, who makes wine at Château la Tulipe de la Garde in Bordeaux as well as writing and broadcasting on the stuff, had his nose insured for 5m euros. Although if you research the flamboyant, attention-seeking nature of Gort, you’ll have to admit that this was a shrewd publicity stunt.
Publicity stunt or not, it is worth noting that the human nose is one hell of an effective piece of equipment. Apparently, it has the ability to detect one trillion (a thousand billion) different smells. With the most advanced wine critic unlikely to identify and note more than 100 different aromas, there is still a long way to go.
A few years back, research at Rutgers University in New Jersey actually found that humans are just as keen sniffers as, believe it or not, most dogs. The reason that dogs appear to be superior scent-detectors, is because they spend their whole lives within easy reach of the ground and low-level objects. They are, thus, permanently within striking distance of a nicely rotting buried bone or the heady odour of warm Maltese poodle piss.
Humans, on the other hand, spend their lives on two legs and their noses in the air, primarily removed from the onslaught of the world’s odours. But placed on equal terms (the Rutgers research had students crawling around on all fours for a few days) and a few days practise, humans showed sharp enough smelling-abilities to make a bloodhound blush.
While these are extreme lengths to go to, it underscores the fact that our sense of smell is a thing of wonder, to appreciate, and to hold. Until you’ve lost it, you’ll never know how valuable it is.
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