One of the great challenges of wine appreciation is describing what we taste, not just to other people but even to ourselves. Translating what we smell or taste into words is far more difficult than translating what we see into words. While dogs for example experience the world mainly through their sense of smell, we humans are far more visual and we describe the world in terms of what we see with our eyes. From an early age we are encouraged to 'show and tell' but we are never taught to 'smell and tell'. All languages have a rich and sophisticated vocabulary for describing what we see, and we can be very precise in terms of color, shape, size and visual distance when communicating with others - but such a vocabulary does not exist for smells and tastes. There is no semantic tradition in any culture or in any language to describe the things we smell, in the way that we are able to identify things that we see.
In fact the whole process of smelling is limited to a single word: smell. There is a smell coming from the mushrooms; I smell the mushrooms; the mushrooms smell. The same single word is used to describe the odor, the detection of the odor and the action of the odor. Compare that to all the words we have for seeing, looking, watching, gazing, observing etc. We must therefore look around in our personal memories for similar smells and tastes to compare with the wine and then, when trying to share our experience, make subjective comparisons: "it tastes like dark chocolate with a hint of mushrooms and damp leaves."
Another problem is that the part of the brain which processes smells also handles emotions and memory; it's not only the most primitive part of the brain, it's also the most subjective and personal. Smells are chemicals, and as the wine is exposed to air and evaporates, chemical molecules rise from the glass, through our nose to the receptors in our olfactory cortex.
The olfactory cortex which evolved over the eons into the amygdala, is the very oldest part of our brain, and is where emotions and memories are processed. The very earliest job of the brain was to process smell: does it smell good or bad? Is it something I can eat, something I would like to have sex with or something I should run away from before it eats me? Memories of smells were therefore critical to survival and, even in the amygdala of the modern brain, the chemical processing of smells and emotions, memory and desire, are all intimately entwined at a primitive level.
What the olfactory receptors do is transform the chemical information of the wine’s aroma molecules into electrical signals. These electrical signals travel into the brain’s cerebral cortex; the deepest, most primitive and least ‘conscious’ part of the brain where the electronic impulses are translated back into the memory of our mother’s kiss, a feeling of hunger, the desire for a woman, the pleasure of luxury, the terror of darkness or the lingering scent of invisible lilacs. These involuntary but powerful stirrings of our deepest emotions can all be released by the scent of a loved one’s pillow, the fragrance of a rose upon the evening air or the delicate aromas released by a glass of wine. Nothing is more powerful or evocative and less subject to our verbal skills or logical analysis than our sense of smell.
One of my favorite times of year is the fall when I go mushroom hunting in France, combing through the woods of Perigord looking for cèpe mushrooms and truffles; stepping through the fallen leaves and savoring the musky dampness of the decaying vegetation. Most Spanish red wines have an earthy aroma that reminds me of my days in the woods and so for me the association of earthiness and damp leaves is pleasing and enhances my enjoyment of a good Tempranillo. But to another person, with different memories and experiences, the concept of damp organic decay might be totally disgusting and my enthusiastic description of the wine might persuade them never to try it. Worse still, because of the unpleasant associations created by my description, a person tasting the wine might possibly dislike it and unfairly discover in it all the bad qualities they imagined that I had suggested.
Wine drinkers therefore need to consciously train themselves to develop a commonly accepted vocabulary that will allow them to discuss wines with other people. With practice and concentration they can decide if a wine reminds them of fruit, or of vegetables, or wood, or fresh-cut-grass. If it reminds them of fruit - is it a berry fruit, a tropical fruit or a citrus? Over time, wine drinkers will discover a common language that enables them to share their impressions of a wine with other people using words and allusions that are mutually understood. But to develop such a vocabulary takes practice and conscious effort. The difference between a professional taster and the rest of us is training. Unfortunately the best wine class in the world, the best teacher, the best book can never impart that knowledge. It has to be accumulated, sip by sip, sniff by sniff, glass by glass by each individual wine drinker. The UC Davis Wine Aroma Wheel at www.winearoma.wheel.com is a wonderful tool that will help the true connoisseur differentiate between the aromas of passion fruit and boysenberries but for the rest of us just learning to isolate the difference between a fruity taste and an earthy aroma is a good place to begin. Eric Asimov the excellent wine critic for the New York Times argues that we can divide all wines into sweet or savory. By sweet he does not mean sugary; he is rather referring to the impression of sweet that we get from a wine that is intensely fruity, plush, viscous and mouth-filling. By savory he means wines which are more austere with smoky, herbal, earthy and mineral tastes.
We are not limited to food or taste metaphors, as a visual species we have other tools to describe wine. Karen MacNeil, the well-respected wine critic and author of the Wine Bible quoted a restaurant owner’s description of Viognier wine. “If a good German Riesling is like an ice-skater (fast, racy with a cutting edge), and Chardonnay is like a middle-heavyweight boxer (paunchy, solid, powerful), then Viognier would have to be described as a female gymnast – beautiful and perfectly shaped, with muscle but superb agility and elegance.” Britt Karlson, the Swedish wine critic once described an unfortunate wine as "… ideal for serving at a funeral dinner, because it provokes a fitting mood of sorrow and grief."
Alternatively we can seek our metaphor in music. In one of his Italian detective novels, A Long Finish, Michael Dibdin wrote: “Barolo is the Bach of wine … strong, supremely structured, a little forbidding, but absolutely fundamental. Barbaresco is the Beethoven, taking those qualities and lifting them to heights of subjective passion and pain … and Brunello is its Brahms, the softer, fuller, romantic afterglow of so much strenuous excess.” Those people who know their German composers and are familiar with Italian wines will recognize the insightful truth behind Dibdin’s metaphors. For those unfamiliar however, it could sound merely pretentious. And of course, that is the great danger of talking about wine; the metaphors can become too flowery and ostentatious. “This is a cheeky little Pinot; unctuously naughty with a promise of heavenly bliss, like a nun slipping out of her habit.”
Roald Dahl, that wonderful British novelist should really be given the last word on the subject: “Richard Pratt was a famous gourmet…. He organized dinners where sumptuous dishes and rare wines were served. He refused to smoke for fear of harming his palate, and when discussing a wine, he had a curious, rather droll habit of referring to it as though it were a living being. “A prudent wine,” he would say, “rather diffident and evasive, but quite prudent.” Or, “a good-humored wine, benevolent and cheerful—slightly obscene, perhaps, but nonetheless good humored.” (From ‘Taste’ a short story first published in 1945).