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 stirring 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.winearomawheel.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.