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Smell and wine tasting: The perfume of wine

The sense of smell and emotions

The expression “to smell danger” comes from the use of our sense of smell as an alarm. We mammals always use our sense of smell before putting something into our mouths. Now, though, it suffices to look at a sign which reads “Pastry Shop.” In the past, like in cartoons, we would have made such discoveries only by heeding our most primal sense. They say our ability to smell is 10,000 times stronger than our sense of taste. We often like certain people without knowing why. The smell a person’s body gives off provides us with a great deal of information, even if we are unaware of it. They say we fall in love because of smell. Pheromones are a hormonal signal emitted by the body in very small doses, causing specific mental behaviors amongst individuals of different sexes. Even so, we wear perfumes. Who knows whether we do it to conceal our personalities. However, the truth is that the same perfume never smells quite the same on two different people’s skin.

The odd couple: wine and perfume

Both are sources of pleasure for the sense of smell, but in theory it is recommended never to bring them together. How come? Imagine a tasting room filled with sommeliers concentrating on the organoleptic properties of wines. Perfume can distort tasting, because more than 40% of its importance lies in an olfactory description. How, then, can one combine wine and perfume? The truth is that most of the times people drink wine is on special occasions, which is why we disguise our body odors festively. Perhaps it is a farfetched idea to combine perfume and wine, but in real life they do go hand in hand. As a general rule, you might say that a perfume with incense and wood could go well with an older vintage. A more floral fragrance might match a terpenic white variety, such as Gewürztraminer or Riesling. An exotic citrus aroma with a Sauvignon Blanc that has character or a fortified wine with chocolate aromas.

The aromas of wine

The primary or varietal aromas are those typical of the grape variety from which the wine is made. The most common aromatic sets are those of fruit (exotic, red, wild, domestic, etc.), floral notes (acacia, rose, violet), trees and grasses (pine, wet grass, aromatic plants) and minerals (wet earth, pencil tip).

Secondary aromas come from the various fermentations. It is normal for wines to smell like alcohol, because they are the product of an alcoholic fermentation of the fruit’s must, in which each 17 grams of alcohol results in 1 degree of alcohol in volume. In certain Chardonnay whites or aged reds, you can note pastry, butter or yogurt aromas. These are smells caused by malolactic fermentation. In sparkling wines, you may get a sensation of wet bread due to aging on the lees.

The tertiary aromas come from the wines aging in barrels or inside the bottle itself (as occurs with reserve sparkling wines). Depending on the wood the barrel is made of, it will produce different aromas. French oak tends to respect the wine’s integrity more and adds slight touches of vanilla. Oak of American origin provides a sweet touch to red wine, reminiscent of coconut. These aromas are added to the reduction aromas which form in the ullage (the small space of air measuring approximately one centimeter between the wine’s surface and the beginning of the cork). When a wine has aged in the bottle for a long time, it is normal for it to be “closed” and until it is opened up and allowed to breathe, you won’t be able to enjoy its full range of smells and aromas.

Move those glasses!

In order to smell  properly, it is advisable to make a first approach with your glass still, so you can see whether it is in good condition. After this, though, you will need to swirl the glass so that the aromas are opened up. You can only perceive the aromas while they are volatile, which is why it is important to move the glass so that wine comes into contact with the air. This is the same action which occurs upon pouring the wine into a decanter, but on a smaller scale. When you swirl the wine glass, you must think that you are undressing the wine. The first thing the wine gives you is the last thing it received. Aged wines will give off their woody notes at first. The fermentation aromas are like the wine’s shirt, and its underclothes are the primary aromas, those of the variety itself. So now you know… it’s time to do a wine striptease!

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