By Tyler Thomas
How much are you using your nose? Sure you’re breathing, but what about smelling. How often do you notice the aromas you encounter on a daily basis? In the book Aroma: the cultural history of smell the authors make a compelling case that in the west we have lost an appreciation for aromas. We’ve become a “de-odorized” culture. Is there a case to be made that we should reverse this trend? I think so, and I think wine can help.
You might wonder “for what purpose?” Why should I desire for people have a greater appreciation for even the more pungent and foul aromas like gasoline (which many people secretly like), sewage, or body odor? As a winemaker who appreciates aromas on a daily basis I wish I could make a passionate moral case that you will be a better person if you awaken your olfactory sense. But let’s face it, there is no such case. However, there may be reasons motivating enough.
You see paying attention to aromas can be akin to paying attention to life and this is a worthy reason to enjoy the fair and foul smells of our existence. For example, there is a common taint in wine that is a result of a compound leeched from cork closures. It is called trichloroanisole (or TCA) and offers a musty, moldy aroma that robs wine of expressing any of its true nature. As a wine professional, I recognize the “fault” of this aroma, as I am quite endeared to the smell. TCA reminds me of Grandmere and Grandpere’s dilapidated shed in Williamsburg, VA. They had this old shed where Grandpere kept an even older refrigerator full of beer, plus all his gardening tools. Parenthetically, he was fond of growing potatoes and often had sacks of unwashed potatoes in the shed alongside the dirt encrusted tools with which he dug them out of the ground. We’ve recently learned that some species of Streptomyces bacteria, found principally in dirt, are capable of producing the taint compound TCA. I digress.
So while I recognize the impact of the compound on the wines I make, I’m often fond of it when I encounter the smell because it conjures up so many memories of Grandpere, his not-so-secret smoking out by the shed, his cheap beer, the beautiful forest that filled their backyard, and his potatoes. I relive pleasant memories because of smell.
In the aforementioned book Aroma, a man who lost his sense of smell is said to have noted that “…it was like being struck blind. Life lost a deal of its savor – one doesn’t realize how much ‘savor’ is smell. You smell people, you smell books, you smell the city, you smell the Spring, maybe not consciously but as a rich unconscious background to everything else. My whole world was suddenly radically poorer.”
Wine can help you pull aromas from the unconscious background to the fore by employing your mind to awakening your olfactory sense and actively think about the odd aroma wafting from a wine glass. In fact you can use wine to train your mind into a greater appreciation for the aromas of the world and vice versa. You do not need to have a great sense of smell; you need to have a great desire to learn about a smell. Don’t fret about pulling out specific characters. Begin by thinking of the big picture of wine: it’s perceived complexity, does it have seemingly endless layers of flavor, and how does it feel in your mouth, how long lasting and pleasurable is the finish? As you become more engaged you’ll find a wine you love and you’ll want to describe it to your friends. In grasping for ways to describe it you’ll find yourself making associations between the wine and the aromas you already appreciate in everyday life. You don’t have to be able to pick out apple or cherry or cedar and be correct about it. No, wine isn’t about being correct. It’s about making associations.
For example you could say this wine reminds me of the smell of grandmere’s kitchen when she made her roast lamb with plum reduction, warmed croissants, and sautéed beans with lardoons. So what’s the wine equivalent? Meaty, sweet with dark fruits, and roasted gamey flavors. Our only hope? That it doesn’t smell like Grandpere’s shed!
Tyler Thomas is the winemaker at Donelan Family Wines. Prior to Donelan, he was the assistant winemaker at Hyde de Villaine Wines of Napa, California for four years. Prior to that, Tyler gained experience at both domestic and international wineries, including stops in Germany and New Zealand. Tyler has a B.S. and M.S. in Botany from Colorado State University and a M.S. in Viticulture and Enology from the University of California Davis.