How does a sniff compare to a sip?

I have received no comments directly addressing the issue posed in my last blog post: whether aromas detected on the palate mirror those on the nose or not. However, I did get 34 wine-enthusiast responses to a poll on the UK Wine Forum.


The results are not entirely clear cut, and my question could perhaps have been better, but it does seem that experiencing very different sets of aromas on the nose and palate tends to be the exception rather than the rule. I would thus very tentatively suggest that the results support the applicability to wine of the experiments regarding the number of aromas we can detect.

However we need solid experimental evidence to be sure. It is quite possible that those who detect different aromas when the wine is on the palate are imagining the different aromas – in the sense that there are no chemicals present that could account for them, that is. But, neither can we rule out the possibility that those who detect the same aromas on the palate do so due to expectations created by the wine’s nose aromas.

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Aroma recognition by sniff and sip

In everyday life, and in wine tasting notes, we often distinguish between what we smell through our nose, and what we taste when something is in our mouth. However, in practice the distinction is not so simple, and smell is important in both cases. In the image below, you can see that in fact we have two very different openings through which odours can gain access to the olfactory bulb where smells are detected: through the nostrils (orthonasal olfaction), and through an opening between the mouth and the back of the nose (retronasal olfaction).

When we sniff a wine, we perceive its volatile molecules though our nostrils, and that is all. But when we sip it, we sense the wine through a number of distinct mechanisms. With the tongue we experience relatively simple flavours: sweet, sour, salt, bitter and umami. On all the inside surfaces of the mouth, we experience physical sensations such as the temperature of the wine, its weight and viscosity, and we may also feel a slight alcoholic burn. At the same time, and most importantly, the olfactory bulb senses the volatile components retronasally. It is this that gives rise to how we perceive the most interesting aspects of wine, which are its volatile components, e.g. blackcurrant, lemon, vanilla, coffee, leather – in fact everything we call flavours apart from sweet, sour, salt, bitter and umami. Because we experience the volatile components as the wine is in the mouth, we are given a strong impression of sensing them on the tongue, but this is an illusion.

So, and here I get to the nub of this blog post, if we smell for example apples and lemon when we sniff a wine, wouldn’t you then expect to taste apples and lemons when it is in your mouth. And if it smells of oak, shouldn’t it taste of oak? Probably very few of us have actually chewed on a piece of oak, and the same goes for other non-food items, but we seem intuitively to understand how things should taste if we can smell them. As the volatile molecules are the same, as a starting point I would indeed expect the taste to be consistent with the smell.

However there are complicating factors. One is that the relative concentrations that arrive at the olfactory might differ in each case, as molecules are carried to the olfactory bulb in different ways, and the temperature of the liquid will be different. As a result, the dominant aroma might be different in each case.  The concentration differences might also be such that certain aromas are above their detection thresholds in one case but not the other. These effects can be mimicked to an extent by sniffing wine at different temperatures, in different glass sizes and shapes, and after the wine has been agitated to different degrees in the glass, all of which can cause a wine to smell differently.

Synaesthesia is another complicating factor. Above I analysed how the flavour of wine in the mouth can be broken down into the taste on the tongue, aromas in the nose, and physical sensations. However that is a simplification, because the different senses interact with each other. For example, Westerners are more sensitive to almond aromas if there is a drop of a sugar solution on the tongue, amazingly even if the sugar concentration is below the detection threshold. That is one interaction we know about, but it is a safe assumption that there are many others. Thus, synaesthesia might be another reason why aromas could be perceived differently orthonasally and retronasally.

But what happens in practice? Well, people seem to differ alot. Speaking personally, the flavours I get in the mouth are nearly always very similar to those I get on the nose. Sometimes one flavour might be more dominant on the palate than on the nose, or some might be wiped-out by excessive acidity or astringency, but that is about the extent of the differences for me. On the other hand, some tasting notes have totally distinct sets of aromas for orthonasal and retronasal olfaction. For example, take the one I referred to a few weeks ago in my first post about the number of aromas we can identify in a wine: fresh fruit aromatics of mandarin orange, black raspberry and grilled watermelon spring from the glass. On the palate, pretty nuances of rose petal, gardenia and oolong tea mingle with herbal notes of sandalwood, star anise, fresh thyme and fennel seed. So that is 3 aromas orthonasally, and 7 totally different ones retronasally.

In fact, it was my number-of-aromas posts that got me thinking about this, as the experiments, which found we can recognise no more than 4 aromas in a blend, were all based solely on orthonasal olfaction. So does retronasal olfaction make these experiments of limited applicability to wine, or are markedly different aromas detected retronasally merely a tasting note conceit?

I suspect the latter, but I really don’t know and I would love to hear how much wine orthonasal and retronasal aromas differ for you. I am going to try to run a few straw polls in various places, and will report back. Feel free to leave comments here too.

Update: My reporting back can be seen here.

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New feature on winenous – Ask me a wine question


I’ve just added a new feature to my blog. It’s a page where you can ask me any question about wine. I cannot promise to answer every possible question, but I’ll do my best. If you have been reading my blog, you probably know what sort of answers to expect – not necessarily standard answers – but ones with a good dose of scepticism and (I hope) down-to-earth common sense.

The page is here, and will remain accessible through the main menu of this website.

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Quercophobia – the hatred of oak

I usually regard myself as pretty laid back when it comes to oak. Every now and then, a good whack of oak on a wine goes down pretty well with me, and I can tolerate the subtle use of oak on a much more frequent basis.


However, and maybe this is just me, but I seem to have been encountering annoying oak on a more frequent basis in the last year or so. The typical scenario would be that I am tasting my way through a producer’s range of wines, starting at the cheap and cheerful end, and then moving onto the significantly more interesting wines made from older vines in better vineyards. I am thus feeling suitably impressed with the quality, when I am presented with a sample of the producer’s pièce de résistance – that extra special grand reserve that has won medals, and which has lain in oak barriques for n years, where n is far too big a number. And my heart sinks.

In my mouth the lingering intensity and fruit of the previous wine is replaced by a dull slightly oxidised vanilla oakiness, and I try to look appreciative. What can I say? That is presumably the effect the winemaker wanted, and presumably people still want to buy that sort of thing. I believe I tolerate oak more than most people I know, and yet it is too much for me. Perhaps in other markets that flavour profile is given a lot higher regard than I can muster – I have opinions, but do not like to judge. It just seems such a shame to me when I know that good vibrant wines are possible at less expense and effort.

When I did, at a tasting last year, say that I thought the top-end wine was too oaky, I was actually assured that they were already planning on reigning it in somewhat for the next vintage. So perhaps we should speak out more often, and perhaps there is hope.

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Three varietal wines of Majorca

majorquin varietals

When staying in Palma de Mallorca last year, we visited José L Ferrer in Binnisalem where we picked up three varietal wines, each of a different variety grown only on the island. As varieties, they are not (with one exception) particularly rare, but you do not usually find them sold as single-variety wines. Unlike other wines from Ferrer’s cellar, they were fermented in 500 li oak barrels. The labels carry a drawing of a Ferreret, a toad native to Majorca – by analogy to the grape varieties presumably, and with a name that is not to be confused with that of the producer.

Last weekend, I tasted these wines, and then drank them with food. Below, are description of the varieties according to Wine Grapes, followed by my tasting notes.

Ferreret, Mantonegro, Jose L Ferrer, 2014, 13.5% – €18
Also spelled as two words: Manto Negro. 320 ha of vineyards, and often found in Majorquin blends. Wines are generally soft, light coloured and high in alcohol. Younger vines tend to produce red fruit flavours, while older vines with low yields give more concentrated black fruit. Its tendency to oxidise means the wines do not age well.

Pale garnet. Some oak. Fresh red fruit – raspberry and cherry. Sweet and spirity. Medium high acid. Intense aromas. Low but detectable tannin. Perfumed and fragrant. Sweet ripe fruit. Excellent length. Drink now ****

With food, this was the most enjoyable of the three ****

Ferreret, Gorgollassa, Jose L Ferrer, 2014, 13.0% – €18
Only 4 ha of vineyards, but the area is increasing. Produces wines that are dry and elegant, but with a tendency to oxidation. Typically gives wines with strawberry and violet flavours, fairly low acidity, moderate alcohol and soft tannins.

Medium pale garnet. Intense. Lightly aromatic oak – rather pleasant. Red fruit. Medium high acid. Intense aromas. Sweet red fruit. Medium low tannin. Nice structure. Excellent length. Refreshing finish. Drink now. Better than the Mantonegro ****

With food, this was one of the less enjoyable of the three, the pleasant oakiness failing to come through ***

Ferreret, Callet, Jose L Ferrer, 2014, 14.0% – €18
143 ha of vineyards. Traditionally rather rustic, light red or rosé, and low in alcohol. Increasing trend towards higher quality, finer tannins and moderate alcohol. Usually moderate acidity, but enough to give balance and freshness. Minerally, food friendly, typically red fruit aromas and sometimes violet scented.

Medium pale ruby garnet. Medium intense fruit. Raspberry maybe, but moving towards the black fruit end of the spectrum. Blueberry I think. More muted, and possibly more serious. Impressive legs. Medium high acid. Medium low tannin. Aromas as nose, but actually not very interesting. Excellent length. Disappointing on finish. Drink now ***

With food, this was one of the less enjoyable of the three ***

In summary, all three wines were good, lightly structured quaffing wines, rather than wines to sip quietly over the course of an evening: nothing wrong with that if you are in the mood for a good quaff, as I was.

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Tasting vs drinking

boozy_lunchWine tasting nearly always follows the set procedure described in many places, from “taste like a pro” articles on the web, to WSET courses of various levels. What tasters actually do in practice will depend their environment, which often is not ideal. However, there is broad agreement about how it should work: look at the wine, smell it, take a sip, move it round the mouth, and spit it out, or possibly swallow.

The act of drinking on the other hand is a totally different matter. It doesn’t follow the procedure of tasting, but otherwise there are no rules. Wine can be drunk straight from the bottle in drunken celebration, sipped quietly from a small glass with the rest of the bottle put away for next Christmas, or in many other less extreme ways. Even card-carrying wine geeks vary a lot in how they drink. For example, some thoughtfully sip a bottle over a few days, some start before a meal and finish after, some drink mainly between courses, and some during courses. When enjoying a meal in the company of other wine geeks, they might well get carried away and sample up to 20 different wines – they are meant to be drunk with food after all, so what could possibly be wrong with that?

There are many factors external to the wine itself that influence how it is perceived. The discipline of tasting seeks to standardise some of these, while drinking allows for a lot of variation. Consequently the applicability of tasting notes to wines drunk under more normal circumstances can be brought into question. Some wine lovers who spend a long time with their wine in quiet contemplation over course of an evening argue that they pick up on a lot more nuances than could accessed in a standard tasting, and that leads to longer and more interesting tasting notes. Others, on the other hand, may pay less attention to wine served with food than they would do when tasting.

I must admit to being in the latter camp. For me, wine is usually just one component of an enjoyable meal with friends, and many aspects that are picked up in tasting seem irrelevant when I am more interested in overall enjoyment. Is it really important that the wine is on the tawny side of garnet, has the merest hint of wild strawberry, or that the acidity is medium+ rather than medium? It may be because some other negative aspect always hits me first, but I have also never been concerned that a wine has insufficient length when drinking it with food.

I do attend to wines when drinking, but in those circumstances holistic impressions are a lot more important than an analytical approach. Is the wine savoury, or fruity? Does it go with the food? Does it taste, er… well… nice? Do I want another glass?

I am fully aware why tasting practices exist, but I do wonder sometimes about the wisdom of some of them. Swirling, for example – yes I know you should also smell the wine when it is stationary in the glass, but somehow the swirl almost becomes a nervous tic. From limited experience, the nose in a stationary glass needs quite a long time to develop, so interspersing swirls with stationary sniffs every few seconds will not work very well. I am also not so sure about using my mouth like a washing machine to move the wine around. Shouldn’t a largish sip sliding once over your tongue be sufficient? There is a specific problem with very tannic wines. If I move them around in my mouth, all I get is a hit of astringency so overwhelming that I can taste very little at all, and as the effect is cumulative subsequent wines are even worse.

In 2016, I am resolving to try small modifications in the way I taste: modifications that will bring tasting a few steps closer to the way I drink.

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Tasting French Terroir – book review

tasting_french_terroirThis time, I review the book Tasting French Terroir, subtitled The History of an Idea, by Michael Parker. At Amazon it costs around £20.

Firstly, the title: I am not really sure why the word tasting features here at all, as it  has a surprisingly small role in the book, even if food and drink in general get more coverage. It is however very much a history of the idea of terroir in France, going back to the 16th Century, and with a few mentions of classical antecedents. There is little mention of terroir in other countries, but as far as I know it is a concept that is exclusively French in origin, so I suppose that is fair enough.

The book is serious and academic, so not a light and quick read. But on the plus side for someone with limited time, it is not as daunting as it might first appear, as the actual text finishes on page 164, the remaining third or so being given over to notes. This scientist-cum-engineer had to check on the meanings of quite a few words, but beyond that the language was clear, precise and nicely crafted.

My big lesson from reading it was the sheer range of historical views on what constitutes terroir and how desirable it is. Thus, it puts the modern idea of terroir firmly in its place: one interpretation amongst many, though an interpretation that was glimpsed at in various stages of history. I attempt below to give an overview of some of the ideas of terroir discussed in the book.

Even on very fundamental questions, there were widely divergent views. We tend now to see terroir as conferring different characteristics, all positive, on food and drink. But another perspective emphasised more the effect of terroir on quality. In this view, some terroirs were better than others, and if the connoisseur wanted the best produce, then only the very best terroir in France could yield it. Others saw terroir more from the farming point of view. Thus, when planting a certain crop, the correct terroir must be selected to get a good yield.

However, terroir had relevance to a lot more than food and drink. It was of course also about plants, trees and animals, but more significantly a lot of discussion also focussed on the terroir characteristics of people. This included their appearance, behaviour, dialect, and even the style and quality of their poetry.

There is also the issue of whether terroir characteristics are desirable or not. For long periods of French history terroir influence was regarded as negative, and something to be supressed in favour of good Parisian taste, and that of the French court. But at other times terroir was definitely positive, or it was more nuanced. For example a degree of terroir character could be positive, but it had to be tamed by Parisian culinary arts. Others were of the view that there were both good and bad terroir expressions.

There is little in the book about the mechanisms by which terroir worked its magic, so I presume it was not discussed much in the source texts either. As today however, it seemed that soil, water, climate and landscape were all important factors. There was at one point a rather literal interpretation of goût de terroir, which suggested that you could get it water that was first shaken with soil. Apparently the flavours in the water were also present in the produce of the land. Otherwise there was little indication of how to recognise the goût de terroir.

There is also little coverage of how early views of terroir contributed to the Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée system in the 20th century, and how ideas in the late 20th and early 21st century developed. Perhaps there is another book in those topics. I look forward to reading that book should it become available, and also to seeing future developments in the concept of terroir.

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How many identifiable aromas in a wine – my conclusion

I have now done enough scene-setting and pussyfooting around: see my previous three blog posts (in chronological order 1, 2, 3). It’s time for me to nail my colours to the mast and say what I really think about tasting notes that mention many different aromas when science tells us we can only identify four in a mixture.

Jan_Brueghel_I_&_Peter_Paul_Rubens_-_Smell_(Museo_del_Prado)First of all, I cannot find any particular problem with the scientific evidence for our poor ability to identify aromas in a mixture, and I see no reason to doubt its applicability to wine. If anything I would expect it to be an easier task to identify aromas in the experimental situation than with wine, as in the experiment there were always subsets of the same 7 or 8 odours, as opposed to the much larger number that people find in wines.

There is a lingering doubt in my mind because the experiments presented odours only to the nose. With wine however, aromas are also detected when it is in the mouth. Does that cause a greater number of aromas to be detected in total? My personal experience suggests that happens only very occasionally, and to a small extent. However, in the tasting note example I gave in the introductory blog post for this small series, the aromas detected on the nose and palate are markedly different. I may return to this issue in the future, but my initial feeling is to go with my personal experience. And what about letting a wine develop over a few hours or days? Does that let additional aromas develop and become identifiable? It is possible, but again in my experience it is rarely the case.

I acknowledge that there is also experimental evidence that it is possible to tell if a single very familiar odour is present in mixture containing up to 12 odourants. Additionally there is anecdotal evidence of perfumers and chefs being able to detect single missing ingredients in complex familiar recipes. But these tasks are very different to identifying aromas in an unfamiliar wine.

For now, let us take the identification of an odour object in a wine literally, by which I mean that identification means there are key aromatic compounds in both the wine and the actual odour object. With this literal interpretation, I think it is fair to say that the limit of four correct identifications will apply. Indeed, the experiments suggest that even with fewer named aromas it is unlikely they will all be correct.

The literal interpretation of aromas I have just described is not totally unreasonable. Certainly in some cases it seems that the same chemical is responsible for the aroma in both the wine and the real aroma object. Rotundone, which is found in black pepper and Syrah, is one example. However, aroma objects mentioned in the tasting note may merely be reminiscent of the real thing. Or, as some less kind people might put it: imagined or made up. In these cases, there can clearly be no limit of the number of identifiable aroma objects, but by what criteria can we judge the value of such lists?

For me, the main criterion for a successful tasting note is its ability to communicate the experience of drinking the wine to the reader. And here I mean to communicate accurately; not just to give an impression of what the experience might hypothetically be.  When I am tasting, the correspondence with tasting notes independently written by others is usually minimal. I have seen no formal studies into how common this experience is, but we can also get hints by comparing tasting notes of the same wine written by different people. Usually there is little similarity, and sometimes the differences are huge. It is interesting to speculate about to what extent the differences are due to the subjective nature of taste, and to what extent it is imperfect communication; but differences there are.

Speaking personally, the tasting notes I find communicate best are those where the aromas listed are few and vaguely described. For example, it can often be accurate, and still helpful, to identify citrus fruit in a wine. But when someone else describes a wine as tasting of lemon, I often decide it is closer to lime. And does anyone actually care? It is difficult to imagine a disgruntled customer returning a bottle of wine to a shop because the type of citrus fruit was incorrectly described on purchase. The precision of description is linked the issue of the number of aromas: one person’s citric could be another’s lemon, lime and clementine. The level of detail we use in tasting notes is another interesting topic to which I might return.

In summary, as promised, here are my colours on the mast stated with an unjustified sense of certainty. There are two reasons why I am suspicious of tasting notes with a long list of aroma objects:

  1. If you take a more literal interpretation of aromas in tasting notes, it is impossible to produce correct lists containing more than four aroma objects .
  2. I am not convinced about how useful long lists are anyway. I favour a shorter tasting note that contains only the dominant aromatic components, and one that is not over-specific in its aroma descriptors.

In the words of Carveth Read: It is better to be vaguely right than exactly wrong.

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How many identifiable aromas in a wine – tasting experience

I continue to investigate the number of aromas we can detect in a wine. There seems to be a conflict between scientific research, which has shown that we are incapable of identifying more than four odours in a mixture, and the testimony of wine tasters who name as many as 10 or more aromas. For the story so far in more detail, see my previous two blog post here and here. Now I will look more closely at how wine tasters come to identify so many aromas, and what it means when they do.


I know that some tasters sample their wine over the course of an evening, with and without food, and possibly even continue with the same bottle over two of more days. That is potentially going to lead to longer tasting notes, and the naming of more odours, because the wine, the context, and even the taster might change over that period, and the changes could result in different proportions of various aromatic chemicals, different chemicals becoming available to the nose in the form of vapour, and different taster sensitivities.

Other tasters however are perfectly capable of reeling off a list fruits, herbs and spices within the space of a few minutes. The people I have seen doing this have all been Americans with some level of sommelier qualification, and my preliminary conclusion is that it is related to their training and culture. In the case of professional wines critics who name many odours in a tasting note, I suspect those lists are also usually produced quickly due to pressures of time. This is a very different situation to the tasters who make their notes over an extended period, as nothing has chance to change much after the first nosing of the wine.

But do the odours named in these long lists actually exist in any real sense in the wine? Here, by “in any real sense” I mean as chemical compounds in concentrations that could stand any chance of detection. Note that Laing’s limit of four applies not to the taster’s imagination, but to the correct identification of odours physically present in the mixture as chemicals. To answer the question about whether the odours exist, we would need to perform a detailed chemical analysis of the wine.

Even if the odours do not really exist, there may be understandable reasons why they may be perceived. In Avery Gilbert’s book What the Nose Knows, there are several examples of how suggestible we are when it comes to our sense of smell, and suggestions of what we might find in a wine can come from many sources. The best known example is perhaps that the addition of red food dye to white wine prompts people to find aromas usually associated with red wines. In real life all manner of things might suggest what aromas should be in the wine, not least any hints as to what type of wine is in the glass. There is no shame in being suggestible in this manner. It is simply the way we humans work perceptually, and as we also are the ones that drink the wine does it really matter?

We must also acknowledge that odour perception is a complex multimodal process, and seemingly unrelated stimuli can affect our sensitivity to odours in ways that are not explicable by suggestibility. For example, a drop of a sweet substance on the tongue has been found to increase the sensitivity of Westerners to an almond aroma. Effects like that could also cause us to identify more odours than Laing’s experiments suggest we should.

Finally, I am convinced that some tasters fabricate flavours because they feel, for whatever reason, a few more are needed. I too would do that under certain circumstance – if I were taking some sort of test for example, and I was required to list a certain number of flavours. If you have a good idea what the wine is, it is very easy to throw in a few extra flavour descriptors that would not raise eyebrows. Claret? OK, that will be blackcurrant, pencil box and French oak then. In fact, come to think, I have done it, in a tasting competition a few years ago when I really thought the wine was so mediocre there was little to say about it.

On the subject of how many identifiable aromas there are in a wine, that is now all the detail and preliminaries out of the way. So far I have tried to be as objective as possible in describing the evidence, but in my next post I promise will stick my neck out and say what I really think. I just have to first decide what that is.

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How many identifiable aromas in a wine – the science

This is the second post in a series that looks at the number of aromas we can detect in a wine. My first post explained that many tasters claim to be able to identify several aromas in the same wine, while scientific research has shown that we are incapable of identifying more than four. Here I will explain more precisely how the research was carried out, and what it found.

The research was carried out by David G Laing and co-workers in the 1980s and 90s. As far as I know it has not been replicated in other laboratories, but as will become clear the experiments were effectively repeated in the same laboratory, and as far as I know the results are not controversial. They are, for example, described in Avery Gilbert’s book What the Nose Knows without being questioned.

In Laing’s first published work on this subject[1], mixtures of odourants were delivered to the noses of the subjects in vapour form through a duct 150cm long and 55cm in diameter, and the subjects were asked to identify the odours present. Each of the 7 odourants was a single chemical compound with a distinctive smell, and introduced to the subjects under its everyday name: vinegar, almond, spearmint, fruity, cloves, orange or camphor. Odourant concentrations were chosen to be moderately strong perceptually, and roughly equally strong for all odours individually. The odourants and were also known to be identifiable in binary mixtures in the chosen concentrations. The mixtures were created in vapour form for delivery to the subjects’ noses. Vapour, rather than liquid, mixing was chosen to reduce the possibility that the odourants would react chemically. It seems to me that all reasonable steps were taken to give subjects the best possible chance of identifying the odours.

The subjects were first allowed to familiarise themselves with the individual odours for several minutes. Then they were given mixtures that varied in terms of the odourants used and the number present, and asked to identify the odours in the mixture. The results are summarized in the figure below[1], which is the basis for the assertion that no more than 4 odours can be identified.laing_1989A few possible reasons for the low number of identifiable odours spring to mind: maybe the subjects were not skilled enough, or maybe the odours chosen were particularly difficult to identify. The investigation of those two possibilities was the subject of two further studies [2, 3], which were based on the same experimental setup.

To determine the effect of training and experience[2], two different sets of subjects were used: experts, and trained non-experts. The non-experts were trained over the course of 5 days, and on day 5  they were tested to ensure they could reliably identify all 7 odours when presented individually. The other group were expert perfumers and flavourists; they were “highly familiar with the test odourants, had daily experience with odour discrimination, and had a prerequisite before entering their respective professions of an excellent ability to discriminate and identify odours”. The experts and trained non-experts performed slightly better than the subjects in the initial study, with the experts being the most competent, but nevertheless the number of correct judgements still dropped to negligible levels when more than 4 odourants were presented.

The next study[3] looked at the importance of the type of odours used in the mixtures. A panel of 10 perfumers and flavourists selected two sets of 8 single compound odourants: good and poor blenders. The poor blenders were judged to be perceptually very different, and thus easier to identify in mixtures than good blenders. The common names of the good blenders were rose, musky, cinnamon, coconut, fruity, orange, burnt caramel and almond, while the poor blenders were bad breath, mushroom, cut grass, Dencorub, garlic, antiseptic, aeroplane glue and mandarin. The results were as suspected in the sense that the poor blenders were easier to identify. However, the differences were not large, and for 5 or more poor-blender odourants the number of correct identifications was still very low indeed.

The fourth study[4] brought the experiments one step closer to the reality of wine. Here, none of the odourants were single chemical compounds, but complex mixes of chemicals usually identified as a single odour: smoky, strawberry, lavender, kerosene, rose, honey, cheese and chocolate. Again, the results were similar to those of earlier studies, suggesting that we identify the smell of familiar objects as a single gestalt odour, even if multiple chemical compounds are involved in creating it.

In the last article of Laing’s I will discuss here[5], subjects were trained to identify the test odours, and then required to detect a single highly familiar odorant in stimuli consisting of one, four, eight, twelve, and sixteen odorants by using a selective-attention procedure. Identification fell to chance level when sixteen odorants were present. Unfortunately I only have access to the abstract of this article, but I presume that the important distinction between this and earlier studies is that the subjects were attending only to one odour, and that the odour was highly familiar. It seems that it was those factors that enabled some people to identify an individual odour in blends of twelve, which is a big improvement on the limit of 4 found in earlier studies.

For now, I shall let you draw your own conclusion on the applicability of these results to wine tasting notes.  I will return to that subject eventually, but in my next post I should like to take a closer look at how wine tasters arrive at long lists of aromas that seemingly break Laing’s four odour limit. In the meantime, if you found this blog post interesting you might also like to take a look at this one on the subject of olfactory white.

[1] Laing, D. G., and Francis, G. W. (1989). The capacity of humans to identify odors in mixtures. Physiology & Behavior, 46(5), 809–814.

[2] Livermore, A., and Laing, D. G. (1996). Influence of training and experience on the perception of multicomponent odor mixtures. Journal of Experimental Psychology Human Perception and Performance, 22(2), 267–277.

[3] Livermore, A. and Laing, D. G. (1998). The influence of odor type on the discrimination and identification of odorants in multicomponent odor mixtures. Physiology and Behavior 65 (2): 311– 320.

[4] Livermore, A. and Laing, D. G. (1998). The influence of chemical complexity on the perception of multicomponent odor mixtures. Perception and Psychophysics, 60 (4): 650– 661.

[5] Jinks, A., and Laing, D. G. (1999). A limit in the processing of components in odour mixtures. Perception, 28(3), 395–404.

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