How smell is like vision, and what that means for wine

Considering the very different impressions that vision and smell make on us, there are surprising similarities in how the two senses are processed before they reach the brain. And it is quite possible that these similarities may throw some light on how we describe the aromas we find in wine.

The olfactory bulb (we actually have two of them) is an elongated protuberance lying close to the underside of the brain, but attached only at the back end. The surface of the human olfactory bulb has on it some 6,000 spherical bundles of cells called glomeruli, each one being connected by neurons to several thousand olfactory receptors in the nasal cavity. When odorous compounds enter the nasal cavity, each glomerulus is activated to a greater or lesser extent, creating a pattern of activity on the surface of the olfactory bulb that is a representation of the odours. That pattern can be regarded as analogous to the pattern of activity on the retina of the eye when an image falls on it. In fact the similarity does not stop there, because just as the image on the retina is further processed to facilitate detecting edges and motion, the activity pattern in the glomeruli is also enhanced by subsequent layers of cells in the olfactory bulb. Examples of smell images, reproduced from Gordon M Shepherd’s book Neurogastronomy (reviewed here), can be seen below – click to enlarge and make the text legible.smell images

In the same book, Shepherd proceeds to speculate that the smell images created by glomeruli activity are similar to visual images of faces. He suggests that this explains why smells, like faces, are difficult to describe in words but relatively easy to recognise. As a result, if asked to describe a smell we need to resort to comparisons with the smells of well-known objects. Also, neither smells nor faces are processed as the sum of distinctive component parts – we tend to recognise both of them holistically, not so much by the detail as a general impression. Only occasionally can we recognise a face if we only see a small part of it, and usually only for faces we are very familiar with.

This speculation of Shepherd’s can be plausibly taken even further, and related to how we recognise and describe wines. Regardless of whether we are nosing a complex wine or sniffing a single chemical compound, at one level in our perceptual system the result is a glomeruli smell image. I would propose that, in the case of wine, certain aspects of that smell image may remind us of the smell images of other objects – blackcurrant maybe, or lemon – which then become the descriptors we use for the wine. In some cases, the aspects of the smell image that cause us to identify other objects in wine may arise from chemical compounds in common, but this need not necessarily be the case and similarities might be coincidental. The aspects in common may be as simple as discrete fragments of the smell image, or possibly with their root in common relationships between different parts of each image. To continue with the face analogy, the identifying of blackcurrant in a wine could be like saying that a baby’s face has his grandfather’s eyes – the eyes need not be identical, but there is however something that seems somehow similar. Something else that has a counterpart in wine is the idea that if we are very familiar with a face is it easier to recognise it from a partial image. In a smell image of wine, presumably the other objects we may recognise in it are only partially represented, and that could explain why it we are more likely to recognise the aromas we are more familiar with, either in normal life or through other wines.

I totally accept that most of this is speculation, but nevertheless I think how we experience and describe wines is consistent with the idea of smell image recognition, and an interesting way of conceptualising it. Only time and more research will be able to refute or support these ideas.

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Tsantali Rapsani – straight, Reserve and Grande Reserve

tsantali rapsani
Let me start by disclosing that the Reserve and Grande Reserve wines were samples sent to me following a press trip to Northern Greece. More about the Rapsani part of that trip can be found here, including vine locations, varieties used etc. The straight Rapsani was bought with my own money in the UK – because on the trip I liked it a lot, and thought it represented good value for money. At the time I paid £10, but I see it is available cheaper now. You can get it from Amazon, Agora and Evington’s. As far as I know, the Reserve and Grande Reserve are not available in the UK, but I would guess their retail prices would be around £16 and £29 respectively.

I was taking the wines to Hawksmoor Manchester to use their Monday BYO offer, and double decanted them two hours or so before arriving, straight from my 12ºC wine fridges. As it turned out, there was hardly any sediment to remove. A few minutes after the decant, I tasted them. It was a hot day, so the wine had probably warmed up a couple of degrees before tasting.

Rapsani, 2012, 13.0%
Medium pale garnet.  Intense and very attractive nose. Fresh aromatic spices. Slightly mature red fruit. Medium acid. Supple and fruity. Medium high tannin. Intense aromatically on palate. Soft, rounded and gentle fruitiness, despite the tannin. Excellent length. Drink now, but no hurry *****

Rapsani Reserve, 2011, 13.5%
Medium pale, more ruby than garnet. Aromatic spices on nose. Tight. Blackcurrant with hard edge. Medium acid. High tannin. Intense on palate. Hard, but with icing-sugar-like sweetness. Excellent length. Good now, but would benefit from 5 years or so ****

Rapsani Grande Reserve, 2008, 13.5%
Very similar characteristics to the Reserve, but with even more aromatic intensity. A definite step up in quality. Potential is easier to imagine than with the Reserve, and it is a better drink now ****

As the wines warmed up in the restaurant I enjoyed them less. They all became more soupy, the Reserve wine became obtrusively oaky, and the Grande Reserve even more obtrusively oaky. However, my order of preference remained the same: straight Rapsani, Grande Reserve, Reserve. But that was just me – other people I was with who expressed a preference liked the Reserve best. I hasten to stress that my scores and preferences were for the wines as they showed on the night. The straight Rapsani was great for drinking now, but I did think that the Grande Reserve in particular had good potential.

The practical conclusion for me is that, when I can find more storage space (I have just returned from Germany, Alsace and Champage with more than 8 cases), I should buy more of the straight Rapsani – and drink it slightly chilled.

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Tasting order and wine scores

It is well known that your perception of a wine is affected by the wine you tasted immediately beforehand. This is similar to how other senses behave. If, for example, you sit in the dark for several minutes and then expose yourself to normal daylight, it seems to be exceptionally bright until your eyes adjust. With wine, if the previous wine was flabby, your current wine will tend to taste sharp; if it is was very dry, then sweet, etc.


However, in addition to that effect, the order in which you taste wines can help determine how much you like them. I have already written about Antonia Mantonakis’ research, where she presented sequences of wines to consumers, and asked which wine they liked best. In actual fact the same wine was offered in each glass, but the tasters still expressed a preference. For shorter sequences (2 or 3 glasses) they tended to prefer the first wine tasted, while for longer sequences (say 5 glasses) they preferred the last one. If you are thinking “that just goes to show how little the average consumer knows about wine”, you should be chastened by the fact that those with better wine knowledge were even more prone to this bias. But how much practical significance does it have? The consumers were after all asked to distinguish between identical wines, and they may have thought any differences were very small.

Later work[1] by French researchers throws more light on this order effect. Here the experiments were performed on wine professionals  tasting in competitions that awarded medals to Beaujolais Nouveau wines. Here, in each of two competitions of around 400 wines, approximately 100 tasters scored wines on the 100 point scale, each taster being given two flights of between 10 and 12 wines. But into each tasting sequence of wines registered in the competition, the experimenters put the same (unregistered) wine into the first and penultimate positions. For each competition, the average score for the penultimate wine in the sequence was greater than that for the first wine: 82.99 vs 79.78 for one competition, and 83.93 vs 81.78 for the other. Those differences are not only statistically significant, but also significant from a practical point of view. To get some feel for the practical significance, note that the difference between a silver and gold medal winning scores is 6 points. Also, as the required score to achieve a silver medal was 81, in one of the competitions the position of the wine would have affected the colour of the medal awarded .

If wine scores are important to, then you should probably be concerned about the sequencing used in tasting flights. On the other hand, if you do not pay much attention to scores, you can now add order effects to the list of reasons that justify your position.

[1] Carole Honoré-Chedozeau, Jordi Ballester, Bertrand Chatelet and Valérie Lempereur, “Wine competition: from between-juries consistency to sensory perception of consumers”, BIO Web of Conferences 5, 03009 (2015)

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COS Pithos Rosso 2011

pithos_rosso_2011Made in the Cerasuolo di Vittoria region in Sicily, this has the correct grape varieties – Nero d’Avola and Frappato – to be called Cerasuolo di Vittoria DOC were it not for the winemaking. What is wrong with the winemaking? Well, there’s nothing actually wrong, but it’s made in large clay vessels that are often called amphoras. After fermentation the wines remain in amphora for several months until bottling. See here for more about the producer and the winemaking, and here for note on earlier vintages of Pithos Rosso.

Note that the label design has changed since those vintages, and it changed again for the 2012, which also has the new designation Vittoria Rosso DOC. If you’re trying to find this wine on your wine merchant’s shelf, it is the words Pithos Rosso on a squat-shaped bottle that you need to look out for.

This is a wine that I have drunk many bottles of, from several different vintages, and it never fails to impress me. A recent bottle of the 2011 seemed particularly good, and that is what persuaded me to put fingers to keyboard on this occasion. If you understand what I like in this wine, I think you will have gone a long way towards knowing how my vinous mind works.

Here’s the tasting note for my recently drunk 2011, pictured above… Pale garnet ruby. On the nose, intense, delicate, fragrant, soft cherry, spice and herb complexity. High acidity. Medium low tannin. Aromas as on the nose, though the cherry aromas seem more vibrant with the acidity. Excellent length. A green note that reminds me of shelling broad beans – also on the nose now – nothing negative about this. Sweet red fruit now I am more accustomed to the acidity, which does not seem so stark after a few sips. Drink now I think. There’s a lot of enjoyment here. Can it really get better? Tossing up between 5 and 6 stars, I’ll go for ******

To try to put into words the aspects of this wine that I like so much, I think it is the delicate complexity of the fruit, spice and herb notes. It is almost as if this is a wine mature before its time – in a good way that is. In fact, I would say it is mature in the best possible way as far as I am concerned, as there is absolutely no tendency towards oxidation. Good acidity is also important – I like my wines to be refreshing and food friendly. Combine that with a price tag of around £20 and good availability, and it is a winner for me.

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Open letter to TONG Magazine

Dear TONG Magazine

On 14th July 2015, I started subscribing to TONG, which at that point was a hardcopy specialist wine magazine. I have the PayPal receipt in front of me now, for €€199.00 paid to Millefeuille BVBA . What exactly was I buying? In the description field on the receipt it reads “Subscribe to TONG (2 years/8 issues)”. So, just over nine months later, how many magazine issue should I have received? Immediately after subscribing I was sent the then-current issue, so by reckoning it should be four. What have I actually received? The hardcopy issue just mentioned, and one issue sent to me by email as a PDF. So my basic gripe is that I am clearly not being given what I paid for. I want a refund, but you insist on keeping my money.

Here is how things played out in more detail after my subscription and initial hardcopy issue…

2nd October 2015 I was informed that TONG was going to be published in PDF format only, and that by way of compensation I would receive ten issues rather than the eight I paid for. I thought “I am not totally happy with that, but will see how it goes”.

5th October 2015 I received an email with a new issue as PDF. I was even less happy when I realised how difficult it was to read online, and how unsuited it was to printing at home, but still didn’t think it was worth kicking up a fuss.

24th March 2016, I realised that as it was a quarterly magazine I should have received a second PDF issue by then. At this point I lost patience and just wanted to cancel my subscription and get a refund for the magazines I had not yet received, something which another high quality wine magazine would do even under normal circumstances. But the only email address I could get a response from was, where Filip Verheyden told me “TONG is published by a Belgian company, our South African company only sells the digital [back] issues and we have legally nothing to do with the other company”. Neither could he give me contact details for the Belgian company. I found this response unsatisfactory, as was the email address I had received the PDF issue from, and Filip’s email sig still read “Editor and Publisher” with a TONG logo. Also, all communication since 26th January had been, and would be, from that email address.

14th April 2016, I was sent an email announcing a collaboration with the publisher of SABOR to create a journal that will bring “food and wine together in a new publication which will replace TONG as we know it”, and “[s]ubscribers to the printed TONG journal will receive their first issue in June 2016”. So, no more PDFs as proposed before, but another flavour of jam tomorrow. On repeating my request for a refund, Filip wrote that none will be forthcoming “since the publication does not stop. It will only be refreshed”.  That is not how it sounded to me in the previous announcement. Incidentally, judging by its Facebook page, SABOR’s publication track record is not exactly confidence-inspiring – it too switched to PDF publication at one point, stopped for a while, and then restarted in print.

Sadly, PayPal will not help me as my payment was over 180 days ago, and charge-backs on credit and debit cards apparently often have a similar limit. I am sure that Belgium has solid consumer protection laws but I really don’t feel like taking legal action outside the UK for less than €200. So I am stuffed. My one consolation is to indulge myself by whinging publicly 🙂

If you are reading this, Filip, I would like to thank you at least for continuing to communicate politely with me throughout. I do understand that running a specialist magazine is not easy, but alienating new subscribers is not the answer. If you really believe in your new venture, let me make the decision whether to subscribe to it or not; don’t take that decision for me. I subscribed to a different magazine, and for a different time period.

Thank you for reading – if you have been.

Steve Slatcher

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Prince Ştirbey Feteascǎ Regalǎ 2007

stribey feteasca regalaFirstly, let me apologise. I honestly thought I had blogged about this before. But I didn’t, and now it is probably too late to find any for sale however hard you look. So the best I can do is to encourage you to be adventurous in your wine drinking, and find other gems like this. Oddbins sell the 2013, so that might be a good place to start, but I have not tried that vintage yet.

Over a few years I have bought at least two cases of this from The Daily Drinker, at prices that I think varied between £9.00 (on special offer) and £14.00. The producer is Prince Ştirbey, the grape Fetească Regală, it’s from the Dealurile Olteniei region of Romania, 2007 vintage, and 13.5% ABV. It’s a limited edition of 2,400 bottles – 200 cases or 8 barriques – So I am responsible for the consumption of a small but significant percentage of the entire vintage!

There are a few Fetească grape varieties, which seem to be named in the old-school tradition of anthropomorphic wine description, Fetească meaning young girl. Fetească Regală is a royal young girl, and makes white wine. You may also come across Fetească Albă, which is a parent of the young princess grape, and means white young girl. Then there is the black grape Fetească Neagră – you guessed it – she is black.

Ever since I started drinking this wine in 2012, I have noticed bottle variation, but the bad ones were never that bad, and the good ones were excellent. Checking my notes, it seems that I only recorded the better bottles, and the last one was particularly stunning – the sort of experience that makes me wonder why I ever bother with white Burgundy. All my notes seem very much to describe the same wine, so I shall combine them – the net result of which contains a few more descriptors than normal for me.

Medium gold. Intense and complex nose. Seville orange peel, sweet lemon, and fresh apricot. Perhaps a little oxidation, but nothing to worry about. For one bottle I noted honeysuckle, and perhaps Turkish delight. On the palate it is on the high side of medium acidity, dry, and with a hint of astringency. Intense aromatically, generally reflecting what was observed on the nose, but also incense-type notes as it warms in the glass. With the most recent bottle, Sherry, or cherry brandy. Excellent length, with spicy finish that has a liquorice edge. Drink now I think – some bottles are wonderful now, but others have seen better days *****

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Q&A – Food matches for Madeira


Here’s a question I received recently from my Ask me a wine question page:

Hello, I received Madeira wines : 1) Tinta negra de madeira “Natal” 1946 by artur de barros e sousa and 2) special madeira 1988 by cossart gordon and 3) malmsey madeira 1994 by cossart gordon. Can you tell me with what kind of food I can drink them, please ? Regards, Bobo.

It sounds like you have some nice wines, there, Bobo – I presume your “special” Madeira is actually an auto-correct glitch, and it is really a Sercial.

Tinta Negra, Sercial and Malmsey (also called Malvasia) are the names of grape varieties, and also indicate the style of the wine when used for Madeira. Of the four principal varieties in terms of quality and availability, Sercial is used to produce the driest style, though there is usually a little sweetness to take the edge off the acidity, and Malmsey is very sweet indeed. The grape Tinta Negra, also called Tinta Negra Mole,  is not one of those four varieties. It is not so highly regarded, and these days is used to make cheaper Madeiras of any style. Don’t let that put you off – I am sure a 1946 Tinta Negra from ABSL will be good, and quite possibly the best wine of the three – but I have no idea about how sweet it will be.

My honest answer to your question is that I think Madeira is best drunk a glass at a time without food, or possibly with nuts and dried fruit. Madeira also lends itself to drinking like that because open bottles will last for several months. You could even have all three bottles on the go at the same time. If offering to guests, I would choose Malmsey as an after-dinner drink, and the drier Sercial as an aperitif, when it would also work with olives. But if I were the drinker, the Sercial would be liable to be sampled at almost any time in the afternoon or evening.

If really want to try your Madeiras with food, offers some suggestions. For the Tinta Negra, you would have to open it first to check whether it is closer to the sweetness of the Sercial or the Madeira. If it is somewhere in between, follow the recommendations for Verdelho or Boal. When you have checked the wines for sweetness, you will also have a much better idea about whether you really want to drink them with food at all. I might be wrong, but the cynic in me thinks that the idea of drinking Madeira with food comes mainly from those eager to persuade punters to drink more.

I hope that helps, Bobo. If you have further questions, do get back to me. Also, if you check back here later, you might find other people have added helpful comments to this post.

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Montesquiou Terre de France 2014

montesq terre de franceThe label is rather impressive, but was it designed especially for what seems to be a one-off wine, I wonder? Or is it Domaine Montesquiou’s generic label for any wine not in its normal range? The official EU label with all the required information is of course on the back of the bottle: Vin de France (what used to be called table wine), 2014, and 14.5%, but still little clue about the contents.

According to Leon Stolarski’s website, where you can find more information and currently buy bottles of it, the wine is 65% Gros Manseng, 30% Petit Manseng, and 5% Camaralet. That is the same blend as Montesquiou’s Cuvade Préciouse – a Jurançon Sec – the difference being that for this wine the fermentation stuck with too much residual sugar to call it sec, and the decision was taken to bottle the wine as it was, rather than restart the fermentation.

It is not something that easily slots into a neat category, and as such it took be some time to figure out my reaction. But as I drank, I got to like it more and more. Here’s my tasting note: Medium pale amber gold colour. Big on the nose. Lime marmalade, or maybe a combination of lime fruit and “normal” marmalade. Possibly a hint of petrol, and some green vegetable, though not in a negative way. Sweet ripe fruit, apricot maybe. My wife thought honey. All in all, the evidence seems to suggest some botrytis. Certainly there was a lot of interest on the nose. On the palate, initially an impression of medium low acidity. Off dry and full bodied. Slightly bitter. Feels like it should be astringent, but isn’t. Excellent length. Seems more acidic on the finish, so now I’m confused a bit – probably actually higher acidity than I thought at first – medium high perhaps? Overall the effect is bracing, despite the sweetness. Weird but I think I like it. No, I do like it, a lot. Difficult to rate, but I think *****

Would I buy more? Possibly. My main reason for hesitation is wondering when I would like to drink it. I had my bottle with Middle-Eastern meze. It wasn’t bad in that context, but neither food nor wine particularly lifted the other. The overall profile reminds me a little of rich Alsace wines, so maybe pork would be the obvious match. It would stand up well to creamy sauces too.

So, well done Leon for importing this. Nearly forgot to mention it costs £11.95, and at that price it is certainly worth trying a bottle. I have enjoyed earlier vintages of the dry Cuvade Préciouse too, so you might like to get some of that at the same time.

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Solid evidence for terroir influence on wine flavour

I recently stumbled across what seems to be solid evidence for some effects of terroir on wine. It is not new research, but for some reason it had managed to elude me, and was only brought to my attention by John Winthrop Haeger’s book Riesling Rediscovered. The research is published in [1] and [2] – see end of this post. As the latter reference is available on Google Books almost in its entirety, that was my main source of information and where I found the figure shown below.

Twenty-five different Riesling vineyard sites were studied: 12 in the Pfalz, and 13 in the Mosel, Ahr, Nahe and Rheinhessen. The substrates yielding the soils of these sites included limestone, sandstone, greywacke, basalt, slate, porphyry, and breccia from the rotliegend age. The vintages 2004, 2005, 2006 and 2007 were assessed 8 months after the harvest by panels of 13-20 trained judges. The grapes were picked at optimal ripeness, as determined by the estate owners, one portion from each site being vinified as normal by the estate, and one portion subject to a standard winemaking protocol that was the same for all sites. The wine made by the estate was evaluated in duplicate, while standard process wine was evaluated in triplicate.

The results of a discriminant analysis are shown below (click on the figure to get a larger version). If I understand the point of a discriminant analysis correctly, it here means that two functions of the flavour profiles, F1 and F2, were found such that wines of the different rock types cluster when F2 is plotted against F1. Thus, if you know the flavour profile of the wine, you could calculate F1 and F2 and stand a good chance of predicting the rock type by checking where the point lies in the left hand graph.riesling_terroir_differencesNecessarily, there were many details omitted from the conference paper, so it is difficult to judge the quality of the research, but to me nothing stands out as being obviously flawed and I would assume the work is sound. As such, for me it is the first convincing evidence for the soil substrate type having an impact on flavour profile. All the other evidence I have seen has been non-blind and anecdotal, and whenever blind tasting has been used terroir differences seem to disappear, even for people who would generally be regarded as expert tasters.

One interesting question about this research is to what extent the experimental protocol was essential in revealing the terroir effect, and to what extent it would also be clear to expert but non-trained tasters tasting blind. In other words, now necessary is the training and the discriminant analysis in uncovering the important of terroir? Also, more generally, I wonder how applicable the results are to other grapes and regions.

See my previous posts on the subject to understand my mildly sceptical attitude to terroir. I think I would still describe my attitude in the same way, but it has certainly just shifted considerably in the positive direction. However, in the introduction to the article I summarise here it is made clear that terroir is hugely important in marketing, as a unique selling proposition, and as point of interest for punters. Marketing was the driver for this research, and whenever marketing is involved my bullshit detectors start twitching from a heightened sensitivity.

[1] Andrea Bauer et al, “Authentication of Different Terroirs of German Riesling Applying Sensory and Flavor Analysis”, in “Progress in authentication of food and wine”, pp 131-151, American Chemical Society,Washington, DC, 2011

[2] A Bauer and U Fischer, “Factors causing sensory variation in Riesling wines from different Terroirs in Germany”, in “Oeno2011: Actes de colloques du 9e symposium international d’oenologie de Bordeaux”, pp 1087-1092, Dunod, 2011

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Arribes de Ventonia Redux – bottle variation?

Following my very enthusiastic review of Arribes de Ventonia 2011, I snapped up the remaining bottles I could find, and also bought a few from the 2013 vintage, which was a slightly different cépage.

I tried the 2013 first, and it was not a patch on my previous experience. Fruit and oak, but none of the complexity of the 2011. Ah, well – it was after all a different wine. But last night I tried one of the more-recently-bought 2011 wines, and it reminded me more of the 2013 than my previous experience with the 2011. For both recent bottles, it was a *** rating rather than *****. Still not bad for a £9.00 bottle of wine, but not something to make me want to dash out for more.

Bottle variation or taster variation? Under most circumstances I would be very willing to accept that I am the most likely cause of inconsistency. But in this case the differences were so marked that I am leaning much more towards the bottle variation explanation. Maybe the 2011 wines were from different batches, or the storage conditions differed before the wines reached me? Not that I am suggesting there was any heat damage or similar – just that they happened to be not so good for these particular wines. The closure was not natural cork BTW, so a dodgy cork would not be an explanation.

What can we learn from this?

  1. This is the way things are for wine that are more interesting. We have to accept it.
  2. When I highlight a single wine in a blog post, it will be one I have tried on multiple occasions or one I have both tasted and drunk at least half a bottle of, with food where appropriate. Maybe I need to hold back on my opinions even more. Not that I feel guilty over this incident – I rarely review freebie bottles, and in this case I put my money where my mouth was to the extent that I doubt anyone else had chance to buy any.
  3. As a consumer of tasting notes, I shall be even more sceptical. And I recommend that attitude to you too.
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