Olfactory white, and complexity

For me, as far as winetasting is concerned, the most thought-provoking piece of research in 2012 was published an article where the concept of olfactory white, the smell equivalent of white noise, was mooted.

The researchers mixed unrelated aromas of equal intensity, and presented them to the noses of the participants.  In the words of the authors, ‘the chief finding of this study is illustrated in [the figure reproduced below]: The more components two mixtures have, the more similar they smell, even though they have no individual components in common. Moreover, odorant mixtures with ~30 components or more begin to smell alike, having a quality we call “olfactory white.”’

olfactory_white

The usual assumption seems to be that the introduction of new aromas into a wine serves to increase its complexity.  In this article there is at least a hint that additional flavours may serve little purpose, merely taking it one step closer to olfactory white, or at least to the point where it merely has a generic wine smell that is indistinguishable from other wines.

Personally, I actually find that rather satisfying.  When ever I read, usually on the back label, that something, for example a small percentage of grape variety, is used to “add complexity”, my bullshit detectors start twitching.   It is just a pity that all those top Burgundy and Barolo producers never thought of adding a soupçon of Syrah to give their wine more complexity.   Adding Syrah to give insipid Burgundy more oomph is of course a totally different matter!

It also got me thinking about the concept of complexity, which is perhaps all too often taken for granted.  It is one of those winetasting terms that rolls off the tongue and pen a little too easily, and is almost synonymous with good.  Here are a few definitions:

Many-faceted smell and taste. The hallmark of a well-developed fine wine (Michael Broadbent: Winetasting)

Opposite of simple or one-dimensional; a multiplicity, intricacy, nuance of smells, textures. Quality of a high order. (Michael Schuster: Essential Winetasting)

Quantitative/qualitative term referring to the perceptible presence of many aromatic compounds, combining to generate pleasure; a highly desirable attribute. (Ronald Jackson: Wine Tasting – A Professional Handbook)

Refers to the presence of many, distinctive, aromatic elements, rather than one or a few easily recognizable odors. (Ronald Jackson: Wine Tasting – A Professional Handbook)

The final quotation from Jackson is interesting in that it includes the word “distinctive” – preempting the concern that the aromatic elements might be merely participating in a soup where the components cannot be identified.  Because that is a negative thing, isn’t it?  Maybe, but I have certainly seen others suggest that complexity can work at a subconscious level.  That is, you might not detect the oakiness (for example) but the subtle use of oak improves the wine regardless.  There is also the case where all the aromas may not be distinctive at the same time.  Here the aromas you get at any one time depend on many things – like temperature, degree of swirling in the glass, distance of your nose from the wine, etc.  Multiple clearly defined aromas, subtle aromas that work at a subconscious level, and aromas that come and go all sound credible and positive to me.

But soupiness is bad, and I usually associate it with cheap wines.  It is very tempting to associate that soupy quality with olfactory white, or at least a step in that direction.  If so it might be the case that the relationship between the number of aromatic compounds present and complexity is not as straightforward as you might think, and complex wines are actually distinguished by having fewer aromatic compounds.

You might like to take a look at the discussion on Wine Lovers Discussion Group.

About Steve Slatcher

Wine enthusiast and software engineer
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