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.