Scents Ability


The Science of the Senses

Nothing is more memorable than a smell.
One scent can be unexpected, momentary and fleeting, yet conjure up a childhood summer beside a lake in the mountains...
Hit a tripwire of smell and memories explode all at once - a complex vision leaps out of the undergrowth.

- Diane Ackerman

Give people a taste of Old Crow, and tell them it's Old Crow.
Then give them another taste of Old Crow, but tell them it's Jack Daniel's.  Ask them which they prefer.
They'll think the two drinks are quite different.  They are tasting images.

- David Ogilvy

Give us this day our daily taste.
Restore to us soups that spoons will not sink in and sauces which are never the same twice.
Raise up among us stews with more gravy than we have bread to blot it with.
Give us pasta with a hundred fillings.

- Robert Farrar Capon

by John Newton

Max Lake knows the basic reason why men and women are at one another's throats.  It's the way they smell.  He leans forward to let me in on his secret.  "The last chapter of a book yet to be published entitled Fragrances of Love," he begins, "is called 'The War of the Sexes'.  In it I point out that a substantial part of the problem - I don't know whether it's one in a hundred or nine in a hundred - is provoked by odour hostility: females, because their cycles are programmed by male smell; and males because they've got this irresistible mating program driven, in part, by the aroma of androsterone, the principal male pheromone (also secreted by women), which, if they follow, will land them in jail."

To keep out of trouble, half the male population is apparently "odour blind" to androsterone.  A pity, as it's also an important aroma in cabernet and some oak-driven wines.  Lake tells us that "work done at the Monell Chemical Senses Centre in Philadelphia has shown that in a matter of six weeks or so, most men could be trained to perceive the androsterone smell".  But will reawakening it get us blokes into trouble?  "I think if you've advanced far enough to be interested in the fragrance of cabernet wines, then you've probably learnt a little finetuning," opines Lake.

You see, according to Lake, Descartes got it wrong.  It isn't that "I think therefore I am", but that "we are because we smell".  ("There is some merit," Lake writes in his book Food on the Plate, Wine in the Glass, "in the idea that the thinking cortex developed from the olfactory input of our evolutionary past.")  This is not surprising coming from Max Lake, who has been sticking his finely tuned nose into some pretty sensitive places for quite a number of years now.

This is not just some food and wine-obsessed gourmand speaking.  This is a scientist, amateur biochemist and self-confessed "closet neurologist" - and probably the only surgeon/winemaker on the planet interested in what earthworms can smell and taste.  This is Lake in his latest role as the philosopher of flavour, rather than, as Financial Review wine critic Tim White apotheosised him, the rascal of the senses.

There've been a few Max Lakes to contend with over the years: the brother of quiz kid Bernard and son of American mother Hannah (he was born in America) and father David from Broken Hill, who ran MGM in Australia during the depression; the kid who got four Bs in the Leaving Certificate (the lowest pass-mark) and went on to top his year in surgery at Sydney University; Australia's first specialist hand surgeon who, in 1963, set up Lake's Folly in the Hunter Valley whose wines, according to Hugh Johnson's Wine Companion, rank "among Australia's best"; husband to Joy, herself a doctor, and father of two.

The same Max Lake who, in 1979, when personal and professional problems led him to shut up shop as a surgeon, metamorphosed into an international wine judge, writer, taster, smeller and cartographer of the evolution of the senses.

So what is the latest Lake incarnation up to?  "What I've done is re-cast the whole idea of flavour from the point of view of evolution," he says.  Is that all?  Not really.  Then there's the mission to teach the world to taste and smell - and to analyse what the smell/taste nexus means to the human race.  It's hard to know where to begin after a few hours listening to him chasing theories and hypotheses across disciplines as diverse as neurophysiology, quantum mechanics and organic chemistry, along with that unlikely earthworm again.

When he was looking for a model for the early organisation of flavour and fragrance signals, the earthworm seemed ideal.  He writes: "It has a simple cylindrical body, a tubed gut ...a primitive nervous system that encircles the mouth end, forming the semblance of a kind of brain.  The worm picks up its signals along its body by sensor cells which are taste receptors in the human."  A worm can probably taste sour, which controls ionic balance within the narrow zone essential for life; salt, which stabilises the composition of the body's internal sea; umami (a Japanese word, the fifth flavour, savoury) which assists the building up of cell activity; and bitter, which warns of toxic threats to cell integrity.  "Each taste is a powerful evolutionary signal for survival."

But earthworms can't smell, and it's the addition of the 20 aroma families to the "at least" 10 tastes, according to Lake, which combine in the human mouth to give birth to flavour.  "The thinking brain has come up with the idea of flavour by combining the messages of smell, taste and the other sensations."

One of the key statements from an earlier book by Lake, Scents and Sensuality (published by John Murray but no longer in print) is that choice is one of the characteristic traits of intelligence.  Harking back to the androsterone imperative, primitive man had no choice but to follow his mating program.  Sophisticated homo sapiens puts brakes on unruly impulses and uses aroma awareness for higher pursuits.  At the core of Lake's mission is a desire to teach us to open our senses to flavour and aroma to help us make more intelligent choices in food and wine.

But isn't this just an exercise in hedonism, a bunch of effete foodies sitting around sniffing wines and cheeses?  Perhaps not.  Increasingly, research is pointing out something that should really have been as plain as the nose on your face: the enjoyment of food is a significant element in our absorption of nutrients from that food.

Nutritionist Rosemary Stanton points out that it's been known for some years that we absorb more iron when we really enjoy what we're eating.  "We're just discovering that a lot of the herbs that give food its flavours are rich in anti-oxidants - parsley and basil, for example," she says.  When you eat a little they're not much use, but in a tabouli or a pesto, they represents a significant addition to the diet.

Pioneering work in Japan with monkeys suggests that we record the characteristics of each food that we eat, neurone by neurone, in that part of the brain which is known as the amygdala, part of "the smell brain".  The significance of this research has yet to be assimilated by the medical profession.

You don't have to spend every mealtime sitting around sniffing and concentrating and swilling, but if we do a little flavour and aroma training it will add to our enjoyment of food and we will become more discriminating eaters.

"I have to be perfectly honest with you," confides Lake, in his comfortably cluttered Manly apartment, "I don't think I have that acute a sense of smell.  What I have got is a huge ability to remember and reverberate: I've got a memory bank and a labelled library [of flavours and aromas] that's awesome."

So how can we mere mortals improve our own ability to taste and smell?  Surely it's an innate ability: you've got it or you haven't?  "Train, taste, and talk," directs Lake.  And this learning is done with the mouth open, full, in the company of friends, and noisily.

Tasting involves every sense:

bullet sight
bullet sound (an aid to texture in food, the noisy swilling of wine around the mouth)
bullet hearing (companions groping for names to put to aromas and flavours)
bullet smell (try a simple experiment: chew on apiece of strong cheese while blocking your nostrils with your fingers - nothing)
bullet taste itself
bullet touch, or tactility, texture - and, of course
bullet memory (both flavours and aromas are recalled through the depths of the temporal lobe, the memory centre).

All this really means is that you're trying to put names to flavours and aromas so that when you encounter them again, you'll remember them.

Not long after this series of conversations with Lake, I was eating lunch in a restaurant where a Melbourne chef had prepared a small tasting of a number of dishes.  One dish landed on my table, and I was overwhelmed by the aromas coming from it - a roasted squab coated with honey in cardamom juice.  Exquisite.  I lifted the plate to my nose to sniff it all in.  "You wouldn't do that in my house," sniffed my table companion.  Aroma has been in bad odour for some time now: a prudish hangover from Victorian gentility.  It's about time we blew away that nonsense, and began to use our noses again.

Send Your Senses to Kindergarten

  1. Move from simple to complex.  Max Lake says, "I started with honeys because they were so different and easy to get.  I got 28 honeys, put them on little squares of toast, and we all tasted it."
  2. Graduate to other "simple fresh things": apples, jams, coffees, olive oils (professionals use a spoon, it tastes better with fresh crusty bread).
  3. Move on to more complex flavours: cheese, for example.  Do a tasting of a number of blue or white mould cheeses; or across a series of blues, white moulds, cheddars, washed rinds, et cetera.
  4. Sniff, slurp and smack.  What's not done at the dinner table is de rigeur at the tasting table.  Take in the aromas, then move the food around in your mouth (if it's liquid, swill it around, suck air through your teeth), taking care to allow it to float to the back of the mouth, where aromas get a second shot at the back of the nose.
  5. "From the functional viewpoint, many people can't pick more than three components of an odour, and very few more than five.  But rest assured, everyone can improve with training."
  6. No elitism.  Max Lake says, "People have such feelings of inferiority about their own sense of smell and taste.  You ask, 'What do you think of this wine?' and you get an autobiography.  'I really don't know much about wine, I'm frightened to say anything in front of you.'  Just tell me about the bloody wine!"
  7. Don't waffle.  If you recognise it, but can't put it into words, say so.  Somebody else in the group will get it.
  8. Make lists.  Max Lake: "I had an experience recently of going through coffees with someone who's pretty good, but couldn't get it.  So I wrote down a series of descriptions: light, heavy, narrow, broad, thin, thick, acid, sweet and, finally, floral."
  9. For clarity, try to include children.  Children's comments on flavour are fascinating.  Listen and you will learn.
  10. Ponder: "Flavour is a seamless fabric fashioned from experience."

John Newton is a Sydney-based writer.

Source: Good Weekend 17 September 1994

Supertasters Live in a Neon-Lit World of Food Flavours

by Steve Connor

Some people are born with a better sense of taste than others, according to a study showing that "supertasters" have a biological gift enabling them to detect the most subtle nuances of food.  It is believed to be a genetic trait that can determine what individuals eat and what illnesses they will develop.

Supertasters live in a "neon-lit" world of flavours which is roughly three times as intense as the "pastel world" of the less-sensitive "non-tasters" who have fewer taste buds on their tongues, said Linda Bartoshuk of Yale University.  Supertasters carry a double copy of a gene that makes them sensitive to the bitter taste.  They tend to avoid sweet, high-fat foods but are also averse to vegetables which can taste unpleasantly bitter, Professor Bartoshuk told the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in Denver.  "Supertasters are picky eaters.  They taste bitterness in food that other people don't notice.  For some, the food world is just slashingly bright and they opt out from many food choices," Professor Bartoshuk told the meeting.  "It's related to gender because women are more likely to be supertasters than men.  Bitter taste is related to hormones in humans.  The degree of bitterness perceived varies with the menstrual cycle.  It also goes to a peak in early pregnancy and falls off a cliff at menopause," she said.

Pregnant women can become highly sensitive to the bitter taste probably because it is a way of protecting their developing babies from the effects of food poisoning.  Women also tend to be different to men in terms of their taste preferences.  "Female supertasters really don't like high fat so they eat less of it and their cardiovascular profiles are superior than non-tasting females.  Many males show the opposite pattern this means that many males who taste fat more intensely also like it more and so they gain weight," she said.

Scientists can determine whether someone is a supertaster by getting them to taste a chemical called prop.  "It tastes incredibly bitter to supertasters, moderately bitter to medium tasters and basically tastes not at all to non-tasters," Professor Bartoshuk said.  About a quarter of the population are supertasters, another quarter are non-tasters and the rest are medium tasters.  Scientists believe the ability to detect bitter tastes is designed to be a safety measure to avoid food that has gone off.  "The ability to taste bitter substances has always been associated with poison detection, but now we have found all these health associations," Professor Bartoshuk said.  "We know that people's whole diets are different, based on their taste sensitivity.  Supertasters perceive all tastes more intensely but the bitter effect is the largest.  Supertasters also perceive oral burning and oral touching as more intense.  Chefs are more likely to be supertasters.  In older men, we found that the number of polyps in the colon was directly correlated with the bitter [they] perceived.  In addition, the men with polyps ate fewer vegetables and were heavier, both risks factors known to be associated with colon cancers," said Professor Bartoshuk.  "We want to see what things suppress bitter the best.  We want people to eat these foods so we have to figure out ways of preparing them in a way that is tolerable, and inhibiting bitter is one of them."

Experiments show that being supersensitive to the taste of bitter is related to race – white Caucasians for instance are less likely to be supertasters than Asians.  The ability to taste bitterness is largely determined by a single gene which is located on human chromosome number 5, Professor Bartoshuk said.

Steve Connor is the science editor in Denver

Source: The Independent [UK] 17 February 2003

Yes, but do supertasters see as well as everyone else?

More Colour, Less Odour

Gaining colour vision, it seems, cost people much of their sense of smell

There is a theory that the human sense of smell began to atrophy when people learned to cook.  Since cooking neutralised the worst toxins in food, it became less important to be able to sniff out evil-smelling ingredients.  But at the International Congress of Genetics, held earlier this month in Melbourne, Australia, a group of researchers presented evidence that it was actually the evolution of colour vision that caused creeping desensitisation to odours.

People detect smells when particular molecules lock on to receptor proteins embedded in the lining of the nose.  The interaction between a molecule and a receptor triggers a pulse of electrical activity that is transmitted to the brain.

Most odoriferous molecules activate more than one type of receptor.  The brain recognises an odour by the pattern of receptors activated.  Humans have about 1,000 different sorts of odour receptor (OR), so the number of patterns that can be generated and recognised is impressive.  Even so, the range and subtlety of the human sense of smell is poor compared with that of other mammals, and it has been found over the past few years that this poverty is a reflection of genetics.  The genes that encode ORs form the largest of the mammalian gene families.  Yet in humans 60% of them are actually so-called pseudo-genes.  In other words they have been rendered inactive by mutations.

To find out if humans are unusual among primates in having lost such a high proportion of their ORs, a team of researchers led by Yoav Gilad of the Weizmann Institute, in Israel, picked 50 human OR genes at random.  The team then found their counterparts in several species of primate, and also in the mouse, and compared the ratio of pseudogenes with intact, functional genes across the species.

In the mouse, around 20% turned out to be pseudogenes, whereas in chimpanzees, gorillas and orang-utans the level was closer to 30%.  Old-world monkeys had lost more genes than new-world monkeys, which in turn had lost substantially more than the mouse.  And humans were way out in front with a massive 60% erosion of ORs.  According to Dr Gilad, humans have accumulated disruptive mutations in OR genes four times faster than any of the other species tested.  Moreover, the distinction between new world and old world was so clear that, as Dr Gilad says, "It's almost as if we can map the beginning of the accelerated rate of accumulating OR pseudogenes from their divergence."  But there was an anomaly.  When the researchers plotted their findings on a graph, they found that the howler monkey, a new-world species, fell in with its old-world cousins.

Why would this sudden increase in OR loss have occurred both in the old-world and in one lineage of new-world primates?  The researchers were struck by the fact that howler monkeys, alone among new-world species, share with old-world primates the capacity for full colour, or "trichromatic" vision.

Trichromatic vision involves three pigments, called opsins, that are sensitive to different wavelengths of light.  In humans and their old-world relatives the medium- and long-wave opsins are controlled by separate genes on the X chromosome.  But in most new-world monkeys there is only one opsin gene on the X chromosome.

Confusingly, this gene can exist in two forms, which produce opsins sensitive to different wavelengths.  So trichromacy can occur in these animals.  But it can only happen in females, who have two X chromosomes, one inherited from each parent.  If these carry different forms of the gene, a female's eyes will be equipped with all three pigments.  Males, who have only one X chromosome, always lack a third pigment.  So do those females whose X chromosomes carry identical opsin genes.

The researchers believe that the emergence of separate opsin genes on the X chromosome - and hence full colour vision - is probably connected with the shrinkage of the OR family.  The better you can see, the less you need to smell.  Since senses are costly to maintain, natural selection will eliminate redundant ones.  Most mammals communicate by scent.  Old-world primates, though, are big on visual communication, with coloured faces and (in the case of females) coloured sexual swellings.  And people have gone a step further, creating a range of colourful signals with the clothes they wear.  Whether the additional communication provided by language is another such selective pressure remains to be seen.

Source: The Economist 24 July 2003

Scent Circle

Modification of a Standardised System of Wine Aroma Terminology A C Noble, R A Arnold, J Buechsenstein, E J Leach, J O Schmidt and P M Stern

-------- Original Message --------
Subject: Fwd: wine aroma wheel
Date: Mon, 1 May 2006 19:40:48 -0400
From: Ann C Noble <>
To: Ruth Hatch <>


You have an image of the wine aroma wheel on your flat rock website.  From what i could see, perhaps it was off the screen, you indicated the source but not the copyright (for that version.  It was American Society of  Enology and Viticulture.  However there is a newer one, and I really would like you to add a link to my website.


Ann C Noble
Wine Aroma Wheels
Box 72239
Davis, CA 95616 USA
Fax 1-484-233-3149
Pray for peace!


With pleasure:

See also: - Home of the wine aroma wheel - Story about describing wine and the wine aroma wheel - Sparkling wine aroma wheel - Live demonstration of smelling standards and describing wine

550 Wine Taste Components Identified

by Will Hoffman

Though the palate can only sense some seven flavours: sweet, sour, salt, bitter, astringent, pungent and metallic, some 550 components of wine taste have been identified.  These range over a full complement of organic compounds, from simple alcohols and esters to complex aromatics and heterocyclic compounds.  The great majority of a wine's flavour is therefore perceived through the nose.  Unlike taste, the sense of smell is very sensitive.  Also, everyone's "nose" is more or less different.  In assessing wine quality, therefore, proper account must be taken of such individual differences among the tasters as well as in the wine itself.

But the purpose of tasting must be taken into account also.  Is it simply a "hedonistic" evaluation for commercial purpose: "Do you like the wine or not, and how much?"  Being well suited to the marketing of a product at hand, this is the way judging is used in food science for everything from applesauce to tuna fish.  Craig Goldwyn in the International Wine Review, strongly (and rhetorically) argues for a 10-point hedonistic scale ranging from "Dislike Extremely" to "Like Extremely."  This, on the basis that anything more, such as the UC Davis 20-point scale, fails to distinguish between objective factors and subjective satisfaction.  Goldwyn views quantifiable factors (body, colour, defects, et cetera) in wine tasting as like the instruments of an orchestra, whereas the subjective pleasure of the wine is for him the important thing, the symphony itself.

On the other hand, such hedonistic scales do little to "improve the breed."  It is only by integrating sensory and analytical information with hedonistic data that a rational vocabulary and deceptive terminology can be generated for wine tasting.  It is hoped such a marriage will lead to eventual solution of the puzzle of what makes a really great wine.  Soil, sun, climate, varietal, fermentation and storage are all important factors, but what fundamental knowledge is required to insure great flavour and bouquet in a wine?  When will it be possible to consistently produce outstandingly fine wines in mass market volume?  As a Nova program, "The Great Wine Revolution," once put it - "Chateau Margaux for all on the supermarket shelf."

About seven-eighths of a bottle of wine is simply water.  Most of what remains after removing the water is about 12% alcohol.  The still further residue after the alcohol is removed, consists largely of acid, tannin and pigments.  The final essence consists of the aromatic components.  Frequently, these are present only in parts per billion, but they are what give the wine its particular flavour and bouquet.  Many world-class institutions are working on what these aromatics are and how they correspond to wine taste: UC Davis, Bristol Unviersity in England, Bordeaux and Montpelier universities in France, Geisenheim in Germany, Roseworthy in Australia, and various large wineries and government research centres around the world.  One of the foremost agencies in this line of research is the Long Ashton Research Station of Bristol University under the direction of Dr A A Williams.  That research is what is described here.

The fIrst step in such a matching of tastes and biochemicals is the isolation of the aromatic fraction of the wine.  This is generally done by use of gas or liquid chromotograph in conjunction with a mass spectrometer.  The aromatics show up as peaks on the spectrogram which can be identified with known biochemical compounds.  The trick then is to match these components to the aromas detected by the tasting panel.  The panel consists of well trained tasters - the training sometimes lasting for months.  Owing to inexperience and individual variation, expertise in wine tasting for scientific purposes such as this usually comes only with long and sound training.  With experience, the members of the panel gradually become more discriminating and adopt an improved terminology with greater nuances.  While the training was going on, an "aroma box" was also assembled.  For the Bristol panel, the aroma box contained 45 organic compounds ararnged in 14 groups - Aldehydic, Sharp, Sugary, Metallic, Alcoholic, Green/Unripe Fruit, Woody, Scented, Spicy, Peppery, Creamy, Caramel, Yeasty/Thiamine, Sulphury.  Each of these groups had, of course, its refinements.  For example, Fruity was subdivided into Processed Black Currant-like, Raspberry-like, Elderberry-like, Grape-like and Plum-like.  Sugary also had several particular sub-flavours.

Once the panel had agreed on the identification of an aroma, the compounds identified by the gas chromatograph were smelled to find a correspondence between biochemical and scent/taste.  Continuing the process, one should in due course be able to develop a complete correlation between the descriptors of a given wine and the chemicals / biochemicals related to them.  This is not the place for a technical description of these matches, but the interested reader can refer to Williams' paper, "Recent Developments in the Field of Wine Flavour Research," in the January-February 1982 issue of the Journal of the Institute of Brewing for a full account.

In 1984 the American Society for the Enology and Viticulture porposed a standardised wine aroma terminology for the purpose of facilitating communication within the wine industry.  Since then constructive criticism from members of the wine industry worldwide has been received and incorporated to modify the scent circle shown above.  Reference standards utilising particular recipes or biochemicals have also been assigned in order to define each element of the terminology as precisely as possible.  The above wheel is a graphic representation in three tiers of terminology as published in the American Journal of Enology and Viticulture, Volume 38, Number 2.

Source: The Vintage Voice Spring 1993

See also:

bulletA Sensory User's Manual (an external site) - Wine tasting is actually a complex proposition involving much more than simply sipping some fermented grape juice. There are many variable factors that affect an individual's perception of flavour in wine.  There are chemical, physical, mechanical, physiological, and psychological variables...

What the Nose Knows

by John Lanchester

For years, ever since I started taking an interest in wine, I’ve been annoyed by the word "grainy."  It’s a word that mavens use in relation to red wines, and refers to certain types of tannin - the chemical that cures leather, is present in tea, and makes the mouth pucker.  Tannin is a preservative and an important factor in the way wines age.  Still, how could a liquid be "grainy"?

Then, a few nights ago, I opened a bottle of wine I’d been given, a Languedoc red called Le Pigeonnier, from the European heat-wave year of 2003, and, without concentrating very hard, took a sip, noticed something odd about the mouthfeel of the wine, and suddenly realised - bam! - that it was grainy.  I’d found the famous grainy tannins, and the term actually made sense, because the wine definitely had a particulate, almost sandlike texture, not unpleasant, but distinctive.  What’s more, in tasting it I realised that I’d encountered versions of it - milder, more restrained versions - before.  Now I knew what grainy tannins were.

Most taste experiences work like that.  A taste or a smell can pass you by, unremarked or nearly so, in large part because you don’t have a word for it; then you see the thing and grasp the meaning of a word at the same time, and both your palate and your vocabulary have expanded.  One day, you catch the smell of gooseberries from a Sauvignon Blanc, or red currants from a Cabernet, or bubble gum from a Gamay, or horse manure from a Shiraz, and from that point on you know exactly what people mean when they say they detect these things.  The smell of a "corked" bottle of wine, for instance, is something that, once it has been pointed out to you, you never forget.

The idea that your palate and your vocabulary expand simultaneously might sound felicitous, but there is a catch.  The words and the references are really useful only to people who have had the same experiences and use the same vocabulary: those references are to a shared basis of sensory experience and a shared language.  To people who haven’t had those shared experiences, this way of talking can seem like horse manure, and not in a good way.

Consider product A, in which

layers of cedar and raspberry strike a sharp upfront note, while clove and creamy notes add body while contributing an exotic, sumptuous character that conveys luxury in its essence.  Might there also be a trace of rubber, though?

And then there’s B, with

its aroma of underripe bananas, and the way the fruitiness opens up on my tongue with a flick of bitterness that quickly fades to reveal lush, grassy tones.

Product C, on the other hand, is

fruity (with a high-profile role for the deliciously garbagey, overripe smell of guava) plus floral (powdery rosy) plus green (neroli and oakmoss).

These are descriptions of, respectively, a chocolate, an olive oil, and a perfume, but you couldn’t possibly guess that.  I’ve never caught traces of red fruit in a dark chocolate, I don’t even know what neroli is, and, as for underripe bananas in olive oil, I’m more likely to catch the Sundance Kid in Bolivia.  That doesn’t mean that the people who can taste these things are bluffing; rather, they have a vocabulary of specific sense references that I haven’t acquired.  (To complicate matters, sometimes these people actually are bluffing.)  There is a loss involved in learning about taste: as you gain a more detailed and precise vocabulary, you risk talking to fewer and fewer people - the people who know what these taste references mean.  As your vocabulary becomes more specific, more useful, it also becomes less inclusive.

For that reason, imaginative writers tend to flee as far as possible from the too-specific nomenclatures of the expert and toward pure evocations of sensation.  It is possible to feel envious of people who wrote about wine before the tyranny of expert descriptors.  The classic text in this respect is the scene in Brideshead Revisited where the narrator, Charles Ryder, and his friend Sebastian Flyte make a serious run on the bottles in the latter’s ancestral cellar, getting comprehensively blitzed and making tasting notes:

"It is a little, shy wine like a gazelle."
"Like a leprechaun."
"Dappled, in a tapestry meadow."
"Like a flute by still water."
"... And this is a wise old wine."
"A prophet in a cave."
"... And this is a necklace of pearls on a white neck."
"Like a swan."
"Like the last unicorn."

Here the unlikeliness is part of the fun.  Paradoxically, the more deliberately over-the-top taste descriptions are, the more they can appeal to a general, untrained reader.  Prose that is rich in similes and wild comparisons is making an effort to reach out.  This is the sort of game that anyone can play - a wine can remind you of your first kiss, or of the smell of a new car, even if you don’t know the difference between volatile phenolics and malolactic conversion.

In a seminal study of the subject, Wines: Their Sensory Evaluation (1976), Maynard A Amerine and Edward B Roessler called this the "Romantic" tradition in wine writing.  They were against it.  Both men were professors at the University of California at Davis, an important centre for the study of wine, and they wanted to put some scientific backbone into the business of tasting - or, as they preferred to call it, "sensory evaluation," since all the senses were involved.  (One of their senses is pain: "It is rare for a wine to be so acid as to give genuine pain...")  They sought to bring methodological rigour to what might have seemed an inherently subjective enterprise ("In a paired-sample preference test with 64 trials, how many agreeing judgments are required for significance at the 5% level?"), and the underlying plea for a rational scoring system to evaluate wines, combined with a pragmatic, debunking attitude toward fancy wine vocabulary, had a big effect.  The two men had no use for taste words such as "flinty" - "We confess that this flavour (odour?) has never come our way" - or "musty": "Avoid it unless you know what it means.  We don’t."  What they believed in was tasting wines and evaluating them according to verifiable, quantifiable criteria.

Point systems have been popular ever since.  Part of their appeal is the way they create a bridge between the technical process of assessment and something the ordinary consumer can actually use.  The most influential wine assessments in the world are those scores, out of a hundred, which appear in Robert Parker’s The Wine Advocate, followed by similar systems in such magazines as "Wine Spectator".  A system advocated by Amerine and Roessler had the now touching austerity of the 1970s, offering, instead, to give marks out of only 20, but the basic idea is the same: break a wine down into colour, appearance, odour, body, and so on, assign it marks in each category, and voilà! - you have a single number that sums up the wine.  The reader doesn’t need a fancy vocabulary of taste; he just needs to know the score.

Point systems aren’t the only thing that this more scientific approach brings to the study of taste.  It doesn’t take long to discover that most of what we think of as taste is, in fact, smell.  The tongue can detect only 5 tastes, salty, sweet, bitter, sour, and a taste whose receptors have only begun to be identified: umami - the savory, brothy sensation that is amply present in Parmesan, seaweed, and ripe tomatoes.  All other taste sensations are really smells, as a very simple experiment will confirm: all you have to do to prove it is hold your nose while you taste something.


Caraway                                                       Spearmint

So taste is mainly smell, and smell is a profound mystery.  Why is it that one molecule smells of spearmint, while its mirror image smells of caraway?  No one knows.  When scientists create new molecules in the laboratory, they may know every detail of a molecule’s structure yet have no clue about what it will smell like.  In 1991, scientists discovered the family of genes responsible for the nose’s roughly 350 olfactory receptors; these, in combination, are what detect the presence of molecules and allow the brain to translate them into sensory experiences - so H2S, hydrogen sulfide, hits the receptors and our brain tells us that we are in the presence of rotten eggs.

A trained nose can become very, very good at isolating these sensory experiences and matching them with the relevant molecules.  Theoretically, every known odourant molecule could have an agreed descriptor.  The descriptor wouldn’t need to be in words: it could be a number, so that the wintergreen scent of methyl salicylate would be 172, say, and the garlicky odor of allicin would be 402.  That would be the beginnings of a fully scientific language of taste - a joyless, inhuman prospect.

The language of taste has, therefore, reached something of an impasse.  On the one hand, we have the Romantic route, in which you are free to compare a taste to the last unicorn or the sensation you had when you were told that you failed your driving test - and others are free to have no idea what you are talking about.  On the other, we have the scientific route, which comes down to numbers, and risks missing the fundamental truth of all smells and tastes, which is that they are, by definition, experiences.  One of the things that are so welcome about Perfumes: The Guide by Luca Turin and Tania Sanchez, is that, while the authors embrace point systems (they offer between 1 and 5 stars) and science, they also offer vivid, funny, evocative descriptions of the smells they write about.  Here, for instance, is Turin’s discussion of Antidote, by Viktor and Rolf:

There is a new chemical beast prowling the streets, a strange molecule with the feel of a light, volatile top note and the power and tenacity of the most powerful drydown materials.  Smelling it at length gives the feeling of alarm one would get from trying to pick up a 2-year-old child and finding that it weighed as much as a car.  This strange creature is called sclarene, an intermediate in the synthesis of Ambrox from clary sage, and has a fresh-herbaceous dry smell that simply goes on forever.

Turin and Sanchez don’t fear the science of their subject; far from it.  Turin is a professional biophysicist and a principal in a company that develops new-smelling molecules; Sanchez is that happy thing, a perfume critic.  To enjoy Perfumes, you don’t need to know, or even to like, perfumes, such is the brio of Turin’s and Sanchez’s prose.  Their book has a series of introductory chapters about scent in general, and reviews of more than 1,200 perfumes, initialled by TS or LT.

To understand perfume, science is a good place to start, since it’s with the 19th-century discovery of synthetic fragrances that modern perfumes began.  Synthetics are molecules that are made in the laboratory, and they are crucial to perfumery: they supply fragrances that can’t be created through natural processes.  Take the smell of a rose, for example. It is instantly recognisable in nature, but it can’t be chemically extracted from the flower.  (It’s possible to extract rose oil, but rose oil doesn’t quite smell like a rose.)  To create the fragrance of a rose, you must synthesise it from other molecules; the route to the illusion of nature travels straight through the lab.  Synthetics can also be "abstract," in that they don’t smell like anything else at all - they aren’t surrogates for natural smells.  In an earlier book, The Secret of Scent, Turin cites Coca-Cola as a brilliant example of an abstract taste, one that resembles nothing in nature.

The history of perfumery is, in large part, the history of synthetics.  The first important family was the fougères.  These came into use in the early 1880s and, as the word suggests, are said to be fernlike - which is one of those scent referents that I simply don’t get.  Let’s just say that cheap and cheerful versions of fougère are present in Blue Stratos and the great smell of Brut.  Soon vanillin, which was synthesised from pinewood sap, became a crucial ingredient in perfume (it’s a dominant note in Guerlain’s Jicky), and then, in 1888, a chemist accidentally invented synthetic musks while fooling around with TNT.  (Turin describes the role of musks in perfume as "something akin to the transparent varnish on a painting that gives all colours depth and saturation.")  Natural musk comes from the glands of certain deer that live in the Himalayas, so the laboratory version had the significant advantage of being much cheaper.  The typical cost of synthetics is $50 a kilogram; naturals can be hundreds of times as much.

In subsequent decades, as the inventions continued, the perfumer’s palette of scents steadily increased.  Turin writes, "The enormous artistic edge that chemistry gives perfumers is the ability, familiar to the gods of Olympus and to fairy godmothers when putting together a titanically gifted baby, to compose a personage from disparate inherited virtues: the rosy, grassy freshness of lily of the valley, the rasp of lily proper, the mushroom note of gardenia, the lemon of magnolia, the banana of ylang ylang, the deep woody velvet of violets, the boozy sweetness of rose, the soapy edge of cyclamen, et cetera.  Marshalling all these molecular genes into producing something viable, even beautiful, is far from easy."  It is as if the history of painting had proceeded via the invention of new colours.  There are fashions in smell, too, and the heavy-duty perfumes of the 1980s, in particular, come in for a hard time from Turin and Sanchez.  They give some of these perfumes a rating of 5 out of 5, while at the same time more or less begging the reader not to buy them.  Opium is "unquestionably one of the greatest fragrances of all time," Turin writes.  "Yet I would hate it if anyone wore it near me today."

That, it turns out, is relatively mild, as their criticisms go.  Consider 212, from Carolina Herrera: "Like getting lemon juice in a paper cut."  Amarige, from Givenchy?  "If you are reading this because it is your darling fragrance, please wear it at home exclusively, and tape the windows shut."  Heiress?  "Hilariously vile 50/50 mix of cheap shampoo and canned peaches."  Princess?  "Stupid name, pink perfume, heart shaped bottle, little crown on top.  I half expected it to be really great just to spite me.  But no, it’s probably the most repulsively cloying thing on the market today."  Hugo, the men’s cologne from Hugo Boss?  "Dull but competent lavender-oakmoss thing, suggestive of a day filled with strategy meetings."  Love in White?  "A chemical white floral so disastrously vile words nearly desert me.  If this were a shampoo offered with your first shower after sleeping rough for 2 months in Nouakchott, you’d opt to keep the lice."  Lanvin’s Rumeur gets a one-word review: "Baseless."

This is fun to read - and a rare pleasure, too, since the importance of perfume advertising means that one doesn’t often get to read strong criticism of multimillion-dollar-earning fragrances.  The joy of Turin and Sanchez’s book, however, is their ability to write about smell in a way that manages to combine the science of the subject with the vocabulary of scent in witty, vivid descriptions of what these smells are like.  Their work is, quite simply, ravishingly entertaining, and it passes the high test that their praise is even more compelling than their criticism.  Here, in full, is Turin’s review of Lancôme’s Trésor:

I once sat in the London Tube across a young woman wearing a t-shirt printed with headline-size words ALL THIS across her large breasts, and in small type underneath "and brains too."  That vulgar-but-wily combination seems to me to sum up Trésor.  Up close, when you can read the small print, Trésor is a superbly clever accord between powdery rose and vetiver, reminiscent of the structure of Habanita.  From a distance, it’s the trashiest, most good-humoured pink mohair sweater and bleached hair thing imaginable.  When you manage to appeal to both the reptilian brain and the neocortex of menfolk, what happens is what befell Trésor: a huge success.

You don’t have to like perfume to like Perfumes: The Guide.  Its blend of technical knowledge and evocative writing is exemplary in the strict sense: people who write about smell and taste in any context should use it as an example.  Turin may be wrong about what appeals to the male neocortex, however.  As Sanchez says, "The question that women casually shopping for perfume ask more than any other is this: ‘What scent drives men wild?’  After years of intense research, we know the definitive answer.  It is bacon."

Source: 19 March 2008 Illustration: Floc’h

Wine and Cheese not a Good Match

Researchers say organisers who provide quality wine for wine-and-cheese parties are wasting their money.  "Cheese masks the subtle flavours that mark out a good wine, so your guests won't be able to tell that you are serving them cheap stuff," New Scientist magazine reported.  Bernice Madrigal-Galan and Hildegarde Heymann at the University of California, presented trained wine tasters with cheap and expensive versions of four different varieties of wine.  The tasters evaluated the strength of various flavours and aromas in each wine both alone and when preceded by eight different cheeses.  They found that cheese suppressed just about everything, including berry and oak flavours, sourness and astringency.  Only butter aroma was enhanced by cheese, and that was probably because cheese itself contains the molecule responsible for a buttery wine aroma, Dr Heymann said.  Strong cheeses suppressed flavours more than milder cheeses, but flavours of all wines were suppressed.

"There are no magical wine and cheese 'pairings'," New Scientist reported.  Dr Heymann suggested that proteins in the cheese might bind to flavour molecules in the wine, or that fat from the cheese might coat the mouth, deadening the tasters' perception of the wines' flavours.

The study findings will presented in the online American Journal of Oenology and Viticulture in March.

Source: 19 January 2006

Humans Resemble Molecules?

translated by Anna Ossipova

Our sense of smell (olfactory) is the most ancient sense.  It is linked to a chemical capability in bacteria which are capable of sensing certain molecules as harmful or beneficial and to move accordingly either toward the molecular source or away from it.  In this regard, the difference between us and bacteria lies in the fact that we can only sense those molecules floating in the air and not those dissolved in water.  However, before influencing the olfactory cells of the nose, those "scented" air particles have to dissolve in a thin layer of mucus of the olfactory epithelium.

Images made by electron microscopes depict olfactory cells in the epithelium of a man's nose.  The cells' "thorns" are the main sensors.  The condition of being "on the verge of two worlds" of organism and environment, makes these olfactory cells very vulnerable.  They perish each time we have a cold.  That is why we temporary loose our sense of smell.

Even without taking into account various illnesses, the overall amount of information that gets transmitted to the brain from the olfactory cells tends to decrease with age: approximately by 1% per year. For some professions such a loss can be of utmost importance and not simply for those dealing with perfumes or wines.  According to Sherlock Holmes for instance, a good detective has to be able to distinguish at least 75 scents.

Source:  24 May 2004

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