I’m in Melbourne this week, completing what is my final on-campus session for my final subject of my Masters (in Wine Technology and Viticulture).
It feels excellent to be finally finishing, particularly given that the uni has discontinued my course and I’m lucky not to be exiting just with a Graduate Diploma instead of a full Masters (and Grad. Dip. just doesn’t have the same ring to it).
Anyway, for my final subject I’m doing Sensory Analysis and Practice, which I’ve covered off more than once before so I’m almost phoning it in. This particular unit sits in the food science sphere though, which means we’re covering not just wine but chocolate, coffee, cheese and beer – all of the good things.
As part of the lectures this week we’ve been using some of the excellent Le Nez aroma kits, with the wine and coffee collections both getting a run, with samples passed around (blind) each day to try and illustrate different aromatics (such as toastiness, florals and different fruit).
What has been interesting is just how different these scents have looked each day. Given that the samples haven’t changed, that can only be traced to one thing – that our own ever-changing context is affecting how we process aromas.
A perfect example of this popped up today when the ‘toasty’ scent came around. I’m feeling very shabby after a night of Tissot Chardonnay and Equipo Navazos I Think Manzanilla (lovely drinks, both of them) and when that sample came around earlier it smelled nothing like it did yesterday. Gone was the toasted nut notes, leaving behind something much harder, sharper and less attractive, almost like the joy had been sucked out of it. Indeed it didn’t smell like toast or toasted things at all, closer to the ‘vegetal’ aromas being passed around yesterday than buttery.
It was a stark reminder that what we smell is more about how we feel and think than what is actually in the glass. A reminder that most of the time (with some obvious exceptions), trying to identify specific aromas is probably not worth the trouble given just how variable our own senses can be.
Now obviously I’m taking the negative outlook on things here (particularly given that I’m hung), and certain compounds that contribute to aromas are both recognisable and measurable (like rotundone, which makes Shiraz ‘peppery’). But on the whole, the difference between ‘toasty’ and ‘buttery’, or ‘black berry’ versus ‘red berry’ is probably as much in our mind as it is in the glass in front of us.