The humble nose is a part of the body that never gets much attention (unless we’re talking Extreme Makeover) , but is absolutely critical to our appreciation of wine, not to mention food in general. I’ve heard this point made before, but it was brought to mind by an article in yesterday’s New York Times. Natalie Angier talked about an experiment that Dr. Rachel Herz of Brown University has people try: eat a handful of Jelly Bellies, one at a time, and concentrate on the vividly distinct flavors. Then she asks them to hold their nose as they chew…the candies are still sweet, but it’s impossible to tell if that yellow bean is lemon or buttered popcorn. When the nostrils are released, the flavors come flooding back. That’s because our tongue is poorly equipped for tasting, only perceiving sweet, salty, sour, and bitter flavors. The rest of what we consider our sense of taste actually happens because of our sense of smell.
Distinguishing the scents in wine can be a challenge, but it helps if your sense of smell is functioning correctly. I never even bother drinking wine when I’m stuffed up—the flavor and smell are far too diminished to enjoy it.
It seems to me that the finer the wine, the more I love to smell it. The best way to take advantage of that pleasure is to pour a shallow amount in a large wine glass. Give it a good swirl to agitate the molecules—more aromas will be released. Then stick your nose all the way in and inhale deeply. For a fine Burgundy, you may smell leather, crushed leaves, and, one of my favorites, barnyard odors. The more smells I can distinguish, the more pleasurable the wine drinking experience often is. I have learned to appreciate the smelling of wine, to the point where I sometimes put off even having a sip, as I leisurely enjoy swirling and sniffing.
Exploring our much neglected sense of smell is one of the chief pleasures of drinking fine wine. I liken it to looking at a beautiful oil painting. At first, the image is a whole, but then we begin to notice individual colors, brush strokes, pleasing composition. While paintings can be viewed again, drinking a good bottle is a transient pleasure. So breathe in, and make the most of it.