Scent Memory: Wine, Scent, and Perfume

I’ve got an old nose. I’m sure it isn’t what it was during the 1970s when I was training it on bottles of old Lafitte, but it’s still there and working. I worry, that as I get even older, I’ll lose more of it. While this isn’t something I relish, working with wine and perfume is about memory, at least as much about memory as the smells themselves. (One could argue that there is no such thing as “the smells themselves.” The objective smells are only those we all agree are there.)

During my 20s, I had to walk along a hundred-yard weed-strewn stretch of trolley tracks to get to the restaurant where I worked. I played a game. I recognized and categorized as many aromas as I could during that short trip through the alley. After doing this for several weeks, I had over two hundred aromas I could name.

I’m convinced that training our sense of smell is more about the brain than it is the nose. The more we smell, consciously and with intention, areas of the brain that may well have atrophied, stir back to life. When I first started smelling perfume ingredients, there were many I couldn’t detect. I couldn’t smell sandalwood or vetiver. But I persisted for several months and now I can’t imagine working with so many ingredients I couldn’t perceive. I now not only recognize sandalwood, but can usually tell where it’s from. I don’t think that I necessarily rejuvenated actual olfactory cells, but more likely activated the part of the brain that handles them.

I’ve been with a lot of people when they taste a particular wine or smell a particular perfume for the first time. Often, the first impression is vivid, usually of a memory of a long-forgotten place with no real understanding of how these associations came to be. Everyone first assumes these memories or associations are “wrong” and that these aromas and smells are have an objective identity more important than our own impressions.

Rule number one. There is no right answer.

The trick to better understanding wines and perfumes, is to group our impressions and label them in such a way that they make sense to others and make it easier for us to impart what it is we’re trying to say. For example, a glass of Corton may be reminiscent of berries, mushrooms, truffles, all layered together in a transcendent structure. For practical purposes, this is all we need. But as we gain experience, we clump together certain perceptions to allow us to better negotiate with others when discussing wine or perfume. The berry and mushroom combination may be enough to declare the wine as Burgundy. Other more subtle nuances—a trace of mint or spearmint for example—might signal we’re at the more southern part of the iconic Côte de Nuit. If we have an effective roster of other aromas (and, for wine, flavors and textures) in our heads, we may be able to recognize Corton. If we really know this region, we’re likely to be able to pinpoint the maker.

So, the training of the nose is more about memory than simply giving your nose a workout. It is the accumulation over time of olfactory memory that allows us to identify nuances and subtle accords. These memories don’t have to sound good. You’ll identify the old Corton or pick apart the ingredients in your mother’s Quelques Fleurs, by using your aroma memories as reference points. I sometimes recognize Burgundy by a note of what reminds me of Clorox; I can nail down certain vintages by whether they have an elusive dog feces aspect. What you smell doesn’t have to be a “pleasant” association. Half the time truffles remind me of mildew.