Wine: How to improve your sense of smell — and why you’d want to

This article first appeared in The Edge Financial Daily, on April 17, 2017.
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SUPERMAN could fly. The Incredible Hulk had incredible strength. The Flash had lightning speed. Even Deadpool had healing powers. Among superheroes, it isn’t that sexy to have one of your regular five senses heightened, much less become a mutant with a super sniffer.

Bianca Bosker, author of the new book Cork Dork (Penguin Random House), acknowledges that our noses occupy a lower tier among the senses. Even the phrase “that smells” reeks of ammonia. “We have a real bias about smell,” said Bosker in an interview. “Most of us have learned at an early age that this is a sense that does not pay to cultivate.” Best case scenario: You end up a sommelier.

Over the course of 18 months, Bosker spent a year with some of the top oenophiles in the world to try to understand what is the big deal about wine. She lugged bottles of Mondeuse noire as a cellar rat at L’Apicio, sneaked sips of Domaine Jamet while staging at Marea, tried to upsell Israeli Cabernets while waiting tables at Terroir, guzzled Burgundy at La Paulee de New York, and held blind tastings at Eleven Madison Park — now the world’s No 1 restaurant — that, on one occasion, included a US$1,765 (RM7,766) Riesling from Alsace.

In between, she met with scent scientists to see if there were a shortcut to becoming a wine connoisseur.

“I started out wondering if we can even hone our sense of smell,” she said. In other words, are we born confined to a certain amount of sensitivity, or can we get better if we really try?

Bosker traces our olfactory inferiority complex back to the days of Aristotle, who prophesied that “man can smell things only poorly … because his sense organ is not accurate.”

In the 19th century, Darwin’s theory of evolution seemed to prove that humans had evolved beyond the need to know their noses. The French scientist Paul Broca found that as animals ascended the evolutionary chain, their limbic lobe, a part of the brain then thought to control our sense of smell, decreased in size. It was so small in humans, he concluded, “the delicacy of his olfactory sense is … of no utility in his life.” The famous tongue map — the idea that the front part of your tongue is sweet, and the back bitter — wasn’t disproved until 1974.

The scientists Bosker spoke with say the biggest problem is that most people don’t even know the difference between taste and smell.

“We assume that everything that happens in our mouth is taste, which is not true,” she explained.

“We confuse one for the other, when we’d never confuse sight and sound.” One study she cited from the University of Pennsylvania’s Smell and Taste Center found that most people failed to diagnose themselves properly.

People who complained about losing their sense of taste were three times more likely to be suffering from a smell disorder.

But there is hope. New research by the University of Dresden’s Smell and Taste Clinic found that the part of the brain responsible for processing smell can grow with exercise, sort of how bench pressing pumps your pecs. Even those with just an average sense of smell can increase the size of their olfactory bulbs via a regimen of trying out four aromas, twice a day, for about 30 seconds each.

“The first thing we have to do is get over our disdain for taste and smell,” Bosker said. It’s a curious paradox: Enlightened humans today obsess over spending time and money to find food that tastes better, whether it’s organic blueberries or third-wave coffee, and yet, she continued, “We rarely train ourselves to taste well. We let price and labels and menu descriptions substitute for our own sensory experiences.”

Here are three steps to achieving a more highly evolved nose.

Bosker: We assume that everything that happens in our mouth is taste, which is not true.

Establish your baseline

Even if you are doing this to better appreciate wine or food, sharpening your sense of smell doesn’t start at the table.

To establish a base level of smell — your own scent-focused control group, in other words — smoking is out, for obvious reasons. Also banned: coffee, hard alcohol, hot sauce, perfume and cologne, overly strong shampoo, most salt, and toothpaste. (Don’t worry; the last only applies just before you are going to do a taste or smelling exercise.)

Many sommeliers also refuse to drink anything above tepid temperature, which also means no hot tea or soup.

“Part of that is self-deprivation,” Bosker said. “Some are superstitious and less scientific, but I was willing to give any of it a try, because I wanted to improve as quickly as I could.”

She gave up Listerine on days that she worked on her project, because it was too strong. Onions and garlic, too, fell by the wayside as she learned that those flavours lingered in her mouth longer than others. “We would always show up to tastings hungry, because your body is more attuned to smells when you’re hungry,” she continued.


Practice the art of description

One helpful exercise, Bosker said, is to try to describe all the smells over the course of your daily routine. It might be coming up with tasting notes of the shampoo you use every morning all the way to the toothpaste you use at night. Push yourself to go beyond obvious descriptors: minty, fresh, cooling, sweet.

“If you’ve ever learned a language or even a word in your life, you have the ability to become a great smeller,” Bosker suggests. “When you think about learning a language, it’s not that your hearing gets better. It is about taking those foreign sounds and attaching meaning to them.”

So having the right words to describe what you’re tasting is essential to understanding it and in communicating to others, which is why you end up with florid descriptions on bottles and in wine magazines: “chalky,” “rubbery,” “velvety,” “essence of toast.”

“I realised I had to visualise and to articulate it,” she said. “Because smells bypass part of our conscious brain, we don’t really notice them all the time. But if you pay attention and try to describe it, you can understand it better.”


Exercise your nose

The expensive shortcut is a US$400 kit called Le Nez du Vin. (If wine isn’t your thing, other kits focus on whiskey and coffee.) It’s a collection of glass vials that contain liquid versions of the aroma of grass, smoke, blackberry, and cranberry, up to a total of 54 different scents.

“Instead of sit-ups, I would smell four vials of these samples every day,” Bosker said. “Then I would alternate every week, trying to internalise what is black currant, or lemon, and then do them blind at the end of the week, to see if I’d mastered them. And at the end of the month, they were like smell flash cards.”

Apparently, it worked. When Bosker went in for her sommelier exam, she smelled the ripe raspberry, strawberry, blackberry, plum, blueberry, cassis, with a hint of pyrazines, to correctly deduce that it was a Cabernet Sauvignon from California, one to three years old. And by the end, when she replicated a French and Italian study that used an fMRI machine to compare the brains of expert wine drinkers versus those of amateurs, her own scan lit up like a professional. Instead of just processing flavour in an emotional way, which is how the brain of an amateur does it, she was using parts of her brain reserved for high-functioning skills, including reason, memory, and cognitive thinking.

Bosker also began picking up on information she had neglected before, “little clues that add texture and richness to daily life,” she said. She began to discern neighbourhoods in New York that have a specific scent, and she became attuned to the smell of petrichor in the morning — the aroma when the earth is wet after a rain.

The only downside? In New York, she began to become aware of specific smells in subways stations. Now, she said, there are “clues that tell me where we are before we get there.” The new 72nd Street Q stop, for instance, smells of plastic and hairspray, she says. The Times Square stop, on the other hand, has notes of grease, dirty diapers, and blue cheese. —  Bloomberg