While building up a mental list of recognisable smells may be the key to analysing and understanding wine, it is still the involuntary memories that a glass can evoke that bring the greatest pleasure.


How many times have my non-wine loving friends dissolved into laughter after I have emerged from a glass and asked them if they too have discovered an aroma of tar and roses or pencil shavings or wet sheep in its depths? OK, I’ll admit, I sometimes play to the crowd.

But what I, and anyone who has more than a dilettante interest in wine, do, is call upon a memory bank of smells (pencil shavings and wet sheep amongst them) that provide clues to identity: variety, region, vintage, quality etc.  All wine enthusiasts deliberately work on turning what could be just a series of involuntary and random associations into a catalogue of olfactory trigger points that help navigate through the many sensory stimuli that a glass of wine creates with the goal of making a cool and objective assessment.

I had to work at this. I remember going through the spice rack and memorising aromas: turmeric, nutmeg, mace etc so that when I came across the smell of cloves in a glass of Châteauneuf-du-Pape my mind raced back to that hour spent with my nose in the kitchen cupboard and I slotted the smell into ‘Southern Rhône associations’.

Other smells came to me unexpectedly. I remember standing on the platform of an old fashioned London bus after a perplexing tasting of German wines when I got a blast of diesel in my face. ‘Now I understand Riesling,’ I thought as I jumped onto the pavement.

 

But despite all of this cool-headed aromatic analysis, one of the great pleasures of wine tasting for me will always be the unexpected associations; the uncategorised smells that trigger involuntary thoughts. Like the glass of Champagne Veuve Clicquot demi-sec with its perfume of muscovado sugar which makes me remember being in the Swiss Alps, and one snowy morning when somebody once spoilt me with a glass of this wine. Or the taste of Chinon from Domaine Baudry Dutour, Domaine du Roncée 2007 which smells of Autumn leaves and dark, fresh Cabernet Franc grapes. It is so evocative that the noise in the room around me fades and I am once again crouched amongst the vines picking the very fruit that made this wine.

Neuroscientists call these involuntary memories triggered by smell the Proust effect, in homage to the description in Remembrance of Things Past when the protagonist eats a madeleine:           

And suddenly the memory appeared. That taste was the taste of the little piece of madelaine which on Sunday morning at Combray (because that day I did not go out before it was time for Mass), when I             went to say good morning to her in her bedroom, my Aunt Léonie would give me after dipping it in her infusion of tea or lime-blossom.[1]

 

To be able to truly analyse the smell of wine: for a buyer to recognise a wine’s commercial viability, a winemaker to assess the liquid’s progress, for the amateur to build up a wider understanding of all the variations and permeations to be found within a region or variety, then cool unsentimental analysis is essential. But still, no matter how useful and important my ability to recognise and assess the aromas of different wine maybe, this will always just be an academic thrill or professional necessity.

           

What brings real pleasure, and is one of the many reasons why I love wine, are the involuntary memories: the Proust effect. The glass of Sauvignon Blanc that reminds me of dancing late into the night at a harvest party in Sancerre or the face of a friend with whom I shared a similar bottle while we ate a particularly delicious brace of seabass and his laughter as I described our wine with an increasingly outlandish stream of adjectives.

 


[1] Marcel Proust, The Way by Swann’s, In Search of Lost Time, Trans. Lydia Davis. Penguin Books, London 2002

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