On the Nose


in Archive


I recently purchased a kit called “Le Nez Du Vin” that professes to teach me how to identify various aromas in a glass of wine. The kit, which is imported from France, comes in a dictionary-sized case covered in red fabric so that it resembles an old book. Inside are a dozen tiny glass vials, each of which is redolent of a specific, essential red-wine scent when uncapped. These vials are cosseted in crushed velvet (or likely velour). It was purchased at Williams-Sonoma. It cost $130.

Go ahead: Roll your eyes; chuckle derisively; whatever you have to do. I’ll wait until you finish. OK, finished?

The “Le Nez Du Vin” kit contains two slim manuals both written by Jean Lenoir, a French wine critic who over 25 years ago developed this method of wine education by way of aromas. In the first book, Lenoir lays out his methodology, explaining the primary, secondary, and tertiary aromas in wine. He talks about fruity notes like black currant and cherry, floral notes like rose and violet, vegetal notes like green pepper and truffle, roasted notes like smoke and dark chocolate, and animal notes like leather and musk. He explains how the sense of smell works and how it relates to the “art” of wine tasting. He also explains, with a diagram, that I should not ever drink the liquid in the tiny vials (as well as keep them away from my skin and eyes) and that I should do my wine-aroma education in a quiet room “free of extraneous odour such as tobacco or perfume.”

Snickering again? I figured. Go ahead, I’ll wait again. I know you need to chuckle at this a little more. OK, ready?

In Lenoir’s second manual, he explains the aromas in each of the 12 vials — strawberry, raspberry, black currant, cherry, violet, green pepper, truffle, licorice, vanilla, black pepper, and “smoked” — in detail. (These 12 are particular to red wine — there is also a white wine kit.) Lenoir lays out how some selection or combination of these 12 primary aromas can be found in the main grape varietals and wine-making regions. Sangiovese will have aromas of strawberry, raspberry, licorice, and smoke. Pinot noir will have cherry and violet, black currant and licorice. Bordeaux and Burgundy will exhibit “smoked” notes. Lenoir suggests that if I practice sniffing the 12 vials in his kit hard enough, I can learn to identify these 12 aromas by memory. Thus, I’ll be able to identify just about any wine by smell.

“Concentrate on your olfactory perception,” Lenoir writes. “You detect an aroma? Can you name it?…[L]et the thoughts and images come flooding into your mind, even some emotionally charged memories tied to certain moments in your personal history.”

Oh, now you’re really laughing at me, aren’t you? Look at the fool who threw $130 down the toilet! I know you read that big Newsweek story earlier this year, the one in which a bunch of economists “proved” that “regular” people — honest, decent people who aren’t fancy-schmancy wine snobs — cannot tell the difference between inexpensive and expensive wines, and in fact liked the cheaper stuff better. Yeah? Ha, ha! Only pompous jackasses with uselessly overdeveloped palates can point out the difference between, say, “Two Buck Chuck” and a $55 bottle of Stag’s Leap. Go ahead! The joke’s on me, right?

I’m not so sure. I admit I was skeptical at first, but now I’m pretty happy I acquired the “Le Nez Du Vin” wine kit. “We are taught to read and write and count, why not to smell?” Lenoir asks in his manual. Yes, he’s just sold me a $130 kit about sniffing wine, but Lenoir insists he is driving at something deeper when he writes:

“I hope that this encounter with the world of aromas will open the door to your own private scent memories. There is nothing like the whiff of a certain smell to whisk you back to childhood. There you are once again, standing in that wheat field just after the harvest; or you might be breathing in the baking smells of your grandmother’s kitchen and there she is in her apron, smiling down at you. It brings it all back. The scent set the film of your life rolling again.”

We all, of course, know this to be true. Smell brings back the most elusive and yet most visceral memories. The emotional memories we have almost no language for. And it’s rarely a smell as simple and straightforward as an apple pie at grandma’s. For me, the smell of Aquanet can stop me cold, not only taking me back 20 years ago to specific big-hair high school crushes that went unrequited, but also dredging up the indescribable feelings of wanting to run far, far away from my southern New Jersey hometown. A whiff of a certain patchouli oil reminds me of a beautiful, hippy, dippy college girlfriend in Vermont who broke up with me because I made fun of her Saturday night drum circle at the Environmental House, but it also conjures up a strange sense of regret that my adult life has little space in it for patchouli or hippy-dippiness. Sniffing a handful of potatoes snaps me all the way back to bittersweet childhood memories, of walking into the cool refrigerated warehouses during hot summers at a packinghouse once owned by my father. The emotions of that particular scent are so tightly wound, they may never be unraveled.

OK, more eye rolls. Enough of the touchy-feely, right? Enough about high school and hippy girlfriends and drum circles and childhood memories of potatoes, right? What does a $130 wine sniffing kit have anything to do with all this?

Well, first of all, you can’t learn how to taste until you learn how to smell. Jancis Robinson, one of the world’s foremost wine critics, writes, “Until studying wine in my 20s, I had not been taught to use my sense of smell, so I am well aware of how underused it can be.” Robinson recently described in the Financial Times a “terrifying” period when she’d lost her sense of smell due to a strange flu. “I was all for telling the world my career was over,” she writes.

Further, you can’t learn how to smell unless you’re willing to spend time sniffing and free associating. Wine is usually consumed in company. It marks time. It marks geography. I am struck how often I open a bottle of wine and am taken back to a particular moment when I first tasted this or that varietal or style or region. I’m also inevitably reminded of the people with whom I’d shared that time, place, and bottle. Thus the wine becomes a part of our lives, its aromas become part of our lives. Learning how to smell and taste, then, becomes no different from study in any of the other humanities — learning how to read works of Russian literature or how to look at German Expressionist paintings or how to listen to Rigoletto.

More eye rolls from you. So, OK, you’re thinking: Does the damn kit work or what?

At the risk of sounding like a pompous French wine critic: I think this is too personal a question to answer. I’ve done several smelling and tasting experiments with friends and colleagues, and none of us so far has been able to guess all 12 aromas in my kit. This is not to say that it’s not educational — most people report a heightened sensitivity to aromas when we move on to drinking actual wines. But with the vials instead of wine glasses, it’s more difficult. People identify strawberry as “floral,” truffle as “mushroom,” blackberry as “grassy.” I think a lot of this confusion comes from people trying to match up the kit’s smells with fashionable wine-tasting terms that are often thrown around. It’s hard work to honestly put language to smell, especially when our heads are spinning with so many buzzwords.

Luckily, I have two subjects who don’t have any wine-tasting language floating around in their heads. Two people who are completely, blissfully ignorant of wine knowledge. These would be my sons: Sander, 6, and Wes, 4. Though it will be many years before they have a sip of wine, I decided to see if they could guess the smells in the kit’s vials.

First up was Sander. I opened up vial #30, Green Pepper, and waved it under his nose. “It smells like salad,” he said. Salad, incidentally, is not a good smell to Sander. OK, I thought, we’re sort of on the right track.

I opened vial #12, Strawberry, and let him sniff. “This one smells like fruit snack,” he said.

With a sinking feeling, I opened vial #13, Raspberry. “This one smells like strawberry fruit snack,” he said. OK, so Sander’s not on his way sommelier school just yet.

Next up was his little brother, Wes. I opened what I thought was a difficult one, #54, “Smoked” — which in my opinion smells like bacon or other smoked meat. Wes sniffed and said, “This smells like salami.”

I looked at my wife. Did we have a savant on our hands? Well, I thought, tasting does run in the family. Maybe the boy’s a genius? Maybe he could become the Doogie Howser of the wine world? When can we sign him up for the Master of Wine program?

I opened vial #30, Green Pepper, the same one Sander had sniffed. I put it under Wes’ nose.

“Here, Wes,” I said, beaming, “tell me what you think this is.”

“This smells like Jell-O,” he said.

Fine. Laugh it up. It’s anyone’s guess whether or not this kit works. • 17 December 2008


Jason Wilson is the founding editor of The Smart Set. He also edits The Best American Travel Writing series (Houghton Mifflin).