Olfactory vs. Gustatory Wine Experiences: A Discussion
In July 2014, I sat down for a candid discussion with Ken Trimpe, a Washington-based photographer and oenophile who runs the website Decanter Banter. We met at the Wine Bloggers Conference in Santa Barbara, and it was delightful to be able to engage with such a creative mind.
All weekend, I had a surplus of questions swirling around my head. I already had plans to adjust my website content, and as such, I began brainstorming (and interviewing) folks about their thoughts on many of these questions. The reaction I had from a number of wine industry professionals was very positive. As a result, I am now here attempting to reiterate these conversations in blog form.
For sake of fancy definitions, olfactory refers to the sense of smell and gustatory refers to the sense of taste.
One of the ideas that has been floating around my brain is how people generally interpret wine.
As a trained professional, I evaluate wines in a systematic and methodical way. Factors around wine colour, glycerol levels, bouquet & palate notes, aging potential, etc., are all components of my engagement with wine. While it is fairly safe to say that most wine industry professionals experience wine in a similar way that I do, I have gained a curiosity around how untrained people experience wine, particularly through olfactory and gustatory means.
Why do you think people are more interested in how wines taste [gustatory involvement] as opposed to how they smell [olfactory involvement]? Which do you have more interest with?
Ken’s initial reaction to this question was not silence, but vibration.
Most people trust their tastebuds over their “sniffers”. I think the nose is important, but less people have the nose to pick up the subtleties. My wife thinks I have a good nose, and I don’t. I pick up tastes quicker. If you have a good sniffer, it’s a key in tasting wine.
There is no doubt that having a good sniffer is a key in tasting wine and that most people trust their tastebuds over their olfactory senses. Why is this? Has the ability to pick up subtleties with our noses been on a natural decline throughout evolution? Or have we simply trained ourselves through time to trust our tastebuds more than our noses? Either way, after having spoken with a number of people, it appears that people trust one more than the other.
Coming back to Vancouver and mulling over this topic led me to look at things from a different perspective. Undoubtedly, experiencing food and wine transcends olfactory exposure. From the information that I received through discussions with people, the consensus is that most people have a stronger experience of food and wine on their palates. Generally speaking, many people jump straight into a taste experience and tend to forget (or pass by) the olfactory part of the journey. I questioned Ken whether or not he thought a lack of being able to make quick olfactory associations hinders part of the enjoyment process. He did not hesitate, again, to infer confidence as a key factor in how people approach wine.
I do. I think some people don’t trust or have the confidence to make associations. I can usually pick up on general associations like fruit or other categories. For me, it takes a while longer to figure out what it is that I’m smelling. Sometimes it hits me over the head and other times it’s just something familiar that I can’t put my finger on.
Confidence is a critical factor when attempting to understand a wine through olfactory and gustatory means. Of course, this requires knowledge gained from being acquainted with wine. Essentially, the more wine one consumes, the clearer associations will typically become. For example, having a good memory of what cherries smell and taste of is meaningful when experiencing a Pinot Noir. One who understands cherry smells and flavours will more confidently be able to interpret Pinot Noir. Confidence in making correlative associations is one of the missing links that can help bridge the gap between wine snobbery and the approachability of wine.
Maybe this is just my passion shining through, but I have frequently pondered how wine snobbery intimidates the general public and results in less-than exciting tasting experiences for them. Thus, I am left with the curiosity revolved around how a deeper focus on olfactory experiences might assist the general public in enjoying wine on a deeper level more so than they might already. While Ken has had his nose in a number of glasses, he admits that, for him, the olfactory experience is still more challenging when tasting wine.
I think sometimes the nose is a bit harder. I need to work at it a bit more. Not always, though.
Agreed. Not always. I think this boils down to personal sensitivities, and how swiftly we can draw on our memories of previously-learned smells and tastes.
While it cannot be argued that a full tasting experience requires the use of both one’s olfactory and gustatory senses, sometimes we will naturally identify more on the bouquet than on the palate, or vice versa, because the wine simply expresses itself in that way. This can come into play particularly when attempting to understand how a varietal is expressing itself or when blind tasting. I agree with Ken when he said:
Wines have clues, and you have to use all your senses to [understand it]. It becomes a process of elimination.
Other questions that arise revolve around individual sensitivities. When tasting a wine, do you, reader, find that your nose is more sensitive to smelling wine than your palate is with tasting it? Or do you find your palate is more in tune with wine than your sniffer? How do sensitivities play a part for you, or do they at all? Do you think that an awareness of sensitivities alters your confidence levels?
Better yet, does it even affect your enjoyment of a wine?
I do not feel that I am satisfied; I am clearly curious about how others experience wine. I would love to hear from you. Please feel free to leave a comment, or vote below!