Le Nez du Vin written and produced by Jean Lenoir
Train your nose to detect truffles...in your wineglass
By Robyn Lewis
We are taught to develop many of our skills and senses – how to read, to listen to and play music, to perceive and create artistic beauty, even to taste foods and then recreate delicious dishes. The inability to see, to hear and to feel are considered great handicaps.
But less importance is given to teaching how to smell, and there is no common word in the English language for anosmia, the inability to perceive odours. Perhaps because it’s rare (although it is an increasingly reported side-effect of chemotherapy) or non-essential for survival, it has been regarded in our culture as trivial.
However given that this sense is so relevant in our daily lives, so capable of evoking great pleasure (or revulsion), for our wellbeing and for reliving memories, it’s hard to understand how this oversight has come about.
Perhaps it’s just the difficulty of collecting and sharing scents – it’s easy to show a child a colour chart or to test hearing, a lot harder to gather wild violets, roses, raspberries, lychees and more and teach them what their fragrances are; even more so to compare a scent of a summer flower with that same aroma in something else, six months or more later.
Since 1981, thanks to Frenchman Jean Lenoir, this has been possible, at least in Europe. Lenoir pioneered the development of pure scents in bottles, which retain their fragrance for up to ten years, and provide a standard of reference for the fragrances most commonly found in that most perfumed of beverages: wine.
By smelling his pure scents, either alone with your own thoughts and memories, or in a group having some guessing game fun, over time you can learn to identify them, and then later, when you find them in your wineglass, pick them far more easily than most people can manage without considerable training. Often those who complain about having ‘no nose for wine’ simply have not had the opportunity to be trained. It’s like expecting a colourblind person to paint.
Usually, scents are elusive; you know what it is but may say ‘it’s on the tip of my tongue’ – because the olfactory centre in our brains (which identifies the scent) is not close to that for languages (which puts a name to it). Le Nez du Vin helps us build that mental bridge, to take the guesswork out of what it is that we smell, and to communicate it.
If you attend a wine tasting course, the tutor might say ‘do you smell leather?’ (or melon, or hazelnuts, or any number of scents, common or obscure), but because wines are complex and have a wide range of scents combined, you might have no idea which one he or she is referring to. And if you are doing this in a group, someone will inevitably say ‘oh yes, I get …. on the nose’, and even if you remain perplexed, most of us will go along, probably not much the wiser.
Vanilla, cinnamon and the more common aromas we have nearly all grown up with might be OK for most to identify, but venture into the world of hawthorn, linden trees, gooseberries and sweaty saddles, and it becomes more of a mystery. Even more so if you have grown up in parts of the world where flavours like star-anise, cardamom or sumac prevail.
Consider that over a thousand aroma molecules have been identified in wine to date, and individual wines can have hundreds of different aromas, even picking four or five can be a challenge, especially for a beginner. Many are merely traces, and cannot be measured by scientific equipment, but a human with a trained nose can do what machines cannot: detect (and name) them.
The vials of scent in Le Nez du Vin provide a great start. They are not cheap, but the scents are reportedly very pure and long lasting. To quote the kit: ‘each aroma is the result of in-depth analysis, a combination of compounds, subtle dosage … that cannot be falsified and will remain extremely stable.’
The scents come in kits, covering the basic scents found in red wines (12), and white wines and Champagnes (12). For the more advanced there are also kits for wine faults (12) and ‘new oak’ (a further 12), and for the serious aficionado or the person who has nearly everything, a kit of 54 of the essential wine aromas.
Wine aromas fall into three groups. Primary aromas are those of the grape variety, and can vary according to terroir, the vintage and how the vines are grown. These are usually fruity such as citrus, cherries, currants and berries, and most floral aromas such as acacia, violet or rose.
There are also vegetal and spicy primary aromas such as green pepper found in cabernet franc and cabernet sauvignon, and aromas such as thyme, pepper and pine.
Many primary aromas very distinctive of a particular grape variety, so if you can identify these, you can often name the grape variety from which a wine was made.
Often, Australian wines are described as being ‘very fruit driven’, a phrase meaning that these primary fruit (or vegetal) aromas predominate on the nose. Sometimes, such wines are regarded as ‘simple’, but many a fruity wine will develop great complexity as it matures, or the secondary aromas will be revealed once the wines settle down after bottling.
Secondary aromas are created by the yeasts during fermentation. Confusingly for the beginner, some secondary aromas are also fruits, ranging from tropical fruits such as banana and pineapple, to apples, pears, apricots, figs and strawberries, through to dried fruits, currants and prunes.
Secondary vegetal and spicy aromas include mushrooms and truffles, cinnamon and cloves, saffron and blackcurrant bud. Secondary aromas are created by and vary according to winemaking techniques.
Tertiary aromas are those that occur after fermentation and as a result of maturing, both in barrels before bottles, and in the bottles if the wines are cellared. If you drink your wines young, especially whites which are often not matured before release, you will miss out on many of these characteristics, which include animal notes of leather, musk and butter, and ‘roasted’ notes of nuts, caramel, coffee and even chocolate.
Le Nez du Vin explains all this, and a lot more. What I really like about these kits – apart from the fun of smelling the vials and seeing how many you get right, or how far out you are with the others – are the booklets that accompany them.
One is a slender 24 pages of general information on wine aromas (of which the above is a small introduction); if you knew even half of what’s in this book, you’d be ahead of 95% of wine drinkers in an instant, and your enjoyment of wines at all price levels would be vastly enhanced.
The white wine kit contains a 32 page booklet which details the primary, secondary and tertiary aromas of the major white wine varieties, from chardonnay to semillon, including dessert whites. It then details the wine aromas associated with the major wine countries, devoting several pages to the main regions of France in a section called ‘from vineyards to aromas’.
Even more useful perhaps is the section ‘from aromas to wines’: once you can identify the aromas, what varieties are they associated with? Obviously Le Nez du Vin cannot list every wine, but most varieties are listed, and whether or not they are grand or premier cru in some examples. Again, if you knew all this, you’d be well on your way to becoming a genuine wine expert.
The red wine booklet is similar; so for example, if you are given a European wine to taste and you detect liquorice, this will narrow down the options significantly. Bring on the iPhone app – this material would be ideally suited to mobile portability.
Each booklet contains a fold-out ‘cheat sheet’ for easy reference to the scents in the numbered bottles, and they don’t take long to learn. Children will also love this.
The scents themselves are, to my nose, fairly true to type. One or two I (and the wine-savvy group I was testing them with) found not to be as we expected. For example, it happened that a genuine black truffle arrived on our doorstep the day we were testing the kit, and we didn’t find the ‘truffle’ aroma in the red wine kit to be much like the real thing. (Or perhaps French truffles really are different.) However, the kit version certainly smells earthy and fungal.
The ‘butter’ in the white wine kit is far more like butterscotch, and to me, the ‘toast’ smells like…. mice. However most are excellent and my seven year old was very adept at picking up the berry and fruit flavours in particular. Great training for the young and for any budding winemaker.
As our perception and understanding of wines – and the quality and variety of wines available to us – continues to improve, wine lovers will further appreciate the more subtle and even artistic nuances of different wines. Moreover, as wine drinkers become more educated, regional authenticity will become more valued and supported, and winemakers rewarded to produce wines of greater finesse and intricacy.
It also explains why some wines are $40, $60 or even $600 a bottle; it’s not all about investment potential or status, it’s about flavour complexity and thus enjoyment, of which aroma is the predominant part; an artistic expression that develops and changes over time.
We now have wineglass shapes for every grape variety; the demand for training of the nose – especially now that Le Nez du Vin is available in Australia and Asia to aid us – is sure to follow.
Le Nez du Vin by Jean Lenoir (© 2006, France) is distributed in Australia by Vinum Vitae Pty Ltd, PO Box 2330 Kent Town, South Australia 5071. Email email@example.com.
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