By Stephen Thomson – Senior Wine Educator – The Wine Society
It’s all in the nose A nose by any other name would smell as sweet. I think that’s how the saying goes. A Proboscis, for example, would smell as well as any nose, honker, snout, beak or muzzle.
Our sense of smell is remarkable. Of all the senses nothing provokes a memory like a familiar smell. Faces are forgotten and sounds may be erased from the canvas of the mind, yet, a slight whiff of something not known since early childhood can take us back to that day, the people we were with, and the way that we felt.
The reason for this is intimately linked with the purpose of smell and the way in which it works. Essentially smell is our ability to pick up microscopic particles from the atmosphere which travel into our nostrils until they reach the olfactory sensor receptor neurons, a small patch of cells at the top and back of the inside of the nostrils with tiny hairs, known as cilia, that catch the little airborne volatile molecules and send signals through to the brain’s olfactory bulb, which the brain then interprets as smell.
By doing this we can sense danger, find food and more completely interact with our environment. It is arguably the most primitive sense. Even single celled organisms detect their environment in a way that is analogous to smell.
There are countless molecules that can stimulate olfactory neurons and it is the combination of which neurons that are stimulated that our brains interpret as smell. Something as complex as a wine has a myriad of volatile flavour and aroma compounds creating numerous smells and flavours.
Anyone that’s stuck their nose into glass of wine, particularly old wine, will probably have noticed a multitude of aromas and, shortly after (if you decide to drink it), flavours. But really much of what we sense as flavour is really aroma. Try this for an experiment; take a mouthful of wine, slosh it around for a while then swallow it. Make a note (a mental note is fine) of the flavour experience. Now try it again, this time pinch your nose closed. Though you will still experience sweetness, bitterness, sourness and even saltiness (lets hope not), the red berries or capsicum or whatever it was you found initially has somehow made itself absent. After you’ve swallowed, wait a second, then let go of your nose. Suddenly those flavours come flooding back as your sense of smell is engaged.
This is because your sense of taste, besides detecting texture (acid, tannin etc), can really pick up only those four sensations; sweet, bitter, salt and sour. The rest is in the nose.
But why do we remember smells so acutely? Because the olfactory bulb that interprets your sense of smell is nestled right next to the part of your brain that stores long term memory.