Stop and smell the real roses

August 11th, 2009

Roses on display at the L.A. Arboretum.

Roses on display at the L.A. Arboretum.

In late April, I took my daughter to the Los Angeles County Arboretum. At the time, one of the pavilions was hosting a show of garden roses. We went in and smelled each and every display. Each was wonderfully different in aroma. What’s more, none smelled like the roses sold at even the best florist shops. They smelled like real roses – like the ones growing in our garden.

The experience made me think that, often, what we think is the smell of roses is nothing like the real thing. I was reminded of this just today when my parents brought a bouquet of roses for my wife. They were lovely looking, but musty – smelling almost like TCA.

So it is with wine. What we think is the smell of something is often far from the real thing. What we think to be the smell of roses is conditioned by those grocery store and florist roses (without thorns?!?!?). Our olfactory memory of blueberry aroma is primed by jams, pie filling, granola bars and Pop Tarts. (Don’t even get me started on American strawberries. Crunchy is for apples. Enough said.)

So where are we to get our aromatic references for black currant, red currant (yes, there are also white currants) and gooseberry (you guessed it, there are white and red gooseberries), lychee, or other tropical, exotic and obscure aromas? I recommend the neighborhoods in your town where the streets have signs in logographic scripts or other non-English languages.

Part of the joy of wine is discovering and learning about the world outside of the bottle. Whether it is pouring some pepper into a ramekin or opening a box of adhesive bandages and comparing the smells there to what’s in a glass of Syrah, or opening a container of Hortex black currant juice and comparing that to a Cabernet-based wine, or sniffing a bag of Italian roast coffee to help hone in on the aromas in a Merlot, the intrepid olfactory adventurer “tunes” their palate.

In music, there is absolute pitch and relative pitch. The former is a phenomenon where a listener (often, a trained musician) can identify or reproduce the pitch of a note without hearing a reference note. There is no relative pitch equivalent in the aroma realm, unfortunately. “Black fruit” is not analogous to “blue notes”.

Just as learning to play an instrument enhances one’s appreciation and enjoyment of music, so can learning reference aromas (and flavors and textures) enrich the enjoyment of wine. It comes down to training and olfactory memory. It’s just like learning a new language.

Some will say: “In China, they don’t have [insert fruit name here]” Well, in India and the Middle East, the traditional music does not follow western chromatic scales. So what?

The point is: no matter where one is and what their reference points are, one should learn to articulate what they sense. Beyond being an academic exercise, it helps the taster get a grip on what they smell and taste. That is, then, a springboard for understanding wine and one’s own preferences.

Once one embarks down this journey, I promise, the world will never seem the same and it will be difficult to resist stopping to smell the roses – or just about anything else, for that matter.


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One Response to “Stop and smell the real roses”

  1. Dylan Says:

    This reminds me of our conversation we had on a prior post of yours, the one regarding Brits and Americans inability to identify main organs of the human body. In both cases the educative process allows for something I’m most passionate about: improved communication. To be able to communicate accurately to a physician about your body is as helpful as it is to communicate to a local wine shop owner the wines you enjoy. In both cases you will likely be served quickly and with better accuracy. We may not directly call these foreign languages, but they are, and like the mandatory ones we took in high school, they’re worth learning if only for the way they open up our world.