What’s the deal with wine and cigar pairing?…

September 24th, 2009

…Hey! Wanna go ride bikes?!

"Ritalin", by thh70. From: thh70online.com

"Ritalin", by thh70.

Every so often, I come across a winery event or some class focused on pairing wine and cigars or wine and spirits. I’ve never understood this pairing. I’ve tried it, but didn’t “get” it. I’ve read a fair amount on the subject. The general rules seem to focus around matching aromatics or the textures of the smoke and beverage.

With these guidelines in mind, I’ve tried to experiment with wine or spirit and cigar pairings. Still, I don’t understand what the deal is. I can describe nuances of the smoke’s aromatics, but the smoke overpowers the beverage and the pairing does nothing for me – at least not in the way wine and food pairing does.

Recently, we had our friends David and Sophia visit. Earlier in the day, the four of us did a panel tasting of some wine samples I had received. While it was obvious that Sophia has a great sense of smell and an astute palate, David had difficulty identifying or describing aromas in wine. He’s an incredibly intelligent guy: triple-boarded in Pediatrics, Pediatric Psychiatry and Adult Psychiatry. But when it comes to wine, he’s a stranger in a strange land.

Sitting on the patio, we’d moved on to whisky. David, having brought some cigars, was talking about pairing the two. While David is generally very articulate and observant, when I asked him to elaborate on the way cigars and whisky pair together, the best answer he could give me was that the cigar smoke “brings out the aromas“. He also told me that this is the same experience he has with wine and cigar pairings.

Then it hit me: David has ADHD! Of course, we’ve discussed this together in the past, but the light bulb moment had to do with a recent study I read. In short, it demonstrated reduced olfactory acuity in children with ADHD. This study corroborated the findings of other studies, including those involving adult subjects.

This is interesting, because the orbitofrontal region of the frontal lobes tends to show lower tissue mass and lower activity in ADHD patients of all ages. This part of the brain is involved in executive functions of attention and impulse control. It has also been associated with olfaction – specifically, odor identification. This last statement is a very general one (like saying that Australia is a wine producing country – it is, but only a small portion of its territory grows wine grapes). There is other evidence that decreased frontal lobe function is associated with olfactory deficits whether that dysfunction comes about as a result of alcoholism, sleep deprivation (which decreases frontal lobe function) or schizophrenia.

Of course, there is at least one study that contradicts this notion of reduced olfactory acuity in the ADHD population. With ADHD having a number of subtypes (which involve dysfunction in varying parts of the brain) and the critical role of inclusion and exclusion criteria in experimental design, it is possible that the findings of both studies are correct – the first one with respect to ADHD with reduced orbitofrontal activity and the second with ADHD with relatively increased parietal region activity which is seen in Sensory Integration Disorder (think: hypersensitivity to smells, sounds, clothing tags, etc).

But back to the cigars.

While chroinic smoking can impair olfactory and gustatory acuity (unless, of course, you are André Tchelistcheff), nicotine is a stimulant and can boost frontal lobe function – either directly or indirectly – by affecting the brain’s reward system. Similarly, the nitrous oxide in cigar and cigarette smoke is a vasodilator so the two substances may work together to boost olfactory acuity. The fact that there is a tendency toward excessive smoking in both schizophrenics and people with ADHD supports this notion. One hypothesis is that this is a form of self-medication to increase the function of the frontal lobes.

These empirical findings and clinical observations represent a grouping of yet unconnected dots when it comes to the relationship between lowered olfactory acuity, orbitofrontal dysfunction and the effects of nicotine on that region. I am not saying that everyone who “gets” cigar and wine or spirit pairings has ADHD and that everyone who does not doesn’t have attentional dysfunction.

ADHD incidence appears to be growing (though some may contend that it is overdiagnosed or that the medical community is merely detecting more cases than before). While we tend to think of ADHD as a childhood phenomenon, estimates place the incidence as high as six percent of the adult population. Although there is no data to compare the incidence of ADHD and the ability to appreciate beverage and cigar pairings, it is possible that diagnosed and undiagnosed ADHD may play a large role in the spectrum or olfactory acuity.

Some may come away from this with the conclusion that being a hammer, I see the whole world as a nail. I would say, instead, that one’s background and knowledge are the lens through which they see the world. Until such time that all those looking at a particular subject with their respective lenses come together to create a complete view of the subject, my view and hypothesis is only one piece of the puzzle.


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3 Responses to “What’s the deal with wine and cigar pairing?…”

  1. Dylan Says:

    I happen to be in the camp that it is relatively over-diagnosed in children. Rather, it might be an unhealthy sign if a child doesn’t appear restless, highly energetic, and distracted. As I recall, these traits were all part of being a child–our minds constantly restless and drawn in by the new things we experience. It only makes sense that many of us mellow out as we become more accustom to life and its offerings. Of course, that is not to say the condition is not legitimate, it is–though perhaps, it is more easily misdirected.

  2. Thomas Pellechia Says:

    What was this blog entry about. I couldn’t focus. Wait a minute. Let me put out this cigar and finish this wine and see if I have anything to say…

    Don’t know about the aroma thing, but for the life of me, I can’t understand how the taste of tobacco on the palate can be of service in enjoying the taste of wine. But I am not, and never was Andre, although I do think I still harbor second-hand smoke in my lungs from being in the same room with him 30 years ago.

  3. Aficionados Blog · Vorliebe für Wein + Zigarre = ADHS Says:

    [...] – bleibt gelegentlich Kurioses hängen. Jüngst ein Beitrag bei Winesooth.com mit dem Titel “What’s the deal with wine and cigar pairing?…“. Der Text beginnt sehr ambitioniert und nimmt dann die unerwartete Wendung hin zur [...]