(Re)-Developing your sense of Smell
By: George Balling
This past week we had a conversation with one of our customers who has been recovering from covid. Their sense of smell has been fairly impacted by the illness to the point where it was challenging to pick up much of the taste or smell of wine. When Mary and I went through it a little over a year ago we were similarly impacted, mine was more severe than Mary’s. I still have transient days where my aromatic skill is not what it used to be. For us this is and was quite concerning since it is so vital to what we do every day. After all, 90% of what you taste in wine actually comes from what you smell in wine.
After we got over the initial illness, we both started to work on building back our aromatic recognition and memory. There are ways to accomplish the task, our sense of smell is like any other skill or muscle in the human body, with repeated work, or “work outs” as the case may be you can develop or in our case re-develop that skill.
Here is what we suggest. When you first start having wine again or for the first time it helps to have some tasting notes to read as you begin to taste a wine. Reading what others smell and taste will often times trigger our own senses to what we are looking for. I can think of so many times when tasting with others or reading a winemaker’s description of the wine I am tasting and I say to myself “Oh yeah, that’s what it is!” This is also why talking about wine with your friends will help too.
When we first started to work on our sense of smell post-covid we also used a lot of kitchen items to aid in our journey back to smelling and tasting. If we knew from tasting notes or from previous experience with a wine that we should be smelling dried herbs, specific fruit notes, or even meatiness we would smell those items before putting our nose into the glass or the wine into our mouth. If a wine is described as being citrus noted cut a lemon or other citrus in half and take a big smell of the fruit first then the wine. Whatever dried herb is described in the wine pull some from your spice cabinet rub it between your fingers and then get your nose right up to it, then smell the wine. While it is a bit hard to find the stone fruits of summer or good berries right now in the market, we would still encourage you to try smelling whatever the winemaker describes before you smell the wine.
Here is another trick to help with establishing your sense of smell. Remembering that 90% of what you taste in wine is actually aromatic driven there has to be a way for all those layered and wonderful aromas to make it from your palate to sensors in your sinuses. This is precisely why you see wine geeks pulling air through their lips and over the wine when it sits on the palate. This can be a bit tricky to master and at first you might dribble a little wine here and there. Start by taking a small amount of wine in your mouth and holding it on and around your tongue. Part your lips and gently pull air in and over the wine. For me when I was coming out of covid this actually helped me smell more of the aromatics than smelling though my nose for a good long time and it is still how I can pick up more of what the wine has to offer when I am having a bad smelling day.
Another trick is taking more frequent and smaller sips and whiffs of wine. Repeating the process more frequently will allow you to rapidly revisit the aromas you are picking up so that you can quickly establish the connection in your aromatic memory.
Trying all the different wines that are available is a big part of the fun for us. There is a whole big world of wine to enjoy. When you are initially establishing or re-establishing your sense of smell though it makes more sense to repeat a wine you can smell frequently. The trick here is to firmly establish what you can pick up in the aromatics in your memory bank before you move on.
Ever since we had covid and it so severely affected my ability to smell I have felt this is one of the more hideous parts of the illness. Beyond the career implications the enjoyment of food and wine is a big deal. I can’t imagine how horrible it must be for those who have permanent limitations; however, these are some steps you can take to help get your sense of smell back on line.