Allen R. Balik: The Nose Knows

Allen R. Balik: The Nose Knows

From the very early days of my vinous adventure, I realized wine was expressive of all five senses.

Our first impression is visual where we can appreciate a wine’s color, clarity and density as it is poured into the glass. We then take a sniff to discover the bouquet and assess its aromatic components. Taste, sensory mouthfeel and finish complete the first sip. And, of course, the sound of the cork popping (especially with a sparkler) and glasses clinking in a festive toast can add to the overall experience.

As the years unfolded, I continued to delve deeper into wine’s intrinsic character and began to realize that the nose (both literally and figuratively) took on the dominant role in the entire tasting/appreciation process both on physiological and sensory levels. Visually, we can tell much of what’s to come on the palate by the wine’s color and clarity. But, it’s the nose and our overall olfactory system that affect almost everything else, from the initial bouquet through the palate and on to the finish.

Smelling the aroma of a wine before tasting

©iStockphoto.com/YakobchukOlena

Our nose is far more than that “cute little thing” in the middle of our faces. It is a complex and interconnected system of membranes, neural sensors, transmitters, filters, etc. that extend beyond what we normally attribute to its role in breathing. Our sense of smell (through its receptors and transmitters) extends to the mouth where it works in combination with our taste buds to create a perception of flavors. When we swallow, aromatic elements are volatilized and again picked up by the olfactory system to give us the “finish” that is so important in the gratification found in a quality wine.

In fact, it is well accepted that the influence of the nose and our sense of smell account for the vast majority of our sense of taste, even though a quantitative measure has not been accurately agreed upon in the scientific community. There are four specific taste bud groupings on the tongue to relay the impressions of sweet, sour, bitter and salty along with umami as a fifth more esoteric “savory” sense.

However, we can all agree that our sense of taste goes far beyond any combination of the five. And that’s where the nose continues to contribute by further adding to our appreciation of flavor and finish.

Without our nose and its complex web of membranes and receptors, our sense of taste remains incomplete. Does that steak, salad, pizza or melon taste the same when we’re experiencing a cold’s nasal congestion? Of course not. And the same will be true when trying to enjoy a glass of Cabernet, Chardonnay or a chilled Riesling with the Kleenex box nearby as we are sniffling and sneezing.

Grilled ribeye beef steak with red wine, herbs and spices on stone table

©iStockphoto.com/karandaev

So when tasting a wine, can we extend the value of our nose and further appreciate the experience while amplifying the olfactory role from that first smell to a lingering finish?

Absolutely!

Here are a few suggestions to get the most out of your next glass of wine involving three of the five senses. Swirling the wine in the glass magnifies the surface area many-fold, allowing for additional air contact and release of those precious and intriguing scents. Put your nose (literally) far into the glass while inhaling quickly and deeply to fill the membranes and broaden the olfactory impression.

Then take in a mouthful (not a baby sip), swirl it around (much like a mouthwash) coating the tongue as well as the roof and walls of the mouth to further release flavor elements for the taste buds, aromatics for the nose and sensory components for mouthfeel. And you can even (although this takes a little practice) suck in a bit of air to amplify and extend the experience.

Drinking wine

©iStockphoto.com/yula

You’re now ready to the appreciate that very important finish. A plethora of aromatic and flavor components have already been released by the aeration of the wine and the warmth of your mouth. These components now carry forward beyond the mouth, where there are no longer any taste buds. The aromatics continue on through the nasopharyngeal passage located in the upper part of the throat, above the roof of the mouth and behind the nose. Here, the nose and olfactory system kick into high gear to complete the experience with a (hopefully) long and luscious finish that is often expressed with descriptors of flavor but actually experienced through the nose.

It’s true that the nose really knows. Aromatics really are a major component of our tasting experience and there’s much we can do to enhance the connection between the nose and palate.

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Allen Balik has been a wine collector, consultant, author, fundraiser and enthusiast for more than 35 years. Each year, he and his wife, Barbara, produce the Evening Of The Culinary Winemasters event at Warner Bros. Studios, a benefit for Cystic Fibrosis.

He regularly appears on CRN Digital Talk Radio's What's Cookin' and What's Cookin' on Wine programs.

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