The vocabulary of scent

Of the senses, smell is the anomaly.

Uniquely, our scent perception is filtered through the emotional centre of our brains, bypassing rational interpretation for the instinctual hub: the hypothalamus. That’s why we have such an emotional response to a stranger wearing our mother’s perfume; and why smells are so hard to separate from these innate emotional responses.

19th century anthropologist Paul Broca is best known for his neurological research – but he was also the proponent of a thesis which associated a powerful sense of smell with an animal brain. He went so far as to define free will as the means to decide how we react to odours – rather than the odours compelling us to act.

Is this hypothesis at the root of the historical association of wine, scent and sex? Wine presents a serious dilemma for those who make their living attempting the impossible – describing smells to others through education, writing or recommendations. In all the poetic, often hyperbolic, descriptions of the smell of a wine, what we grasp at is the essential experience of smelling and tasting those spicy, earthy, fruity aromas. The unknowable, indescribable quality of the drink — and its intoxicating properties — move beyond our linguistic abilities and can only be experienced on a deeper, ‘animal’ level.

It’s not such a leap to conclude that in order to achieve the mental acuity needed to develop a satisfactorily expressive olfactory vocabulary, we need to connect to a more instinctual self and attune ourselves to our surrounding environments.

In her book, Cork Dork, Bianca Bosker details a beautiful scene where Ann C Noble, inventor of the wine aroma wheel, and a blind student enthusiastically describe the scent landscapes of Sonoma and Napa valleys. Their intimate familiarity with their landscape engenders an unusually detailed olfactory lexicon which reflects the findings of Majid and Burenhult in their study, Odors are expressible in language, as long as you speak the right language. They examined the language of forager-based communities such as the Jahai of the Malay Peninsula, and found that with a heightened dependence on smell comes a significantly extended olfactory vocabulary.

Smell is a fundamentally multidimensional sense, but (common) human perception is essentially unidimensional. It's no wonder our Western olfactory vocabulary feels so limited. Our capacity to describe scent is fundamentally rooted in simile: Sauvignon smells like fresh cut grass; Cabernet like cassis. Attempts to divorce literal chemical description from metaphor feel somehow off. Bosker critiques the Guild of Sommeliers’ efforts to enforce technical, chemical description of a wine’s smell in its exams. Her discomfort with the sterile accuracy of this approach mirrors my own feeling: this technical vocabulary, as she says, ‘fails to capture anything close to the full experience’ [of a wine’s smell]’.

Nature writer Robert Macfarlane’s book Landmarks celebrates the poetry found in a Hebridean gloss of moorland terms, The Peat Glossary. Imagine if a similarly enthusiastic linguist sought to investigate and collate all the words we use to describe particular odours. Imagine the potential of this vocabulary to make wine accessible to those who are otherwise unable to enjoy a wine with their whole, instinctual self.