From the heart

Rachel Hendry finds poetry in an honest tasting note

article-banner

There is something aspirational about the smell of other people’s laundry. Steps closer, deep breaths in, double takes with the breeze. One fabric softener in particular reminds me of a boy I fell in love with before I was old enough to know that love should keep you full, not drain you hollow. Over a decade later his smell still gets worn by others. I stop in the street every time, heart turning to face them, seventeen all over again. 

It’s the Proust effect, Nigel Slater’s relationship with toast and that scene in Pixar’s Ratatouille where restaurant critic Anton Ego inhales Remy’s food and is transported to his early childhood, knocked knees and broken bikes soothed by maternal cooking. 

Our sense of smell holds a power over us I would argue no other sense does​​ – one of teleportation and transportation​​ – that is all down to the way our organs are connected. 

“In terms of brain anatomy, there are more direct neuronal connections from the nose to parts of the brain that are involved in emotions and memory formation (collectively referred to as the limbic system) – these are more direct than connections from other senses such as sight or sound,” Venkatesh N. Murthy, Professor and Director of the Centre for Brain Science at Harvard University tells me.

“A lot of what we think of as taste is a combination of taste and smell (flavour is a better word) because almost everything we eat or drink gives off volatile molecules that travel from the back of our mouths to the insides of our nose, where cells that mediate smell reside.” 

So not only does our olfactory system have the ability to differentiate between a whole catalogue of scents, its close relationship to the parts of our brain involved with memory and emotion​​ – the amygdala and the hippocampus​​ – often mean that the smell itself is surpassed by the intensity of the emotion we feel. A good thing to hold onto the next time I feel the urge to hug my glass of wine, the aroma so inviting. 

“Smells appear to be intimately tied to memories.” Venkatesh continues. “One thing to keep in mind is that the memories triggered by smells are usually not about the smells themselves – rather, they are about events and places we experienced in the past, in conjunction with those smells. Indeed, the famous example of Marcel Proust’s madeleine episode (in his masterpiece À la recherche du temps perdu) involves a vivid description of the landscape and events in his past, but not about the actual smell or taste itself.”

Perhaps this goes some way to explain my tendency for preciousness when it comes to tasting notes. When someone critiques a flavour I’ve come across in my wine as wrong I find it very difficult not to respond as if they have just told me who I am is wrong. 

You see, when I tell you this wine tastes of apricots I am telling you about the apricots I have eaten. Apricots condensed into tiny pots of Bonne Maman jam I bought at the airport in Marseille, desperate to cling onto holiday breakfasts for just a little while longer. Whole apricots embedded into Danish pastries, amber jewels that burst, their syrup sticking to my lips. Dried apricots presented with good intentions, eaten with sullen reluctance. How can something so intrinsic to my being be called into question? 

Curious to know if being precious is perhaps an overreaction on my part, I ask Venkatesh if the relationship between past and present via smell is ever strengthened in some people over others.

“Memories are personal, by definition!” Venkatesh exclaims in response, and I breathe a sigh of validated relief. “Some people seem to have more evocative memories in relation to smells, and that could be because such people pay more attention to smells. It could also be that they have been recalling those memories more frequently.”

“I also think a lot of intangible and inexpressible feelings attributed to smells and thoughts they evoke might come from the very nature of smell perception. In many cultures, there seems to be an impoverished vocabulary for smells, which we perhaps compensate by more visceral interpretations of odours - which might feel more emotional.”

Very early on in any formal wine education you will be presented with a lexicon, a set of words that you may use to describe how a wine smells and how it may taste, that you will later be examined on. It is a vocabulary of assumption: that we all approach a strawberry in the same way, that we all share the same relationship with coffee, that medicinal flavours, and all the hang ups that come with it, are universally unchanging. 

None of us are the same and as a result we do not drink the same – that is the unequivocal joy of it all

None of us are the same and as a result we do not drink the same – that is the unequivocal joy of it all. Flavour is a way to curiously engage with differences, with our histories, our likes and dislikes, vocabulary and experiences! Smell is us, as people, who can only ever taste as we are. Wine is a gift that will help us to access that, in ourselves and in each other. There can be no examined language for that. 

In learning to lean into a wine smelling like the woods near my parents house an hour after it rains, I receive a gift. A new friend,​​ Blair, shares his tasting notes. “A good garden with some flowers and lots of herbs during/just after a light rain,” he has written. I think how lucky I am to connect this way, with someone else who has stood outside and let themselves feel the air moments after the rain and who has felt it again later on, in the swirls of their glass. I wouldn’t get this with gooseberries. 

I think perhaps if I have a lifetime of connections like this I can handle a lifetime of being told my tasting notes are too personal, that who I am is wrong, of failing future wine exams. I think perhaps, if anything, I will make it more so. 

Blackberry jam from my mother, labelled made with love, August 2021. A tobacco dusted pillowcase, evidence that nothing good ever happens past 2am. Blackening lemons on the hob to dress a salad, my best friend hovering in the doorway. Trying, and failing, to love espresso. Mint choc chip ice cream on the walk home from work, in an attempt to pacify an anxious heart.  

All are points of reference for me now. Past flavours I can anchor a present one to. Fleeting moments I have captured in order to tell you​​ – outside of what we are used to​​ – who I am. 


Share this article