This wine smells of my little ponies!

There are no bad tasting notes, says Susan Boyle


When you think about it, the English language is surprisingly lacking in words to describe smells. Yes, there is the odd, specific word like hircine which describes something that smells like a goat, but mostly when we talk about scents, we compare them directly to the thing our mind links the smell to; lemons smell lemony, and mint minty. But this comparative way of identifying aromas can leave us stuck for words when describing wines. There is a tendency to resort to a set vocabulary, a list of well-worn fruits and spices mentioned by countless winemakers, drinkers and sommeliers, and much of this vocabulary is exclusionary. If you haven’t encountered elderflower or truffles, how can you find those notes in a wine? 

Smells are not egalitarian; they are often highly culturally coded, so when asking what something smells like, we implicitly ask what status familiarity with a specific aroma holds. Moreover, the standard vocabulary for wine smells comes from a western-European sensibility which focuses on finished wines, what we find in the glass and where and when we drink them, so, naturally, this approach to wine is a step removed from the farms and fields where the wines are produced. In this way, the language used to describe wine smells can be exclusionary and leaves little room for experiences beyond simplified descriptors and often takes for granted that everyone can recognise gooseberry. 

My frustration with this limited vocabulary for wine smells is that it doesn’t do the wine or the person smelling it justice. It is one-dimensional, and neither people nor wines are. How we experience smells is complex. Smells do not exist in isolation, rather they live in a larger context. When you are smelling something, you also inhale every other molecule in the air around that smell. Smell is always bound by time and space. A smell occurs in a particular moment and an exact location. It is this temporal and spatial framing that creates an emotional contest for a person, and underpins why smell is such a powerful and evocative sense. Many cultures use smell to connect to higher powers; curling plumes of incense link the mortal and the divine. To complicate things further, people bring all their previous experiences of smelling to bear with every breath. And so, the act of smelling can transport us to different times and places. 

The French Novelist Marcel Proust wrote about the phenomenon of time-travelling through the senses in “Remembrance of Things Past”. Biting into a madeleine dipped in lime blossom tea, the author involuntarily recalls a memory from his childhood so vividly it is as if he is reliving the moment. I readily expect this to happen when eating. I get an initial visual cue, I see the potential memory trigger; it’s not unexpected that associated thoughts would follow. But smells regularly jolt me unexpectedly into other worlds too; just one sniff and I find myself frozen, transported to an utterly different place. A smell can conjure a memory I haven’t thought of in years or a person I’d almost forgotten. A whiff of Lynx Africa or a sweet, cloying waft of something from the Body Shop, and I’m instantly 16. There is often no other key to this memory other than the smell. These involuntary reveries are intensely arresting because smells are ephemeral, the source of a smell is often invisible, and the response is individual. 

We can smell things before we see them, and because of this, we make conscious or unconscious choices based on the information smells relay – who hasn’t decided to eat in a restaurant by following their noses? Because of their invisibility, smells are surprising and, at times assaulting. After all, not everything smells good. At its most basic level, smell is our first line of defence. It allows us to detect potential unseen hazards in our environment. On smelling a wine, our initial thought should be simple: is this something we want to drink? But smelling also helps us understand the world we live in and, as we meander through life, we create a smell library of every scent we have ever encountered. We tend to remember the first time we smelled something, so smells are often wrapped in childhood memories and nostalgia. At the tastings I host, wines often trigger memories of children’s birthday parties or favourite treats; a bubble-gummy Beaujolais that smells distinctly of My Little Ponies – sweet with plasticky confectionery, bright and fun… 

We bring all our past smell experiences with us when nosing wines. If someone has been exposed to lots of smells and places, the act of finding similar aromas in wine may come easier to them. But smelling wine should not just be about identifying similarities between molecules that tickle our nostrils! Where’s the fun in that? 

I am greedy for information, both about the wine and the person drinking it. At a tasting recently, a young woman in the group shared that the smell of the wine we were trying reminded her of her mother’s Thanksgiving stuffing. She went on to describe the stuffing’s main ingredients as green apple and bread crumbs. Even though no one in the group had eaten in her home, as we sipped the wine, I was struck by how we suddenly had a key to unlock and understand her memory. The wine was crisp as a granny smith but also yeasty from some lees ageing. The idea of a traditional family dinner immediately drew us all closer; even if we hadn’t eaten that exact meal, we all had some shared understanding of food rituals and celebrations that we could access.  

You see, humans don’t just drink to sate thirst; we also don’t just drink to get inebriated. Our drinking rituals, whether it’s wine or tea, have a much more complex social function. I believe we drink to connect and to share. We punctuate so many significant moments of our lives with drinks; we pop champagne at weddings and drink whiskey at funerals. I learned during the pandemic that even the most exceptional wine doesn’t taste as good without friends. So when we describe wines, we should seek out words that hint at the places and spaces where they would be best enjoyed and, we should generously share our smell stories and histories with people. 

What joy to discover the wine bar and restaurant King Mother in Brooklyn New York, describe a wine on its list as having “adult juice box vibez”, and an Austrian wine that is “the chilled wine of your dreams”. Or perhaps you’d prefer something that’s “not your mom’s Pinot Grigio, unless your mom is super cool.” Their list is exemplary; it ambitiously aims to capture the experience someone will have drinking a wine rather than the wine itself. And it’s seductive, how could you resist ordering a wine described as bottled “happiness”? Is that not what we all are searching for? 

I’m looking forward to finding new ways to describe wines and the end of one note descriptors such as blackberries, vanilla, lime. Wine drinkers deserve to be at the heart of the wine-drinking experience. Because wine is and has always been about people, the language we use to describe it should reflect this. 

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