Read – Victoria Moore learns about the science behind loss of smell, and how wine lovers are managing.
View from the wine trade
It was with great interest that I read Peter Richards MW’s article ‘2020: Lockdown stories’ . I am a freelance writer by day, and the brain fog and other long-haul issues I experience from my own bout with Covid-19 are as irritating as they are challenging. That I am also a newly minted sommelier (Court of Master Sommeliers) and working part-time for a well-regarded US wine merchant by night, poses its own challenges.
My sense of smell returned quickly, but here at 12 weeks post Covid, I’ve barely regained all but extreme taste sensations. A pint of beer tastes faintly of sliced black bread muddled into a glass of soda water. A glass of Penfolds Grange, shared with me by a regular customer, smelled heavenly but tasted only at the extremes of acid and a long, bitter astringency with perhaps mouthwash (though less flavourful) in between.
My recovered nose, a modest knowledge base, good training and strong customer relationships have fortunately kept me useful at the shop. But as insignificant as it may be in the scheme of things given others’ trials and tragedies, the full return of my palate will be most welcome. Meanwhile, I shall live vicariously through my very patient colleagues, our customers, and my Decanter subscription.
George Evans, wine associate, Kahn’s Fine Wines & Spirits, Indianapolis, Indiana, USA
I suffered complete loss of smell and taste as a result of coronavirus in March 2020. Tragically, the sudden onset of Covid occurred just as I was decanting a bottle of greatly anticipated Croatian red! Being a good husband, I infected my wife five days later. She, like me, spent five months without taste and smell. A wine trip to Alsace and Burgundy in the summer, when France lifted its lockdown, was ruined by this horrible virus.
I booked a consultation with one of England’s leading ENT (ear, nose and throat) surgeons. She advised the following: retrain one’s brain regarding recognition of certain scents via Fifth Sense; use NeilMed sinus rinse daily; lay off alcohol for a while, to let one’s olfactory system recover. Further research has shown that eating as wide a variety of food as possible also assists the brain in distinguishing various smells.
Presently, my wife and I are at around 50% of our former selves, when it comes to enjoying wine, food and the aromas of daily life.
Do not fear if your enjoyment of red wine lags behind that of whites and Champagnes – this is what happened to us. Last night, I enjoyed a Chilean Cabernet. It smelled, and tasted, great. This would have been unimaginable even a couple of months ago.
My advice to all is: keep the faith. Everyone recovers at their own pace. There is light at the end of the tunnel. Don’t put your wine collection under the auctioneer’s hammer just yet!
Louis Altman, London, UK
Road to recovery
Both as a wine lover, and also as a former clinical neuroscientist, I was very interested to read Richard Smith’s letter in your March issue. I also suffered loss of smell and the finer points of taste following a mild attack of Covid-19 in late March 2020. The good news is that over the last two months I am recovering these senses. The recovery has not been uniform across grape varieties. For example, I appreciated a Gustave Lorentz Vieilles Vignes Riesling, but got virtually nothing from a Zind-Humbrecht Rangen de Thann Pinot Gris; similarly, a Nebbiolo from Gattinara was almost void of flavours, but a Sagrantino di Montefalco was well perceived.
It seems that Richard Smith has had a similarly patchy experience, but he may also have a degree of parosmia (perverted sense of smell). I understand that ‘smell training’ is said to help some sufferers from acquired anosmia and that smell training kits are available at the price of a good bottle of wine from the charity AbScent.
Whereas I do not need an excuse to explore the aziende vinicole of Italy, the phenomenal range of grapes and variety of terroirs in that wonderful country is an incentive to crack on with my own species of smell rehabilitation.
Dr Jonathan Punt, London, UK
A surgeon’s advice
Ear, nose and throat specialists are seeing more and more patients with these symptoms and there isn’t a simple solution.
We recommend that people with loss of smell of more than four to six weeks should seek an expert opinion to look for treatable nose and sinus diseases and try interventions. Specialised tests may be required.
In general, loss of smell leads to a huge reduction in taste, but direct tongue stimulants still work. These are sugar, salt, sour, bitter and umami (eg, soy sauce). So I would recommend Mr Smith gets expert advice and also starts investing in dessert wines in the interim.
Tony Narula FRCS (ENT Surgeon), London, UK
It is important to be aware that Covid-19 is not the only potential cause of a loss of the senses of taste and smell; it can happen with other respiratory viruses, too. In March 2020, I had symptoms of respiratory illness, mostly mild but, devastatingly for a wine lover, completely lost my senses of taste and smell. A Covid test was negative. It took three months for these senses to return to anywhere near normality.
Then, much to my dismay, in early January this year, I suffered another bout of respiratory illness, much more severe this time and again suffering total loss of these senses, but again testing negative for Covid. As yet, these senses remain almost absent, to the extent I have not had a glass of wine, or other alcoholic drink, for almost a month; it is pointless if I cannot appreciate the aromas or flavours.
I can only hope that they will return sooner rather than later. Mr Smith’s observation that his senses still haven’t returned completely to normal after some eight or nine months does not inspire me with a great deal of confidence.
Chris Knott, Norfolk, UK
My great sympathies to Richard Smith, who has had his love of red wine distorted due to damage to his olfactory nerves by Covid-19.
I have intermittently lost my taste with some colds, which were probably due to coronavirus infections. I recall celebrating our 10th wedding anniversary with a bottle of Mouton Rothschild 1973, which was our wedding year – sadly not the best vintage (the wine, not the marriage!). I developed a cold on the day which damaged my sense of smell, but was keen to open the bottle. It tasted fine, but the essential subtleties on the nose were missing. It was hard asking my wife to describe the wine but, still, the Picasso label was memorable! I have a bottle for 2023, but fear a pale shadow which likely will struggle to excite my nasal nerves.
The likelihood of Richard Smith’s taste returning to normal is high, but he may need to retrain his sense of smell. May I suggest investing in the aroma training system Le Nez du Vin. While not cheap, it contains a number of aromas centred on the taste of wine. Hopefully with regular practice, and starting with the stronger samples, he will regain a full range of olfactory senses and live to enjoy the fruits of his cellar, rather than a healthy bank balance!
Julian Bradley, Richmond, Surrey, UK