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Perception of wine smells ‘unique as fingerprints’

Clues to understanding why we all perceive wines differently were unveiled by an American scientist at the Masters of Wine Symposium in Napa.

Speaking at the June gathering of MWs, which takes place every four years, Dr Charles Wysocki, of the Monell Chemical Senses Center in Philadelphia, an organisation devoted to taste and smell, said wine is ‘tasted’ principally by smell.

Humans have only a few hundred stimuli for taste, but can distinguish thousands of different smells. Wine aromas, however, are not the same for everyone and quite possibly as unique to each individual as a fingerprint.

Wysocki explained that specific anosmia – the inability to smell something readily detected by others – is a condition that affects almost everyone.

Although the scent of musk may be a pungent aroma for many, 43% of people cannot detect it at all.

Other wine-related aromas which commonly cannot be detected include bananas, pears, sandalwood, and sweet, floral scents.

Wysocki also demonstrated, using an audience of wine professionals from around the world, that putting the same aroma in differently labelled bottles produced radically different perceptions.

If a pungent, mouldy cheese-like aroma was labelled ‘food’, the audience tended to rate it as pleasant. If it was labelled ‘body’, it was considered unattractive.

The interpretation of a smell is also highly dependent on the context in which the smell was first experienced and its consequent associations.

‘Perception is reality and olfactory reality varies across people,’ said Wysocki.

Written by Beverley Blanning MW

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