Jackson’s comments only connect with us because we are all aware of the taste and smell of a fully loaded hamburger. But what if we weren’t? Like Sam Jackson’s “tasty” burger, much wine writing over time has used emotional language that tells us nothing other than that the writer had a good time.
Smell is the most primal of the senses, while language, in evolutionary terms, happened only yesterday. Our sense of smell is processed deep and low on one side of the brain, but objective language occurs in the other hemisphere and they have no direct connectors. Consequently, human smell offers no innate vocabulary, just subjective terms: Delicious, flavorful, disgusting, awful.
The human brain long ago pushed smell into second-string duty, meanwhile elevating sight and sound to starting positions. Consequently, we have not one but two complete languages, each, for sight and for sound.
For sight, our artistic vocabulary includes the color wheel and measurements of shade, tint and hue. If that were not enough, science also quantifies light rays and the color spectrum.
For sound, the musical scale pairs with dynamic notations, and science also has pitch-and-volume equivalents called hertz and decibels. But while my dog can smell the perimeter of my yard and somehow fully understand the activity of all dogs, cats, rodents—and I’m not sure what else—throughout the neighborhood, human smell is an under-studied, subliminal, primal experience. It has no expression significantly more specific than the word “Yum.”
Therefore the human condition, alas, is to taste something but not be able to describe it. Pretty frustrating. We smell and register a wine as great and complex, and there is a special aroma there that we can’t put our finger on. Then someone will say the magic word—say, cinnamon or nutmeg—and we’ve got it. That’s it! These objective terms are not automatic; it is learned behavior, like throwing a baseball or playing the drums.
Connecting a smell to a word is not so much a cheat sheet as it is a road map. We look at food or flowers and have an expectation of how that item will smell and taste; if we hide a flavor somewhere other than expected, the connection can be elusive.
Bad smells are equally difficult to pinpoint without training: Knowing why a wine is bad is economically important to wine-makers and merchants because the smell will define the cause of the spoilage and reveal the culprit. Dirty sock aromas? If excessive, this often points to a dirty barrel. Smell of band-aids or manure? The wine has been infected by a nasty wild yeast called Brettanomyces during winemaking.
What if the wine smells like a wet dog? That wine is “corked.” The bottle has been contaminated by the compound trichloranisole, which was introduced to the wine after riding piggy-back on an infected cork.
There are many evil agents out there, but the most common by far is good-old air: A wine becomes stale and dead, then brown and spoiled, the longer it is exposed to oxygen. A poor cork is usually the culprit when you open a brown, muddy wine that smells like raisons, mud and mildew. If you want to know what exposure to air can do, pour a glass of milk and set it in the refrigerator overnight. When you come back to it, the milk will not be spoiled, per se, but it will be stale.
So if half of wine-tasting is 80 percent smell, what about the other four senses?
The sense of touch is important when talking about body. The body of the wine is the mouth-feel. Light-body feels like skim milk on the mouth, medium-body like 2 percent milk, and full-bodied can go from a whole milk feel to almost half-and-half.