WINE SYMPOSIUM – 7a edizione – Wine & Flavors



When smelling a wine, how can we make the difference between oaktree and cedarwood flavors? How can we distinguish a fiorai scent when we know nothing about thè perfume of flowers? How to differentiate between anise notes and a licorice flavor? Between Guava and Passion fruit? What does word like “balsamic” mean? How to distinguish a 4 Ethyl phenol character from a nicest leather tone generally due to aging of thè wine? What are thè differences between green notes and vegetal notes?

The olfaction seminars should be able to answer ali these questions. This training is about wine tasting and is intended to help professionals to create solid smelling indicators in themselves.

When you isolate thè elements that describe a wine you get a chance to know them thoroughly; for this reason odor samples are used in this training.

We ali have mental images of plants, spices or fruits, but we don't really know what they smeli like. By describing each of their aromatic facets we learn how to master and memorize them. Cinnamon, for example, has spicy, woody, leathery, sweet, almond-like, round, hot, resinous aspects, sometimes even pharmaceutical ones, such as camphor. Isobutyl Methoxi Pyrazine (IBMP) is responsible for the vegetal note in certain wines, it develops green facets that evoke the smell of raw vegetables such as green beli peppers and green beans, ivy leaves, when thè IPMP (Isoprpropyl Methoxy Pyrazine) also responsible for a vegetal notes in wines, develops asparagus aspects, fava bean pods, sulfur notes, and having a strong dry earthy character. Once we have acquired a perfect knowledge of these indicators we are capable of identifying them in the aromatic complexity of a wine. Without this previous exposure wine tasting appears to be a random practice.

The smelling sessions have a dual purpose : to structure our smelling universe and to teach us to describe smells with an accurate use of the rich vocabulary at our disposal. To memorize is first and foremost to learn how to describe.


olfaction : a new tool for winemakers

Aromas are a collection of molecules and this explains the complexity of the aromatic universe. When we perceive a cassis aroma in a Merlot wine, or a raspberry note in a Pinot Noir, the impression is caused by the sum of twenty or thirty different molecules.

Few molecules such as geraniol, (3-ionone, isobuthyl methoxypyrazine, to name a few, are solely responsible for distinct odors in the aromatic bouquet of a wine….lt is easy then to isolate and memorize them.

The rest is a more subtle matter. An insignificant variation in the composition of these molecular groups will reveal new nuances in the bouquet that emerges from the wine glass. Wine is so magical and complex that we can say that it includes ten or several hundred different cassis or raspberry aromas. The cassis aroma perceived will vary from one bottle to another. The grapes combinations, the assemblage, the quality of the soil, the climate, the wood, even the oxygenation prior to serving the wine, will influence the olfactory variability of this aroma. Sometimes it appears to be more or less ripe, green, sweet, acid, bland, sharp, round, dry, evoking memories of liqueur, eau-de-vie, jam, jelly, sorbet, sour sweets, syrup, coulis, cream filling, fresh fruit, dry berries, cassis leaves, etc.

In addition, perception is a personal experience. It resorts to memories, representations, image associations that differ from one person to another. Indeed, we all have our own idea of the cassis aroma. The reference that is created deep inside ourselves is not similar to that of another person.

Is it necessary to add that each taster has a different olfactory apparatus? or that we don't have thè same perception thresholds? It is clear that learning how to identify wine aromas relates to the squaring of the circle.

In these conditions, how can we work and develop our sense of smell? The smelling sessions intend to answer this question.

Let us continue our example and ask a wine amateurto smell the Absolu Bourgeons de cassis on a paper sampler and tell us his impressions. In response to our request he will point out the differences and similarities he perceives between his own cassis reference, the one recorded in the intimacy of his memory, and the Absolu Bourgeons de cassis. This exercise has a dual effect: on one hand, the taster acquires a more precise idea of his own conception of the cassis aroma and on the other hand, adds a new reference to the stock of odors recorded in his brain, the Absolu Bourgeons de cassis. Let's imagine that immediately after we ask him to comment on two new cassis aromas: one used by the food industry and thè 4MMP. After smelling these two new substances the taster will start to seriously consolidate his knowledge of a fruity note. In just a few minutes he will have memorized three new cassis type references. To be honest, not altogether, because in order to fully grasp a smell we must know all its aromatic facets, every one of its aspects, and this knowledge can only be acquired through a regular practice. Of course, for a complete memorization to take piace, the wine amateur will need to smell these three new odors repeatedly.

These are not the only benefits obtained by thè taster. Smelling also allows us to adjust and enrich our vocabulary. This is particularly important because tasting is about being able to express with words the sensory differences we perceive.

It is clear that through a constant, stubborn and guided smelling practice we can acquire a sound knowledge of the aromatic descriptors of wine. It is surprising to see that wine professionals and amateurs taste wine without having ever received olfactory training. The best musicians spend years studying music theory and practicing scales on a daily basis. Why should it be different for wine professionals who use their sense of smell every day?




“The constitution of a memory is never posterior  to that of perception, it is simultaneous” – Bergson.

It is a mistake to consider the daily verbs “feel” and “smell” as synonyms. They are actually two distinct stages of olfaction.


“Feel” plays the crucial role of an equaliser. It is triggered by the “stimulation” of a sensory nerve. Its action is to induce the individual to psychologically adjust to external conditions of the surroundings.

The stimulation is the result of an effective “activation”. But the stimulation generated may itself remain ineffective if it is not transmitted to the central System which depends on sensory feedback. This is particularly what happens when the optic nerve is cut, the light can still cause the agitation of receptor cells of the retina, but the local response will not be transmitted to the equalising centers. It will not affect the overall behaviour of the individual nor his adaptation.

Sustaining the sensation of a scent requires the action of an olfactory stimulus that causes a confined change, temporary but effective, a stimulation of the sense of smell receptor cells. This reaction must then be translated and then conveyed with the aid of a nerve transmission to the medulla oblongata as well as to the higher brain centers. This process operates in a flash.

The complexity of these mechanisms is even more important due to the variability of human receptors. Physiologists state that their number and nature differ from an individual to another. Thus do not be surprised if all the olfactory apparatus does not react the same way. But if the physiological cause is not totally excluded, one should not underestimate the importance of psychological factors responsible for these variations.

The 4MMP (4-mercapto-4-methylpentan-2-one) identified in many white varieties, especially in Sauvignon blanc makes it possible to highlight these psychological factors. The molecule has simultaneously an odor of boxwood, blackcurrant buds and cat pee, wild herbs, rustie, citrus, grapefruit zest. If you ask several people to scent 4MMP, their diligence will not be focused on the same aspects. Each one will follow his natural inclination and cling to a marker that struck him, the wild herbs for example. If we guide them a new facet, blackcurrant for example, in turn they will notice it. Gradually guiding their olfaction by vivid imagery, we will make a complete inventory of the facets of the smell and ultimately they will have a global view rather similar to that of our own.

This tracking requires attention and concentration of mind that each individual is unwilling to consent. This is often what makes one believe that the senses of smell function differently. While all individuals do not have the same olfactory receptors, they nevertheless have strong similarities.

Differences of perception are not always related to physiological differences, but mainly to fatigue, lack of practice or knowledge.

The importance of psychological factors in the use of the sense of smell has been long neglected due to past studies conducted on animals. Experiments were based on their instinctive reactions, thus less thought of and pondered by mankind. Finally the transformation of perception through education or voluntary training was not emphasized.


The sense of smell provides the sensation of odors, that is to say the response to an activation on the sensory organ. The aroma of a wine emerges from the encounter of a few molecules floating in the air above the surface of the glass with millions olfactory receptor cells. This encounter will cause a series of electrical and chemical reactions, creating a nerve impulse transmitted to the brain. The sensation is a passive physiological process.

Perception is the mental interpretation of sensation. It is an active process, which follows sensation, and thus must be considered separately. It is an intellectual act; it involves higher levels of consciousness, links to the memory, associating images, depending on personal experience and upbringing.

Therefore, we will understand the pivotal role of the first sensations experienced by infants, and behavioral consequences in adult life. Some irresistible attraction or repulsion for types of smells can be explained only by attribution to strong sensations in early childhood.

The conscious olfactive perception of smell is an alert and analysing mode of being. A wine tasting is based on the differentiation of aromas and their classification by degree of relevance. It refers to the series of comparative sources: scents of fruits, wood, spices, etc…

The mental structure of the brain is based on the sense of sight. For 100 sensations reaching the brain, 60 to 65 are from the sight, 20 to 25 from hearing, and 10 to 15 from touch; whereby only one comes from the taste or smell. Our way of thinking is mostly visual. That is why abstraction and mathematics pose many problems for young students.

When we taste a wine, we are not surprised that an image appears spontaneously after sensation. The image prolongs the sensation. Recognizing the aroma of a wine is precisely to use those images stored in our memory and trying to evoke them voluntarily. Images can be visual, acoustic, olfactory, gustatory, tactile, and thermal. Comparison runs the process of perception because it refers to flashes of images. We draw within our references the closest image to the aroma that we are trying to identify.

Sometimes the image that comes to mind is not thorough enough, as if we stopped along the way to the road that leads to the identification of an aroma.

Imagine taster number 1 perceives a rustie note, an impression of weeds while stirring a glass of white wine. Continuing his effort to analyze, he describes it as an anis-like flavor. The most common references range to anise, are dill, tarragon, star anise, green anise, fennel seed (shoot and root). His image references maybe infinite: sliced fennel thrown on coals when grilling a fish, a glass of pastis, tarragon in ones grandparents garden, sour candy, etc…


Por the same wine, Taster 2 perceives a spearmint note or even that of menthol. Due to the fact that he is more sensitive to the feeling of freshness that the wine gives, his appreciation will refer to a different field of images including this somatosensory element: minty family references are peppermint, spearmint, pennyroyal or wild mints. The tasters' representation can therefore logically stop between menthol and peppermint, which also contains menthol aspect.

One way or the other, our two tasters are convinced of the validity of their analysis. But saffice it to a third taster, more experienced, to show they have “seen” one aspect of the flavor in question. Let's decide that the said flavor is caraway. This referral contains both aniseed and minty facets (due to the presence of carvone). The two tasters will acknowledge this reference. In this case, their aromatic description will not be accurate. Lack of accuracy could be lack of knowledge, although these seeds are used as ingredients in some cheese (Munster or gouda) and some alcoholic beverages (aquavit, schnapps), or in many meaty dishes from Eastern and Northern Europe or even in Indian food.

Back to our example. Let's decide that aromatic element in the wine described by our two tasters is that of liquorice. On the one hand, menthol is an ingredient of liquorice flavor. On the other hand, tasters are frequently confused between the aromas of anise and liquorice. If the wine in question has been matured in oak, this example is particularly compelling because the heating of a barrel can produce cycloten, a molecule known for its intense smeli of liquorice. Both taster

have only gone halfway to find the descriptor that corresponds best. When the third taster will evoke the liquorice notes, they will realize the gap that separates their impression from the objective aroma present in the wine.

The role of olfactory education precisely is to give tasters the best artillery possible to increase olfactory acuity; give them all the existing links from one aroma to another.


Continue our example. A fourth taster examines the same wine. Inhaling the aromas emanating from a glass, a summer memory arises in him unexpectedly. He sees himself sitting at an outdoor restaurant at dusk nearby a fishing port, carcasses of boats on a dry-dock. His impression is vague and general; he doesn't distinguish any element in particular. Yet the white wine that he sis tasting takes him back at this exact moment of his life. So to say, he smells this moment. What our tasters perceived first, the context of this memory, the welfare of his carefree years, post-adolescent, before life force him to become a responsible person. The image that comes first to mind is the overall vision of a whole, before any distinction of olfactory elements. Setting his feelings, our taster becomes aware that he would sometimes enjoy in this period of his life, a cocktail based on anise and mint. This remarkable perception which refers to an initial lack of differentiation of the elements composing ones memory before it could be analysed, is called syncretic perception. Unconsciously, the memory of the scent was bound to an emotional element. That is why such images explode in us with great intensity. Our tasters will be tempted to share this representation with other tasters, but unfortunately for him, he won't be able to share his impression. This explains why one taster sometimes goes for lyrical description while others will pity him.



The images that we use are tinged with judgements and assessments. There are appetizing and nauseating odors, aromas of wine can belong to a register of defects or qualities. Perceiving an aroma is to note its presente and to evaluate it.

The 4-ethyl phenol is a molecule that may appear in red wines in the use of new or used barrels, it is related to the occurrence of Brettanomyces. The note is musky, leather, evokes stables, horse sweat, but also paint and the band-aid. You can also find aspects of flowery jasmine. It is usually classified as leather notes. It is easy to confuse it with an aroma of leather of an aging wine, more subtle, delicate, and dose to some facets of tobacco flavor. We understand the importance to be able to distinguish these two leather aromas of a different type: the first one is considered undesirable by wine professionals, while the other participates in the aromatic complexity of the wine. Judging is a subjective phenomenon; it cannot escape the tasters' olfattive education. Hence an assessment may be erroneous, while the sensation (reflex) cannot be.

The more we use our olfactory System, the more we benefit from it, the greater our education, the wider is our spectrum of references. Therefore if everyone smells, everyone will more or less perceive, and some more accurately than others. It is therefore not surprising that tasters can experience very similar feelings but express different judgements. If one of the tasters mind is less active, lacking of images, less trained, he will be less qualified to perceive.


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