Snuffling not to be sniffed at

If you have ever noticed with some bemusement (in a restaurant, say) someone raising a glass of water to drink but pausing to give it a good reflective sniff – it’s perfectly explicable. Seeing I’ve caught myself doing it often enough, the odd behaviour could well have been mine, in fact.

Almost certainly the water-snuffler was a wine-professional, if not someone suffering mild dementia. Or perhaps both. But most likely someone so accustomed to assessing wines that certain routines have become engrained. It’s as though a subliminial message passes to the brain saying: “liquid approaching mouth – inhale!” Hence those absent-minded sniffings at glasses of water or beer, cups of tea or coffee.

In fact, so integral to the drinking process has this become that my own surprise is when I notice people drinking wine with no lingering pause for the nostrils to do their thing. For a good deal of information about a wine can be gained through its smell – and, more importantly, a good deal of its loveliness.

Those who don’t sniff the wine miss out on a lot of the pleasure for which they’ve paid handsomely. Occasionally, when the aromas are particularly complex and fine it can even be almost as an afterthought that one goes to the consummation of taste. And taste, of course, is amazingly bound up with smelling – as anyone with a cold bunging up their nose can tell you, ff you can’t smell something, you’ll taste remarkably little too.

Science is revealing more and more interesting things about smell – the most primitive, the most mysterious, the most inarticulable of our basic senses. One of them is that, when it comes to smelling, a rose is not a rose is not a rose. We all respond to the world with our own, probably unique and genetically dictated, set of olfactory receptors. To an extent, the world smells a little different to each of us.

This proposition was amplified in a recent article surveying research on “olfaction” in the Britsh newspaper, the Sunday Independent. A scientist quoted there suspects that, apart from different sensitivities to smells, everybody will have at least one olfactory “blind spot” – one thing that they are incapable of smelling.

I knew sadly well of these blind-spots. A description commonly used for the smell of shiraz, especially shiraz grown in a cool climate, is “peppery”. I never got this, had to feel merely inadequate. Then I read of research showing that the peppery effect emanates from a chemical compound called rotundone – and that approximately 20 percent of people were unable to detect it!

At least this particular inadequacy of mine was shared. Many other common anosmias have been noted, I gather (three out of 100 people can’t smell vanilla, for example). And to millions of smells everyone is going to respond with different levels of intensity.

Adding this to such things as – for example – different levels of saliva flow (affecting acidity tolerances), it means that those who enthusiastically talk about the scents and flavours of wine should always be aware of the idiosyncratic element. My glass of wine does not smell identical to yours, though poured from the same bottle. There’s plenty we can discuss and share, however – and each of us will unquestionably get more pleasure if we lingeringly sniff before sipping and swallowing.


This first appeared in the Mail & Guardian, 4-10 February 2011

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Are you human? *