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Identifying Wine Aromas: What is that @##****@@ Smell?

©Richard Gawel

A survey of adults from all walks of life and cultures would almost certainly reveal that some odours evoke vivid memories of past experiences. Often, long forgotten early childhood experiences come flooding back decades after the odour was first experienced. Similarly unusual wine aromas often awaken clear memories and past associations between places, events and people.

Despite this conventional wisdom, human beings do find it particularly difficult to recall odours even compared with visual cues, such as faces. The ability to identify odours in the short and long term have been extensively studied by psychologists, who have found some interesting results.

Odour Identification

One important wine-tasting skills is the ability to recognise and provide accurate words to describe the odours and flavours that are encountered. Wine descriptions that contain phrases such as "intensely blackcurrant and capsicum like, with smoky oak" evoke a clear sensory picture of the wine compared with (say) "herbaceous with other complexing characters". Both are descriptions of the same wine, but the former is a better description as it communicates much more about the wine that the latter. The ability to produce detailed descriptions of the wine's aroma, depends on our ability to perceive the odour, to recognise what it is, and lastly to put a meaningful label on it.

Much effort has been focused on our perceptive abilities, but in reality, being very sensitive to wine components is no guarantee of being a good wine evaluator. Early scientific studies implied that even with considerable experience and practice, people could identify only between about one and two dozen odours at a time without error. More recently this estimate has been upwardly revised, the exact number depending on both how much practice one obtains in consciously adding odours to ones repertoire, and on how distinct the aromas are. For example it is more difficult to correctly recall odours that are similar such as raspberry and strawberry compared to odours that are very individual such as rubber.

The belief that frequently encountered 'everyday life' aromas are more easily identified than others is true, however when presented with these everyday aromas, people can usually precisely name only about half of them. How many times when tasting wines have you been frustrated by knowing what an odour is but being unable to find an appropriate verbal descriptor for it. This has become known as "the tip of the nose phenomenon" and is known to afflict all of us at some time!

Improving Your Ability to Identify Wine Aromas

So how can we improve our ability to label aromas and flavours? It is becoming increasingly recognised that the likely cause of the "tip of the nose" syndrome is the weak connection between odour perception and language. Researchers have found that when a person is asked to identify common odours, the chance of success is 40-50%. If the person identifies the odour with its true name the first time it is presented, then he/she will stand about a 80-90% chance of identification on a subsequent occasion. If the person identifies the aroma with a reasonably good approximation (ie strawberry for raspberry) then she/he will stand only about a 60% chance of success. Very incorrect labels have little chance of being applied consistently. So what is the bottom line? Only the use of verbal labels meaningful to the taster, learned over a long period of time will serve the taster well. Unfortunately there are no short-cuts. Rapid learning of new or arbitrary names for odours does not occur. Practically what this means is that you need to regularly taste as many wines as possible in the company of others who are used to stating their perceptions in either words or in writing. The other key to success is always putting your own perceptions in words. Odour learning occurs pretty well every day in our lives. However it usually occurs incidentally with no conscious attempts being made to add odours to our memory. As a result most people find recalling the names of odours when they need to, very difficult. Wherever possible, write down what you see in the wine. By writing down what you see and listening to feed-back from others, your ability to identify odours will improve!

Odour Memory

In a practical wine tasting sense, it is our long term rather than short term memory for odours that is of importance. We tend to use previous tasting experience obtained weeks or months previously to assist our current tasting efforts. Research has shown that our long term memory for odours is excellent. Once remembered, odours are difficult to forget. One study for example found that people who averaged a identification success rate of 67% on their first test, remembered on average 65% of the odours after one year. In contrast it was found that the same panelists struggled to recall visual scenes over the same period. Making a conscious effort to put labels on odours have other advantages. It appears that odours that are either identified verbally or are related to a life episode, are remembered better than those that are not. It also appears that the more concise and accurate the label the better the odour is remembered.

Are Any Groups Superior in Odour Identification?

In short the answer is yes. Females display a general superiority over males in identifying odours. This superiority even extends to odours that are considered part of the male domain, such as cigars, beer, and machine oil. Fortunately for the males amongst us, the disadvantage can be overcome by following the steps outlined above. Whilst the reasons for this are unclear, it has been widely suggested that the better recognition ability is not due to superior discriminative ability, but probably from a generally superior verbal ability. Recent research points to differences in the functional organisation of the brain for language as the likely cause of the better recognition ability on the part of females.

Interestingly when sighted persons are compared to non-sighted persons, neither group has been shown to have an advantage in aroma identification. This same study found that specialised training, including associating odours to verbal labels resulted in improved identification performance on the part of both groups. This result further supports the notion that even repeated long term incidental exposure to odours does not necessarily improve ones ability to identify and label odours and flavours. Like all things in life, we must work on it if we are to improve.


Cain, W.S. (1982) Odor identification by males and females: Prediction versus performance. Chemical Senses 7(2), pp1-12

Cain, W.S. (1979) To know with the nose: Keys to odor identification. Science 203, pp467-469

Richards, J. T. E., Zucco, G. M. (1989) Cognition and olfaction: A review. Psychological Bulletin, pp352-360

Smith, R.S., Doty, R.L., Burlingame, G. K., McKeown, D. A. (1993) Smell and taste function in the visually impaired. Perception and Psychophysics 54(5), pp649-655