This was first published in November 1990, so some of this science will be out of date
“Mummy it smells!”
Therein lies one of our biggest deceits.
To the white man, smell is a dirty word. Not only do we train our children to believe this lie, but we live our lives maintaining it. We feel awkward discussing smells. We have very few words we can comfortably use to describe and discuss them. People who wouldn’t write a letter in a fit suddenly up and off nervous notes of ridicule when I honestly report the bouquets of wines I want to share.
Somewhere between now and that strange dawn by the swamp, when first we stood up on our hind legs, raising our noses from mushroom-snuffling height, through handy genital-sniffing levels to superior, fully erect, Apollonian majesty, we began the tragic denial of our most refined, acute and sensitive sense. Now we pretend the world of aroma belongs solely to dogs and cats. Fools.
The human schnozz can detect and identify some aromatic compounds, like methoxypyrazine (1), the prominent smell in under-ripe Sauvignon blanc and Cabernet sauvignon, at levels measured in parts per trillion, and even the smaller US trillion has twelve zeroes. That’s like detecting and identifying one grape in the entire Australian vintage. With your nose.
While our tongues taste only four things – sweet, sour, salt and bitter (2) – our olfactories work with millions of smells and combinations of them. They comfortably, continuously shuffle through a range of units so vast that it makes music and tone, and the variations of them, look tiny.
This is miraculous – a thing to be marveled at and investigated with great determination.
But it’s not. In fact, through the advent of Christian and Islamic stifling of almost everything fleshy, suddenly resurgent in the wowser epidemic, strangely combined with the neo-fascist preoccupation with perfect muscle tone and the getting of heart rates down to zero through obsessive exercise, and the opportune threat of exotic poxes such as AIDS, we have almost cut our noses out completely.
Think of the squillions spent on the enhancement and entertainment of our other senses. We have great industries and academies devoted to colour, line and form and the pursuit of things orderly and pleasing to the well-trained eye. Painting, architecture, packaging, fashion – this is not only a big education number, but a mammoth business, and a naive attempt at the taming and reshaping of the messy vagaries of nature.
DR MAX LAKE, FOUNDER OF LAKE'S FOLLY WINERY IN THE HUNTER, WAS THE AUTHOR'S MAJOR MENTOR IN THINGS TO DO WITH AROMA AND PHEREMONES AND THEIR RELATIONSHIP WITH GREAT FOOD AND WINE ... MAX WROTE MANY BOOKS ON THE SUBJECT ... HIS SCENTS AND SENSUALITY IS AN ESSENTIAL TOME
We have great halls of learning devoted to the development and adoration of music, and enormous industries built upon its reproduction and sale.
Language is an even bigger game, and its presentation and storage aspects are as big as big gets on our little planet.
But smell? Apart from those relatively minor industries devoted to its modification or denial, such as deodorant manufacture, smell has never openly figured in the west’s broad-form indulgence stakes. People hate their noses, jammed there like blights, smack in the centre of their otherwise beautiful faces. Yeccch. It’s a nasty reminder of primæval nights sniffing for love or danger in the cave, long before we tricked ourselves into believing we’d finally got nature firmly strapped in a harness so it could pull us around, and that smell would no longer count.
Considering our ridiculous rigmarole in hiding from sight the anatomical bits not favoured by clean white people, like the anus, it’s surprising we don’t wear some ornate form of nose brassiere to keep this ugly, most intrusive of organs, out of sight.
I can see a huge future in designing, manufacturing and selling a thousand lines of nose bra. You know, the saucy chantilly lace job with the cheeky cutaway sides and the unique charcoal lining to preclude all aroma, or the gentleman’s sports version with the chrome cover and inverted ram tubes to concentrate the whiffs of racing fuel, rubber and grease, but filtered to remove totally all fresh vegetable and meat smells.
Human smells, for heaven’s sake.
But despite all this ignorance and denial, there are a few genuine nose freaks out here willing to sell the house in pursuit of things that smell good. Like fine food, fine perfume and fine wine. It’s a shock to most folks to discover that the most expensive of all these things, the rarities in the greatest demand, are the ones which smell like the most intimate bits of humans.
Truffles, morels, fresh oysters, malossol caviar, ripe creamy cheese, smoked salmon – these are the wicked foods. Mature champagne, the best Burgundies and Bordeaux reds are the wickedest wines. The compounds which give these exotica their unique, most desirable aromatics are often very similar in molecular structure to wonderful things called pheremones, which are airborne compounds similar to hormones. They trigger involuntary physiological reactions in creatures which may not always be aware of their smell. (3).
Not all pheremones work in overtly sexual ways. Scientists in the UK, for example, are synthesising one which appears to settle agitated people down. Called Osmone 1, this molecule of steroid musk, shaped very much like the hormone testosterone, is also closely related to five-alpha-androstenone, linked in turn to boarfish, truffles, celery, parsley, cedar and sandalwood. They impregnate a little cube with it, so patients can sniff it at will.
It seems likely to be used in the place of calmative, hypnotic and sedative drugs. The best description of the smell? In this concentration, clean mother’s breast, or armpit. Lovely soft, creamy flesh. The smell of great aged merlot from Chateau Petrus.
There are other wines which smell like high concentrations of androstenone, as it approaches the musky, urinous fragrance of sweat and sex. Some great champagnes smell like pyrroline, the smell of carob beans, semen, corn on the cob, persimmons and caviar.
A smell like that of isovaleric acid, one of the most womanly aromas, can hike the price of a great Burgundian Pinot noir into the nether regions. Paraaminobenzoic acid, the most prominent smell of many skin creams and hair conditioners, occurs naturally between your toes in the most secret ceases of your skin, and has very close parallels in some of the finest and most expensive wines.
MAX SCHUBERT, CREATOR OF GRANGE, USED TO STROKE HIS MIGHTY HOOTER AND MURMER "DON'T WORRY PHILIP, I'M ALL IN PROPORTION."
So. You see why we play these wine games, eh? Good.
All this excitement is enhanced by the knowledge of the machinery of smelling. Think of your nerves. Every nerve ending in your body is thoroughly shielded, carefully packed away to prevent the sort of pain you get when this shield is broken by a razor or waddy. But there behind your honker lie 20 million stark naked nerve endings, swaying like seagrass in a thin layer of mucous, their short roots poking straight through into your brain.
An aromatic tickle of these can bring back the most vivid memories of childhood, the most sensuously erotic imaginings, terrible hunger, or the name, vintage and maker of a wine you drank with your Mum on the beach at Victor in the spring of 1967. And we’ve been trained to shun them.
After the weirdo Samurai writer Mishima ritually disembowelled himself twenty years ago in Japan, curiosity led me to study his warrior’s meditative breathing technique. It changed my life, because in it I discovered that our noses smell too when we breathe out.
In the west, we think to smell is to inhale, short, sharp and simple, and we believe a breath first involves inhaling, then exhaling. We start it empty and dead; there is a typically brief western climax, then we finish it empty and dead.
Mishima taught it the other way round. You start on the plateau, packed full of life and air, and gradually force it out, carefully examining your exhalation for the smells of yourself. These will include the food and wine in your belly; the smell of your blood. Empty? Pause and consider. Here is the typically inscrutable eastern anti-climax. With careful practise, this becomes the point at which you can fall asleep at will.
But then you inhale, filling yourself with new life and wonder and the smells of all that surrounds you. Put a glassful of immaculate twenty year old fermented grape juice which reeks of all your favourite things in there with everything else, and you begin to wonder whether something went wrong with poor old Mishima’s nose. Full of fresh air and bouquet now? Good. Pause and consider. Here endeth the lesson.
Unless, like me, you want to do it all again. Architecture? Deodorant? Order? Give me a smelly old romp in the primordial swamp any day of the week. And let’s discuss the smells, all the smells, as we go.
1 - METHOXYPYRAZINE
This compound is produced by cabernet sauvignon and sauvignon blanc – and some other grapes - to deter predators which might damage the grape before its seed is ready to germinate. Once the seed is ready to germinate, the grape ceases to produce methoxypyrazine and acid, and instead produces sugar, which is an attractor. In the case of the cabernet, the berry even changes colour, from the green which usually indicates tart bitterness, to a pretty, bright red-purple. The predator eats the berry, and by the time its stool emerges, the seed has sprouted. Methoxypyrazine is the prominent smell in tomato leaf, pea shells and bean skins. It occurs in many grasses, often alongside oxalic acid. When these grasses are dried and oxidised, as in hessian or burlap sacks, their aroma is like the methoxypyrazine in a slightly oxidised wine. I find it highly attractive.
2 – SWEET, SOUR, SALT AND BITTER
We have known since the 1940s that the standard school map of the human tongue, with distinct areas each designated to detect one of these basic flavours, is balderdash. We also know that the human mouth can detect many other things. Chilli, for example. Water. And, of course glutamates, or umami. To investigate this, track the world’s leading expert on glutamate receptors, Professor Nairupa Chaduri at the University of Florida Miami.
3 – PHEREMONES
While many pheremones have no discernable aroma, they are frequently accompanied by other animal excretions that do have distinct aromas, which, when inhaled and detected, trigger an involuntary anticipatory excitement in the receiver. Pheremones have their own detector, in the nose, but separate from the aromatic olfactories. These are tiny tear-duct-like openings on either side of the septum, just a short distance up the nostrils, called Jacobson’s Organ. Their signals travel to a completely different part of the brain to that which receives aromatic signals.