“Sod the wine, I want to suck on the writing. This man White is an instinctive writer, bloody rare to find one who actually pulls it off, as in still gets a meaning across with concision. Sharp arbitrage of speed and risk, closest thing I can think of to Cicero’s ‘motus continuum animi.’

Probably takes a drink or two to connect like that: he literally paints his senses on the page.”

DBC Pierre (Vernon God Little, Ludmila’s Broken English, Lights Out In Wonderland ... Winner: Booker prize; Whitbread prize; Bollinger Wodehouse Everyman prize; James Joyce Award from the Literary & Historical Society of University College Dublin)





09 October 2013


How much of what John Keats smelled can be smelled today?

Maybe it's all just a vibe man
Aroma as music smells cool  
Receptors in wedding tackle

With all this panic and palaver about climate change reaching whatever disastrous point it has reached and Australia now looking suspiciously like the only joint on Earth which officially hasn't noticed anything strange in spite of records of extreme weather and climate tumbling almost by the day, with bushfires and floods and everything, I find most confronting the notion that the distinctive aromas of whole swathes of country are changing without us having any record of how they once smelled.

We don't really know how to record it.

This is happening as the extant Anthropocene flora changes with the climate.  It serves to illustrate a long-held belief that as far as senses go, aroma is still stupidly overlooked.  If such a radical change occurred visually, as in the destruction of an historical precinct, or sonically, as in rock music being played too loudly somewhere, 24/7, we have laws to point straight at the problem, and severe people wearing uniforms to put things back they way they were. Or at least attempt to put an end to the change until we have a big meeting to work things out. But a whole forest can suddenly begin to smell different because the actual plants are in trouble, before we've even worked out a way of recording how it once smelled. 

Which means your kids won't smell what you once smelled. 

Many kids don't even get the chance to slop around in swampy ground anymore ... this is the creek through the old John Reynell vineyard that Constellation smothered with a subdivision once they'd got the heritage classification lifted and pulled the vineyard out photo Kate Elmes

I've always thought that most humans have their aroma vocabulary pretty well set by the age of eight or nine years.  Smells I can easily recall from my childhood in the Strezlecki Ranges in the fifties are no longer familiar to most people.  Like who knows the smell of junket, the whiff of the smithy, or the smell of sweaty timber-cutters?  Over-ripe apples and pears softening alongside onions in their reused superphosphate hessian sacks in the woodshed?  Cowshit and milk? Silage and Clydesdale breath? Hot coal-burning steam locomotives? 

evocative aromas : the Duke of Edinburgh hissing at Port of Goolwa photo Philip White

Those very earthy aromas aside, this writer came to the world of wine partly through an interest in the power of perfume.  Confected fragrances caught the attention of these nostrils early on, and mixed with those 'fifties farm smells, the wonderful evocations such contrived aromas can trigger seemed to segue neatly into the wonders of the smells of wine.

It's been fascinating to watch the science of smell evolve for forty years or so, but still very frustrating that we haven't really got very far with it.

One fascinating piece of work is that of Richard Newcomb of the New Zealand Institute for Plant and Food Research (NZIPFR), who set out to link the way we smell different aromas to our genetics. Newcomb's team have pin-pointed the genetic mutations that determine, for example, the way we smell violets.  This came about through his extensive study of insects, which smell through their antennae.

“We thought there was an opportunity to help our food industries better target their foods to people that might appreciate them more,” NZIPFR announced.  Newcomb hoped that by studying the different ways certain genetic groups appreciate the aromas of food, they could more accurately target certain food products at markets more likely to appreciate them.

But while this research seemed to readily establish that most New Zealand folks generally have similar reactions to malt, apples and blue cheese, just for example, the reaction altered chaotically once the study was extended to wider genetic databases, leaving Newcomb and his team more aware than most of us just how differently different people smell stuff.

And this research concentrated on only ten very basic aroma groups.

Meanwhile, Jason Castro, a neuroscientist at Bates College in Maine, has been attempting to pare back the mess of language we use to talk about smell.  English has no vocabulary specific to aroma, so we use simile and metaphor, and as any regular reader of this column may appreciate, such vagary can easily get quite fruity and purple when well-intentioned prose develops dangerous poetic presumptions as a particularly good bottle wanes.

Many South Australian Shiraz wines smell true to their repeating geology
Aroma scientists seem envious of the neat allocations used by taste experts. Rightly or wrongly, we seem determined that our mouths can detect only five tastes: sweet, sour, salt, bitter and umami.  With that in mind, Castro and his team have attempted to trim a thirty-year-old database of 144 major odours back to just ten basic categories, based on language.

“It's sort of like what's happening when you compress an image or audio file,” Castro said.   “You dump all the redundant stuff and keep only the most essential information.”

By essential information, he's got his list down to "fragrant, woody/resinous, minty/peppermint, sweet, chemical, popcorn, lemon, fruity (non-citrus), pungent and decayed ... For any given odor, we can assign it to one of 10 of these perceptual buckets.”

Castro's logic has aromas like lavender, soap and cologne officially herded into the "fragrant" corral; fresh-cut grass and mushrooms in the "woody/resinous" group; eucalyptus, camphor and tea leaves to the "minty/peppermint" list, and so on.

While admirers of these efforts liken the results to the development of the flavour wheel for tastes, writers with the sort of dangerous poetical bent John Keats displayed in his ode To Autumn revile the damned things as stupidly restrictive.

To Autumn

Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness,
Close bosom-friend of the maturing sun;
Conspiring with him how to load and bless
With fruit the vines that round the thatch-eaves run;
To bend with apples the moss'd cottage-trees,
And fill all fruit with ripeness to the core;
To swell the gourd, and plump the hazel shells
With a sweet kernel; to set budding more,
And still more, later flowers for the bees,
Until they think warm days will never cease,
For Summer has o'er-brimm'd their clammy cells.

Who hath not seen thee oft amid thy store?
Sometimes whoever seeks abroad may find
Thee sitting careless on a granary floor,
Thy hair soft-lifted by the winnowing wind;
Or on a half-reap'd furrow sound asleep,
Drows'd with the fume of poppies, while thy hook
Spares the next swath and all its twinéd flowers:
And sometimes like a gleaner thou dost keep
Steady thy laden head across a brook;
Or by a cyder-press, with patient look,
Thou watchest the last oozings hours by hours.

Where are the songs of Spring? Ay, where are they?
Think not of them, thou hast thy music too,—
While barréd clouds bloom the soft-dying day,
And touch the stubble-plains with rosy hue;
Then in a wailful choir the small gnats mourn
Among the river sallows, borne aloft
Or sinking as the light wind lives or dies;
And full-grown lambs loud bleat from hilly bourn;
Hedge-crickets sing; and now with treble soft
The red-breast whistles from a garden-croft;
And gathering swallows twitter in the skies.

John Keats

Following decades of work studying the composition of distant stars by manipulating then measuring their vibration, or sound, other scientists are doing much more exciting stuff.

Also released in essential journal, PLOS One, another USA team is working on the 1996 suggestion that molecular vibrations, rather than molecular shape, are responsible for how we smell things. Left sit for decades, this hypothesis has been well and truly dusted off now, and it seems likely that by changing the arrangement of atoms and bonds within a molecule, its vibration can be altered while its shape remains the same, refuting the old belief that the latter always determined the smell.

nose from Gray's Anatomy, Descriptive and Surgical by Henry Gray

Somehow, it seems, our noses detect vibration, or music, and we turn this into what we call our sense of smell.  Music, of course, cannot be restricted to a flavour wheel of ten, 144 or even a million words, which looks good for those who are paid by the word.

Without extending this to wonder about the smell of distant stars, it does bring us back to the music of the spheres, and the most bizarre piece of gastronomic discovery of them all.

Proceedings Of The National Academy of Sciences recently published a paper impressively titled “Genetic loss or pharmacological blockade of testes-expressed taste genes causes male sterility,” which reveals that we have taste receptors in places far removed from our mouths, and that men have receptors for sweet and umami in their testicles.

It appears that in male mice, these receptors play a vital role in fertility.

While the implications for adult male humans remain vague thus far, this may explain the strange yearning I've sometimes had to hang my balls in a balloon glass of Domaine de la Romanée-Conti.

Insects, it seems, aren't the only critters with antennae. We've probly all got 'em. It's just that some of them are spherical in shape.

the barnyard smells of chooks and pigs are alien to many modern consumers

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