“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 September 2015


The Dodgy Bros.: Wes Pearson, Peter Somerville and Peter Bolte ... image from their website

As sensory science accelerates one wonders how emotion and mood affects wine enjoyment

Wes Pearson just called by. Wes is a sensory scientist at the Australian Wine Research Institute. He makes the cheeky Dodgy Bros wines after-hours. 

They're the ones with the upside-down labels.

Wes has one working eye. I have a weird form of colourblindness. We laughed about how differently-abled people regard us as handicapped, and therefore dodgy to a degree, and marveled at the unfolding science of human sensory perception, how it varies from one to another, and how each individual reacts differently to the same flavours at different times.

In one of those brief conversations that I was tempted to record and transcribe, but rather let flow, we sat on the veranda and spoke of how much humans have learned about our organoleptic abilities in the last fifty years.

This lode of discovery seems to magnify at an exponential pace.

In the gloaming, we looked out over Ayers Flat past Mt Bold to the Ranges, watching the mists slide from the uplands down Dashwood Gully toward the Gulf St Vincent, all the way through the Onkaparinga Gorge. I got the feeling Wes got the feeling that this whole Fred McCubbin motion-painting thing we were in was really a movie of smell.

The gloaming: from Ironheart Cottage ... photo Philip White
Having followed the frontline of such science as best I can amateurishly do, I can vouch that in the last seven or eight years, the advancements in the understanding of our organoleptic senses has been phenomenal. Like out there.

When I lived on the edge of the big Yangarra farmyard, I knew there was a biodynamic cycles calendar in the vineyard shed. I taste wine every morning. Some mornings it just won't work. Different times I'd have my nose to the winestone, sniffing to no avail: my receptors were down. The wines were not singing, talking or even mumbling. I don't hit this panic too often, mind you, but when I let it settle I'd wander over to check the calendar in the shed and most times it turned out to be what the biodynamicists call a 'root day.'

Biodynamicists don't trust their noses on root days. Hardcore bio-d leaders won't move wine, rack barrels or even drink wine on root days. I'm cool with that. No skin off anybody else's nose. I have no idea how this moon cycle system can work. I want to know. My brain is hungry for the science.

Emotion changes my organoleptic sensibility. There are those moments when the past sweeps in and an overwhelming wave dumps you or a seeping insidious weep comes under the door to rot your feet and you take to a good consoling chair and the way you understand the wine in your glass will change with your mood.

Lately, partly due to the cabin fever the winter brings, the spirits of many departed friends swoop by at random. Mood spooks. Depending on whose it is and how it got into my hand and what happened a wine can explode like a windscreen in my face. Or it can slump into the deepest swampy blues in E minor, depending ...

The prettiest florals can leap from a fresh Riesling, like, speckling dots of colour on the brain like the trippy pointillism of Seurat. On a good spring day, every single one of those thousands of dots will bring its own brilliant fragrance. Bach French Suite No. 5, Gigue. Bung James Rhodes on here, and let him go.

photo by Philip White

One day we will learn about how memory, mood and grief administer our ability to smell. 

What joy has to do with it; music and light. How the vibrating patterns of leafy shadows can make mellow reds look edgy; how a fudgy muddy day can make them seem as soft and sure and warming as a mother one minute, then lose the bloom when those blues move to the grey and gloom of some old memory rotting on the Lakes.

Milang, Lake Alexandrina, Murray River estuary, South Australia ... photo Philip White

I took quite some flak in the 'eighties, when I suggested that before too long we'd prove that the body monitors and manages its organs through its constant analysis of its exhalations. Like, we smell when we breathe out, just as much as we do breathing in. We have never been trained to notice this. My point being that the exhalation is actually the smell of our blood coming fresh from our damp lungs. 

Why wouldn't our clever little noses be analysing this?

Whenever I wake, which I hope to continue to do, before I open my eyes I analyse my first exhalations. This teaches me what to expect, because of what I have done. What I have or have not put in there.  

After each inhalation, that moist mixture of the scent of the blood, the food, the wine, with all we've inhaled, including the pheromones on the air, and those we've exuded ourselves, passes from our lungs through the aromatic receptors in that mess of bone behind the pineal gland and then down the nostrils, and guess what? After all that opportunity for analysis, before its escape, the last receptor that exhalation passes is the Jacobsen's organ: the two tiny holes - one on each side of the septum - that are our pheromone receptors. These pack their collected samples past the olfactory cortex - where the other organs send the smells - straight through the olfactory bulb to the hypothalamus, the mixing deck of our neuroendocrine system. 

Different path. Different destination. Anything can happen there. Like lust, for starters.

Not only have these heretical notions edged toward proven reality, but great organoleptic scientists like Dr Hanns Hatt (below) and his Ruhr University Buchum team in Germany have gove well beyond, discovering olfactory receptors all over the human body. Hatt reports smell and flavour receptors in our hearts, lungs, livers and brains - all our major organs. Which includes the testes and that biggest organ of them all: our skin.

Which partly explains the way we feel places, like great vineyards, or that rolling wall of aroma and weather that entertained Wes and I on the veranda.

Such discoveries are much easier tracked since the advent of the internet, which I'm sure helps their incidence accelerate. It seems a lifetime ago that I first began to unlock the web's wonder to discover the radical work of Nirupa Chaudhari and her team at University of Miami, Florida, when she demolished the old school map of the zones of the tongue -- those neatly-segmented bits that detected sweet, sour, salt and bitter -- by finding complicated receptors all over the place, including a system custom-built to recieve monosodium glutamate, the perfectly natural umami flavour and texture which makes everything else taste and feel better.

Nirupa Chaudhari PhD, professor of physiology and biophysics with her husband and research colleague, Stephen D. Roper PhD, professor of physiology and biophysics, at the Miller School of Medicine, where they work at the Univeristy of Miami

Since its discovery by Professor Kikunae Ikeda in Japan 1908, the concept of umami as MSG had been ridiculed by the west, as its physiologists and neurologists had maintained that as this stuff works like WD40 in the brain we could not possibly detect it in such concentration or we'd fuse our neurones. Not only did Chaudhari discover the protein filter in the MSG receptors in the human tongue, but we also know now that the glutamates occur naturally in many great wines.

That's a turn-on.

The implications of all these variables and all those billions humans spend on sensory titillation have yet to be understood. Apply the science of such variables to the phenomenon of the wine show system and you're floundering. Why do I feel so uncomfortable in a wine judging room? Because it smells and feels like aggressive foreign chaos.

Apply all this to pheromones and the way they influence other people's receptors and mob behaviour and we're only just starting.

We marvelled at the astonishing amount of human sensory data the Wine Research Institute has assembled over these recent years, and the power it could have if scientifically mined for information and patterns we haven't even realised we need to understand. 

Next time I'll turn the recorder on.

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