posted by Dan in Guest Bloggers, Wine
This post is an open invitation to Biophysicist Luca Turin to visit Napa Valley and help us understand the sense of smell. During my previous holiday, I read Chandler Burr’s thrilling tale of Turin’s quest to convince the world how the sense of smell actually works. In The Emperor of Scent, Burr tells the story of the “last mystery of the senses.” For many, the sense of smell is explained by the “shapist” theory which states, smell works when two pieces of a puzzle fit properly together, i.e. your smell receptors and the aroma molecules. [Very similar to how our digestive system works.] Turin, however, argues that this is not always the case and lists countless examples of similar shaped molecules with different aromas and the same aroma having many possible shapes. In contrast, Turin resurrects a paper written in the first half of the 20th century that throws a new theory into the science of smell, vibration. According to vibrational theory, aromas are acknowledged when vibrational frequencies are recognized under a nasal spectrometer. [Note: This happens to be the hardest part of Turin’s theory to believe, because spectrometers have been a tremendous benefit to science and can costs tens of thousands of dollars to build; whereas, Turin believes our noses contain them in our own flesh and blood.]
I am not going to argue Turin’s theory, although I believe in its simplicity and lofty romanticism. Think of an ocean, still and calm. In a solemn, peaceful state, you smell nothing. A moment later the wind turns the water over and it comes crashing down and we are immediately filled with the scents of briny, blue and green water in turmoil. Similar a glass of wine that is set to rest will not present itself if you stick your nose inside the bowl, but give it it a whirl and you will release the countless aromas with every turn. As varying as tomato leaf, tobacco, black olive, blackberry, blackcurrant, bramble, eucalyptus, cherry, or liquorice for Cabernet. Or the green apple, grapefruit, lemon, lime, honey, melon, quince, hazelnuts and/or figs of Chardonnay. One grape, many descriptors. Of course the countless years or chemical research of the grape can answer why, but we’ll leave that to another post, along with the combination of soil (i.e. terroir), rootstock, clone and weather during a vintage year and, not to forget, the varying vinification processes. But what attracts me is not only Turin’s theory but also the man himself, more specifically how his nose spews emotion through his pen.
Turin grew up in France enamored with the sense of smell, particularly the smells of perfume. He became a sought after consultant to many of the top Parisian perfume houses because he published an independent guide to their scents. For many a wine critic, one can understand the vintage year, the grapes grown on a particular vineyard site made by the hand of a producer who has done the job for years and for years before him or her their father or mother produced wine from those vines. Command C, copy, Command V, paste. For the lovers of perfume the choice influencer’s were dealt on index cards written by copy editors and advertising executives. As an independent reviewer, Turin’s little guide began to define perfume as an experience (as wine should be). He writes of Guerlain’s Vetiver:
One of the rare perfumes so named that do not betray the character of this uncompromising raw material, Vetiver is a temperament as much as it is a perfume, above all when it is worn by a woman. Stoic and discreet, Vetiver scorns all luxury save that of its own proud solitude. At the same time distant and perfectly clear, it must be worn muted and must never allow itself to be sensed except at the instant of a kiss.
From a non-partisan, non-benefiter of the profits of the sale of Guerlain’s Vetiver, this is clearly the most ethereal copy ever written and could easily sell countless bottles of the seductive elixir until all the resources of vetiver in India are ripped from the soil and decimated before a replant can take hold. Turin also did his fair share of chastising the traditional fashion houses for taking the easiest and cheapest road to re-inventing the classics. He had no allegiance, but to his nose.
And thankfully, to us wine lovers, there are a handful of passages in the pages of the book where Burr recounts stories of Turin’s love of Sauternes. Speaking of a 1959 Rieussec:
Sauternes are very saturnine, a honeyed summery exterior covering a late November liquid. There are three elements – a beeswax, a woody, and a floral banana – with a perfect balance between extreme acidity and huge, heavy, oily sweetness, like a blend of jasmine and musk. A great Sauternes is a perfectly proportioned thing. The ’59, in a bottle for 40 years, comes out the way James Bond emerges from a wet suit in a perfect tuxedo. It looks at you and murmurs, “What kept you?”
If I wasn’t sitting in a coffee shop in Brooklyn, I’d love to compare this to, say Michael Broadbent’s description of Rieussec from his Vintage Wine book. But I can’t so I will recite Wine Spectator’s copy for the 2001 Rieussec which it awarded 100 points and #1 wine in its 2004 Top Wines of the Year:
Like lemon curd on the nose, turning to honey and caramel. Full-bodied and very sweet, with fantastic concentration of ripe and botrytized fruit, yet balanced and refined. Electric acidity. Lasts for minutes on the palate. This is absolutely mind-blowing. This is the greatest young Sauternes I have ever tasted.
This sounds like every other review that James Suckling has ever written. Luca, there is a ticket with your name on it, please, come visit!