30 December 2021. At 2 AM, in the frigid dark and rather drunk, I am stumbling across a dirt road with my brother and cousin, trying to get home after a night of jovial drinks and conversation at our elderly neighbors’. This rather arbitrary night changed my entire attitude towards wine, which I had never previously cared about or enjoyed in my life.
The night before, having just arrived at our grandfather’s holiday home in the Harghita Mountains of Transylvania, we went over to say hi to a dear friend of his. János Kiss, a forceful and affable man with a perfectly trimmed white mustache, runs a charming hillside bed and breakfast with his wife, Marika. He is also a winemaker for over 40 years.
As we settled around their dinner table, he urged us to try some of his wine from the famed Hungarian wine region of Tokaj. He seemed particularly proud of that bottle and was convinced we’d love it — and oh we did. It was a white wine rich in fragrance and flavor. We praised it to the point that he felt compelled to invite us over for a private wine tasting the next evening. He explained he had dozens of bottles: several vintages from various kinds of grapes, all made in Tokaj, all right there in his cellar.
The following evening, we are the only guests in their diner; it is private indeed. Marika arranges plates of cold cuts, cheese, and fruits on the table — anything the alcohol-infused palate could desire. János brings out the first wine, then the second, then the third, and soon enough, we’re in a lively conversation about viniculture. As bottles get opened one after another, we gain more and more insight into the profound human element and intricate science of winemaking. János is a master storyteller. His love and passion for his craft are infectious and instantly unlock this unexplored corner of our lives.
Suddenly, it clicks: wine is f*cking amazing! The cultural, the scientific, the sensory experience; there’s nothing like it. After 15 glasses and some of the most open, meaningful conversations about life (he’s over 40 years our senior, after all), we leave bewildered about our prior prejudice. It’s one of those defining moments when you sense a nagging tension inside you, a strange rift with your previous self: how could I be so ignorant about wine?
17 June 2022. After months of amateur wine education through books, articles, videos, and (quite a few) bottles, we are attending an intense beginner’s wine-tasting course in Budapest. Our intention is singular: to finally grasp how complex aromas can be smelled and tasted in wine. Because, at last, we grew frustrated with the familiar paradigm: the ostentatious wine expert sniffing and tasting a glass of wine, pondering for a moment, and coming up with the most absurd description of what it smells and tastes like. But when we were giving it a shot, all we could taste was wine! Not the ‘the tip of a freshly shaved pencil,’ not the ‘crushed volcanic soil.’
So the expert says: “Give it enough practice. You’ll find it.” So we wanted practice — a guided education — to begin sensing the complexity of aromas. Eventually, we did. But we also gained something much more valuable. We realized that consciously tasting wine truly enriches life. Wine is enveloped in captivating interdisciplinarity, and its complexity can help us earn a revived cognizance of our senses, making wine one of the most uniquely human concepts. Let me explain.
The fascinating interdisciplinarity of winemaking
Drinking wine is a gorgeous affair: the rituality of our movements, the serenity of our glass, the gift to our senses, and even the slight neurological stupor. Personally, however, what I love about wine is its complexity. Wine has an almost singular place both in our culture and in our special senses. No drink has had a more prominent role in Western history. No drink has so permanently entwined its essence with the ancient Mediterranean and Christian sacrality¹. This yielded European winemaking a traditional social framework that is beautifully evident in the communities of wine regions:
“There can be so much love and attachment to the soil, to nature, to the [winemakers] and their parents’ place of birth, or to the wine’s place of birth. It’s self-sacrifice, essentially. A person sacrifices himself to their craft,” expresses the idea the Hungarian wine and spirit expert Kristian Kielmayer in our interview. “And figuratively, the grape also sacrifices itself, its juice becoming alcohol through fermentation. It gives its blood as it’s pressed.”
Through our species’ planetary exploration, this love and self-sacrifice eventually reached most temperate climates around the world, further diversifying the craft and the resultant human experience².
Nowadays, winemaking embraces the exciting interdisciplinarity of its science: from the geology and climatology of viticulture to the ecology and biology of its agricultural ecosystem³⁴⁵⁶. Even the grapes’ fermentation, the wine’s aging, and everything in-between involve a complex array of techniques from microbiology to chemical engineering⁷⁸.
And lastly, other human beings — the consumers — must accurately assess that wine so it can carve out a niche in the market and provide a livelihood for its producers. Only then will it reach our glasses and special senses, where the undiscovered mystery lies.
Deliberate tasting opens up a new sensory world
I recently went through COVID-induced temporary loss of smell. My experience undeniably confirms that our sense of smell is essential for our quality of life. My days felt substantially blander, as if a dimension of wonder was permanently missing. Entering a buzzing kitchen was entirely scentless: no cinnamon sweetness, frying garlic, or poignant curry. My favorite foods lacked all their comforting taste and instead were unidimensional: only sweet, sour, or salty. It was like seeing a world without color or hearing music with no rhythm. Then, as my smell finally returned, I was utterly eager to smell and taste even the most mundane things. Oh, and they were magnificent!
The recovery from temporary loss of smell is similar to the learning curve of wine tasting. We begin with a meager collection of aromas we recognize, but with time and practice, newer and newer flavors open up to us. This expands our repertoire of sensations and, along with it, our sense of wonder in the world. In the case of wine, the 10,000 or so grape varieties, countless terroirs, and inventive techniques confer an astounding range of flavors*.
Primary aromas come from the grape itself: its skin, flesh, seeds, and stem. Every grape variety has an intrinsic, signature flavor: a unique mix of fruity, vegetal, and floral notes. Secondary aromas arise during the fermentation process by yeast, which metabolize the grape’s sugar into ethanol and create an endless variety of aromatic by-products. Finally, tertiary aromas originate from the aging process, which is carried out in reductive containers (with no oxygen) or oxidative barrels (in the presence of oxygen).
“There are so many kinds of flavors […] No fruit could result in such a detailed alcoholic drink with fermentation as grapes,” explains Gergő Ripka, wine expert and author of the award-winning book Tokaj Guide. ”Even though I’ve been tasting 1000–1500 wines every year for almost 10 years now, I still feel that I have incomplete spots and ambiguities.”
Yes, aromas are reallythat complex. Uslaypeople just can’t sense and recognize most of them. But we still have an astonishing brain with the capacity to mold itself to our needs. Our olfactory and gustatory cortices (which process and integrate what we smell and taste) can increase in size and become more refined in function⁹¹⁰. They can develop greater connectivity not only within themselves but also with other parts of the brain¹¹¹². Thus, our olfaction is just not adequately trained for wine tasting¹³:
”Our sense of smell and taste is dulled by our urban lifestyle. We feel something in the wine, it’s on the tip of our tongue, but we don’t exactly know what it is,” adds Gergő. “But this can be developed. It is refined if wine, perfume, or other complex fragrances belong to our profession.”
Most of us have the inner capacity to distinguish countless more flavors than we can right now. But to do so, we must exercise our nose by consciously smelling and tasting literally everything we come across in the natural world. (That’s fun training if you ask me.) The more we train our olfaction and gustation, the broader the pool of sensory information that reaches us, and the greater the world we can grasp and comprehend. Something previously hidden right in front of our noses becomes conscious and perceptible. Just like I became exalted as I regained my sense of smell, so can you achieve new dimensions of wonder by beginning to identify more and more flavors in your environment.
And why access them through wine? Because it was wine that introduced me to this beautiful new sensory dimension. And because it’s complex and variable enough for you to learn through it. Plus, if you love wine and aim to be good at tasting it, you will enjoy the process more. Your potential journey is also manifested in the life of wine experts. To be outstanding at their occupation, they had to consciously smell and taste absolutely everything in their environment, countless times. Only then could they discern those aromas in wine, which, if successful, compelled them to experiment further with the smells around them and taste even more wine. Just imagine the sensory abundance in their lives!
Fortunately, admission into this olfactory dimension also goes through coffee, spirits, tea, or perfumes, which have similarly complex aromatics that experts must learn. Aromatics that you can learn too. Kristian, for example, chuckles at his first realization about the lovely aromatics of coffee:
“I have already been working in the wine industry, so I understood the sensory aspects of wine, but all the coffees I had tasted were just bitter and awfully bad. And once, we were in Reykjavik, and as we were coming down from the church, my wife suggested we have a coffee. I only wanted a cinnamon roll, but she convinced me to have a coffee.”
He continues: “And suddenly, as if Thor had hit me in the head with his hammer, I was completely dumbfounded! It was just an espresso, but it had acidity, it had fruity notes; I began smelling berries. It was fresh, lemony, smoky as well… there were a lot of things in it. I was stunned. What kind of stuff did they put in it? And I said, ‘oh my God, is this coffee? Can coffee be like this? Wow, it’s exciting!’ “And so I started working with coffee too. I’m driven to flavors, aromas, and experiences. I thank my tasting and smelling experiences to wine.”
It’s no coincidence that every wine expert I have met has developed a passion for aromas and has also ventured into tasting spirits or coffee — as a hobby or side profession. Through their refined noses, they have a completely different way of interacting with their surroundings. It’s analogous to those working in other professions who must also rely on their special senses:
”I can imagine it’s similar to how you look at and observe things in fine arts, for example: in music, painting, or photography.” proposes Kristian. “The artists’ senses are fine-tuned. So are the chefs’, with their sense of taste.”
In each example, practice bestows a different way of seeing the world: a unique artistic representation, or an unfiltered comprehension of the sensory amalgam.
Deliberate tasting is mindful
Mindfulness meditation is a careful concentration on your current sensory experience. It is finding your breath and focusing on its sensation in your body. It is consciously observing the sounds in your meditation environment and being accepting of them. It is noticing the feelings arising in your body and thereby removing their sway over you. Hence, I argue that wine tasting is an exercise in mindfulness.
During wine tasting, our complete focus on our sensations roots us firmly in the present. We consciously center our cognitive energy on the elaborate details of the incoming stimuli. We actively search and try to connect it to our repository of previous sensations. We attempt to objectively recognize what we are sensing. We smell and taste to simply feel that sensation, not to subjectively label that feeling as good or bad, or to satisfy an inner desire for pleasure, but to be consciously immersed in the transience of the experience. To be mindful of the wine’s flavors in the here and now, knowing that the bottle in front of us is entirely unique, and we could never encounter its sensory richness again outside this present moment. I believe that concentrating on wine’s aromas can free us from the never-ending mind-wandering and rumination that our modern, interconnected lives burden us with, even if for just a moment. And our brain’s well-being is rewarded for it.
Deliberately smelling prepares you for more memories
And how enchanting it is to be unexpectedly swept up by emotions and transported to a long-forgotten place from our past, all through a single whiff of a scent! Emotional memories of this kind are strongly coupled to our olfaction through an evolutionary brain circuit more ancient than that for any other special sense¹⁴. Olfaction doesn’t go through modulation in our midbrain (like our other senses) before reaching the cortex¹⁵. Instead, olfaction heads straight to our consciousness. And our limbic system immediately associates a scent with emotional memories that can inundate you in the most innocuous settings.
These memories are vital for a well-lived and well-remembered life. And the better our sense of smell, and the more scents we are able to recognize, the more profound and frequent these memories are. Otherwise, how would a flirty perfume at a party bring you back to that time you were up in the castle of Lisbon, where the flower it’s made from grows, if you hadn’t put your nose up in it? It’s analogous to trying to learn a new word without knowing the actual concept it refers to in the world. But these arbitrary olfactory memories should be cherished because they are valuable aspects of our emotional lives. And it’s very easy to miss out on them. So smell things. And make olfactory memories. They will undoubtedly kindle you to marvel more at the wonders in your life. As Gergő puts it beautifully:
“Everyone remembers the scent of their first love. Everyone remembers the smell of their childhood room. Everyone remembers the smell of their grandmother’s apricot jam. Scents have an amazingly powerful subconscious effect on us, sometimes surprisingly so, but everyone has experienced […] that nostalgic childhood memory just flooding back. And these memories carry us through our lives; they are so important.”
So if you have never enjoyed wine, (or never to this obsessive extent), or are ignorant and prejudiced like I was, give it another chance. Try consciously tasting it, attend a course, and allow yourself to have that defining moment. There’s so much intriguing work and remarkable complexity behind that bottle in your pantry. Learn its history, immerse yourself into its sensory richness, and let it enrich your life. Let it open the door to a sensory world you have kept unexplored.
Acknowledgments to Kristian Kielmayer and Gergő Ripka for their time, and to Nándor Darabán, Nicholas Accattatis, Derrick Chang, and Zsuzsánna Boni for their valuable feedback and editing.
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