I am a good cook and have a reasonably good palate. But I’ve never been able to identify very many flavors in wine and can never remember any of them. This has always been something of a mystery to me. Scent, like music, which I also can’t remember, seems totally ephemeral to me. It wafts by, and there seems to be no structure of any kind on which I can attach it for a later revisit. It comes, and then it’s gone. Words and images, in contrast get attached to a web of other words and images in my mind, but smells just float on by. Clearly, my brain is wired differently from those who can recognize what they are smelling—and recall it.
In an attempt to understand how my brain is failing me, I did a little research. We’ve all heard the figure that 70-75% of taste is smell, but how exactly does it work?
It seems that the taste buds of the tongue and palate can only identify five basic tastes: salty, bitter, sweet, sour, and unami (described as a savory sensation). But when you chew, air is forced through your nasal passage and with it the food’s odor molecules; receptors in the nose then register their scent. These odors combined with the tastes identified by the taste buds make up what we call flavor. To see how much of the taste of the food is from smell, try eating something with a strong aroma and holding your nose. You can register a piece of fruit as sweet without your nose, but you can’t identify it beyond what it’s texture can tell you.
I wrote the essay about a visit to Napa, from which this question arose, for the NY Times Travel Section in 1995. Since then, my son—one of the two campers in the essay—has grown up to become a wine connoisseur; in fact, he has gone into the wine business. I should not be surprised. As a child he got a lot of information through his nose; if you handed him a new toy, he would usually smell it before playing with it. He is one of those people who can tell in a blind tasting what the grape composition is and where the wine was made, if not by whom and when. I watch him do this with complete incomprehension. He might as well be pulling rabbits from hats.
But, in fact, studies do show a lot of variety in our abilities to uses our senses. Only 70% of us can taste certain bitter flavors, and those of us who can, also find sweet things to be sweeter, hot things to be hotter, and other bitter flavors to be more bitter. Our taste buds are not all equal—and neither are our noses.