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FrontRunners: The Nose Doesn't Know

Sheila J. Gibson

Try this little experiment at your next wine party: Disguise a white Bordeaux as a red by adding a few drops of odorless food coloring. Serve the impostor vintage to your guests and ask them to describe its bouquet. Note the words they use: Do they liken it to honey, straw, or apricots— “yellow” flavors associated with white wines? Or do they compare it to “red” flavors such as raspberries, red currants, or tobacco?

If they sniff out the white in red’s clothing, compliment them and serve them only the best from now on, because a recent scientific study shows that most noses will not know. Gil Morrot and his colleagues at the National Institute for Agronomic Research in Montpellier, France, devised this test after analyzing the vocabulary wine experts use when describing a wine’s complex scent. They found only one clear pattern: Wines were consistently compared to things that were similar in color. Morrot and his team wondered if this showed that the brain might have trouble with disentangling different types of sensory information, if seeing red means smelling red.

The researchers tested this notion by asking 54 undergraduates to first sniff genuine red and white Bordeaux, then a genuine white and a white dyed red. The students were fooled by the tainted white, invariably describing it in “red” language.

Morrot claims these results show that “olfactory descriptions are completely subjective” and that our sense of smell cannot be separated from our other senses. Some might discount his results because he tested college students rather than wine experts. But Stephen Williams, founder of the Antique Wine Co. of Great Britain, was not surprised by the findings. “Yes, I’d go along with that,” he says, adding, “I think all the senses are interconnected and can’t be separated.”

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