Recognising scents blindly is a difficult task for most people. This is because we are not used to using our sense of smell, and when we smell a portion of food or an apple, we often do so with our eyes (i.e. we recognise it by its appearance and not by its smell). This is why closing our eyes makes it difficult for most people to identify even the smell of an apple.
The poor use of the sense of smell also means that our spoken language does not have specific adjectives to describe a smell. Therefore, to describe an odour, we borrow adjectives for other senses (e.g. fresh, clean, pungent, soft, sweet), while sometimes, we try to associate it with different familiar smells and situations that we have already experienced (e.g. citrusy, spicy, earthy).
It is challenging to identify smells, not because our receptors do not work, but because the sense of smell is a sense that we train very little and we are not used to associating names with what we perceive: it is not possible to identify a smell if you have not smelt it before and if you have not given it a name. Think by the analogy of a music track that everyone can hear, but only people who know it can give it a title or think of an author.
This means that olfactory memory can be trained and thus greatly improved with practice over time.
When a sommelier or a taster sniffs or tastes a glass of wine, he does not know what aromas he will find in it and cannot ask for help from sight. This is why the task is difficult, and training is essential. Therefore should we expect sommeliers, after months and years of training, to have developed a greater olfactory capacity?
A study conducted in 2011 by the University of Padua (*) tries to answer this question.
The olfactory recognition abilities of four distinct groups of people were compared:
- wine enthusiasts (without specific education);
- students of the sommelier course in their second year;
- third-year sommelier course students;
- professional sommeliers.
The abilities of the four groups were compared on different olfactory recognition exercises. In the most interesting exercise, participants were asked to smell ten different typical wine odours (clove, lemon, orange, banana, mint, rose, cinnamon, leather, liquorice, tobacco) and to describe them.
The results on this exercise confirmed the expectations: the professional sommeliers scored, on average, twice as high as the simple enthusiasts, and the third-year students performed 50% better than the enthusiasts. In contrast, there was little difference between the simple enthusiasts and the second-year students, perhaps demonstrating that olfactory recognition skills develop over more extended periods of time and training.
Another study published in 2021 in North America (**) monitored the brain development of a group of sommelier course students for one and a half years. The magnetic resonance imaging analysis showed an increase in the olfactory bulb size during this period.
Therefore, there is no doubt that olfactory training changes us and helps us to enjoy food or tasting more, and in some cases, to 'enjoy' life.
To train your sense of smell, start sniffing your surroundings, participate in blind tastings, and use TasterPlace aromas.
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(*) Study Labelling, identification, and recognition of wine-relevant odourants in expert sommeliers, intermediates, and untrained wine drinkers. Perception, 2011, volume 40, pages 598 ^ 607
Department of General Psychology, Padua: Gesualdo M Zucco, Aurelio Carassai, Maria Rosa Baroni
Department of Psychology, Macquarie University, Sydney, Australia Richard J Stevenson
(**) Olfactory bulb volume and cortical thickness evolve during sommelier training. Gözde Filiz | Daphnée Poupon | Sarah Banks | Pauline Fernandez | Johannes Frasnelli