Scents and Sensibility: What the nose knows. (The New Yorker)

by John Lanchester

For years, ever since I started taking an interest in wine, I’ve been annoyed by the word “grainy.” It’s a word that mavens use in relation to red wines, and refers to certain types of tannin—the chemical that cures leather, is present in tea, and makes the mouth pucker. Tannin is a preservative and an important factor in the way wines age. Still, how could a liquid be “grainy”?

Then, a few nights ago, I opened a bottle of wine I’d been given, a Languedoc red called Le Pigeonnier, from the European heat-wave year of 2003, and, without concentrating very hard, took a sip, noticed something odd about the mouthfeel of the wine, and suddenly realized—bam!—that it was grainy. I’d found the famous grainy tannins, and the term actually made sense, because the wine definitely had a particulate, almost sandlike texture, not unpleasant, but distinctive. What’s more, in tasting it I realized that I’d encountered versions of it—milder, more restrained versions—before. Now I knew what grainy tannins were.

Most taste experiences work like that. A taste or a smell can pass you by, unremarked or nearly so, in large part because you don’t have a word for it; then you see the thing and grasp the meaning of a word at the same time, and both your palate and your vocabulary have expanded. One day, you catch the smell of gooseberries from a Sauvignon Blanc, or red currants from a Cabernet, or bubble gum from a Gamay, or horse manure from a Shiraz, and from that point on you know exactly what people mean when they say they detect these things. The smell of a “corked” bottle of wine, for instance, is something that, once it has been pointed out to you, you never forget.

(more. . . )