In Pursuit of Making Sense of our Sensory Perception of Scent

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GrapevineAs humans, we tend to think of ourselves as interacting with our surroundings through our five senses. But do we rely on certain senses more than others? Scientists have long known that humans can discern millions of different colors and a half-million different sounds. To a much lesser extent, we perceive the world around us through our five senses, including our generally accepted 10,000 perceptions of smell.

This week I’m delving into the experiences of the sense of smell as we encounter a glass of wine.

Several years ago, I read the results of a study released by Rockefeller University’s Laboratory of Neurogenetics. And I must say it was startling.

Part scientific chemical analyses and part mathematical extrapolations, the study concluded that our sense of smell is far greater than we imagined. They were able to determine that, through our 400 olfactory receptors, we are capable of detecting over one trillion fragrances and odors. The number boggles my mind.

Even accepting the results as scientific proof, how would I be able to discern a trillion separate, distinct, unique aromas? And trying to define each one? Seemingly impossible. The study would seem to agree. My conclusion is that there are almost limitless numbers of scents that abound around us. It is our lack of finite focus or lack of effort – or lack of interest? – in seeking them out that limits our sensory perception of the natural order.

The lesson to be learned here is for all of us to “wake up and smell the coffee” or “stop and smell the roses.”

Walk into your local café. As soon as you walk in the door, your olfactory senses detect “coffee.” But the coffee experience is just beginning. Along with my morning coffee, once a week I purchase coffee beans for my home brewing machine.

As I stand before the wall of containers of fresh beans at The Black Cow in Pleasantville, I sample the individual aromas of each variety and blend. It is here where the sensitivity of my DNA-generated sense of smell comes into play. One container of beans hits me in the face with aromas of pungent earthiness; the next may be milder, with just a hint of earthiness. The next set of aromas may be rather neutral with a passing hint of chocolate or a barely perceptible fragrance of exotic spices. And so on, up and down the rows of containers.

This is also the experience I have with side-by-side tastings of wines. My sense of citrus fruits in a South African Sauvignon Blanc may be another consumer’s sense of more finite and distinct aromas of Meyer lemon or Kaffir lime or Ruby Red grapefruit. My overall perception of ripe black stone fruit aromas in a Cabernet Sauvignon may be another’s distinct sense of black cherry or Italian black plum.

Our sense of smell influences our subjective likes and dislikes. Our DNA creates a database of aromas that allows us to instinctively recognize complex objects, be they a Costa Rican coffee, a Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon or a Tuscan morning redolent of Mediterranean Sea mist.

Ten thousand components of smell? One million? One trillion? More? And does it really matter? I’m not sure my sensory receptors are that refined, but I’m sure it takes voluminous olfactory senses to create my internal database of distinctive impressions as I encounter the world each day.

So what do you perceive in that glass of French Pinot Noir sitting before you? How refined is your DNA-specific olfactory sense? Do you discern underlying fragrances of nutmeg, clove or vanilla?

This week, open your back door and take a (really) deep breath of nature. Then pour yourself a glass of wine and immerse your nose deep into the glass, inhaling the perfumes emanating from the wine. Let your senses guide you through the subtle pleasures of life.

Nick Antonaccio is a 45-year Pleasantville resident. For over 25 years, he has conducted wine tastings and lectures. Nick is a member and program director of the Wine Media Guild of wine journalists. He also offers personalized wine tastings. Nick’s credo: continuous experimenting results in instinctive behavior. You can reach him at

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