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Dear Dr. Vinny,

Why does the description of a wine's aroma differ from that of its flavor? I know that many flavors are a product of molecular compounds created during the winemaking process. So if there is a compound that is making a Chardonnay taste like pear or apple, wouldn't it also give the wine that aroma? Why would it smell like one fruit and taste like another?

—Joelle, Washington, D.C.

Dear Joelle,

Good question! Let's start by looking at how we smell vs. how we taste. When it comes to how we perceive smell, there are hundreds of olfactory receptors in our nasal cavity, and the human nose can distinguish between anywhere from 10,000 to 1 trillion different smells. That’s a lot. Meanwhile, our taste buds pick up those basic flavors of sweet, salty, bitter, sour and savory, and various combinations thereof. What we smell affects what we taste, of course. Anyone with a stuffy nose can attest to that.

Because both taste and smell are using different chemical processes, it’s not unusual that you might taste something that you don’t smell, and vice versa. I don’t smell a chocolate bar, but I sure do taste it. Barbecue might smell very smoky, but I only taste it subtly in the chicken. And both taste and smell are closely associated with our emotions and memories. I had a sassafras tree in my backyard growing up, so whenever I get a whiff of that smell, I light up. But I don't get those same memories when I taste sassafras in a bowl of filé gumbo or a glass of root beer.

When it comes to wines, it’s further complicated because what we taste and smell isn’t only a matter of the esters or flavor molecules that we come across, but other elements of a wine, like acid, tannins, alcohol and sugar. And the temperature at which the wine is served and the glassware we use can also affect how a wine smells and tastes.

Let’s say you smell a white wine and it really smells fruity and full of pear notes, but it’s low in acid and served rather warm—those fruit flavors will flatten out. Conversely, a complex red wine served in a plastic cup will not be as fragrant as in a proper wineglass, but the berry flavors might come across just fine.

—Dr. Vinny

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