Q: Can assessing wine aromas sharpen my olfactory senses?—Nancy, New York
A: Smell, like balance, is an ability that can be improved with training and practice. "Over a prolonged period of three months, trying different smells, at least four, twice a day, you can start to hone your ability to smell better as well as detect different subtleties," otolaryngologist Dr. Alexander Farag, an assistant professor at Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center, told Wine Spectator. And this carries over to your palate as well. "The nose is much more sensitive [than the tongue] and can detect a wider array [of compounds]," explains Dr. Farag. "At least 75 percent to 80 percent of taste is smell."
However, men might have to train harder than their female counterparts. With 43 percent more cells in their olfactory bulb than men, as well as 49 percent more neurons, women have a significant advantage identifying odors.
It's not entirely understood how smell can so strongly trigger memories, but Dr. Farag theorizes that since the synapse responsible for smell occurs in the olfactory bulb (a neural structure in the forebrain), which is next to structures involved with emotion and memory, like the hippocampus or amygdala, there may be a connection. "If you taste a poison and survive, you want to remember that in order to prevent tasting it again," Dr. Farag says. In that sense, the limbic system works with olfactory senses to store taste and smell memories, such as those of that exceptional Brunello from years back.
For people working in the wine industry, studying different smells—comparing different fruits in the market (tangerine versus orange versus grapefruit) or flowers at the florist—is a common way to sharpen their skills, along with comparing different wines to each other to learn the nuances of varieties and regions. Would it work the other way around, concentrating on wines to better pick up smells in the rest of the world? Sure, as a single wine can contain the same aromatic compounds as many different fruits, herbs and other items, you'd be learning how to tease out distinct identities from a complex mix.