As my nose recovers from a knockout bout with COVID-19, I have been keeping a smell journal—a scorecard of what I can sniff out and what I still can’t.
I completely lost my sense of smell for 14 days beginning Dec. 19. Recovering it has been slow and weirdly random. I’d guess I’m now at only 20 percent of normal.
Some odors I don’t miss at all. Like the cat box.
At the other end of the spectrum are things I miss more and more desperately by the day: cooking aromas in the kitchen before dinner, the tangy scent of citrus, the smell of a roaring fire, the bouquet of the Mediterranean countryside and the deep, heady aroma of truffles. Above all, I long to stick my nose into a swirling glass of red wine and savor the fruit, spice and all the rest before and during that first sip.
It's not like I haven’t tried. I’ve opened some good to great bottles—from fine Burgundies and Barolos to muscular Amarone and Bandol reds and they all smell like … nothing. Stripped of their essence, they taste vaguely winey.
Losing the sense of smell teaches you just how important the nose is to tasting. Independent of our noses, the tongue picks up the relatively banal basics of salt, sweet, sour, bitter and umami.
Wine tasting uses our olfactory senses in multiple steps, starting with sniffing (orthonasal olfaction) and followed by retronasal olfaction, in which aromas rise up from the back of our throats into our nose as we swish the wine around our mouths. In both cases, the nose’s receptors send signals to the brain’s olfactory bulbs for identification.
Most evenings, I pour glasses of red wine and ask my wife about the scents in her glass. “Blackberry and leather,” she will say, or “strawberries and tree bark.” I close my eyes and can only imagine.
So I was thrilled the other evening when I cracked open a Pauillac that had been laying around my cellar for nearly 20 years, stuck my nose into the glass, and blurted out: “Balsam!” It was the one thing I’d been able to sniff out in wine all month, and even though the resinous woody note isn’t my favorite thing in wine, at least it was something to work with. There was hope.
Then on Sunday afternoon, after a walk in the woods, I popped open a bottle of Champagne and could smell its yeastiness. More progress!
Yet what has struck me most about recovering from COVID is how arbitrary it has been. Why can I smell black peppercorns but not red pepper flakes? Why just the yeastiness and balsam in a couple wines?
For some answers, I began reading. At the recommendation of Uruguayan sommelier Charlie Arturaola (who in the 2010s played in a pair of offbeat movies about a somm who loses and regains his sense of smell), I devoured smell scientist Avery Gilbert’s pithy book What the Nose Knows: The Science of Scent in Everyday Life (2008).
At the end of last week, I phoned Gilbert, figuring he could explain to laymen what was going on in the COVID-battered noses of the untold numbers of others like myself recovering from mild cases.
Gilbert, 65, has in recent years left his career as consultant in the perfume industry to focus on the aromas of cannabis, which he says are as complex as those of wine.
Gilbert noted that our upper nose has some 400 scent receptors—each with a different specialty or specialties. COVID-19 is believed to infect surrounding support cell tissue, shutting down the whole olfactory operation. As cells regenerate, smells return. (Read more about the science of smell loss and COVID.)
“It’s like when your Internet goes out and the router comes back on with those blinking lights,” Gilbert said. “Like those lights, your receptors are coming back online, and which one comes on next is like pulling a number out of a lottery bucket.”
Smell loss typically comes from things like viruses, head injury or age. And smell experts like Gilbert recommend smell training to not just help recovery, but also to keep our edge as we grow older.
Last week, the University of Bordeaux’s prestigious wine science school, the Institut des Sciences de la Vigne et du Vin, announced a smell-training protocol developed in consultation with the university’s medical school. The ISVV has produced kits for its students who have been affected by small loss, along with a (French only) pamphlet that can be found online. (The efficacy of such programs is not universally accepted. Some medical professionals treating COVID symptoms say they have not seen the training speed up the recovery process.)
“Think of it like breaking your ankle,” Gilbert said. “After your ankle heals, you need to do some physical therapy to get back your coordination.”
So I am now in my first week of training. I’ve selected a handful of household items, which I sniff several times a day as I close my eyes and think about them.
First are the easy ones: vanilla extract, eucalyptus oil and a violet sachet, followed by the red pepper and cut lemon that I am still struggling with.
Throughout the day, I spontaneously embark on smell-a-thons. Last week, I was excited to pick up on the scents of the dried-out Christmas tree, lemon leaves (though not the lemon), WD-40, soap, wild thyme, burned match, buttery pastry and the anachronistic scent of a very old edition of Charles Dickens’ The Old Curiosity Shop.
As far as wine, Gilbert cautions that its aromas may be among the last olfactory sensations to return. “The notes of wine are pretty subtle,” he explained. “They tend to be light, high notes that don’t hit you with a hammer in the best of times. So they will be the ones that drop off first and will take a while to come back.”
I can’t wait to get my nose back. But I’m savoring the process of rediscovery—one halting step at a time.