The Inside Story from Italian Wine Merchants

Smell, the Oldest Sense, and Two Tuscan Wines

Posted on | August 25, 2014 | Written by Janice Cable | No Comments

Dusk at Cupano

Dusk at Cupano

Smell is, they say, the oldest sense. It’s the most atavistic of all our senses, something that usually continues to work even after sight and hearing are gone; only touch is a contender for the most primal of our basic five, but it doesn’t really come close. Even bacteria can “smell.”

Only smell is directly hardwired into the brain itself, and this is one of the reasons why scent is so tied to memory. The olfactory bulb sits squash against the hippocampus, the seahorse shaped part in the center of the brain that serves as a nexus for information that comes from all over the brain. To be reductive, the hippocampus is responsible for, essentially, making memories. And the olfactory bulb, the point in our brain that processes smell sits right beside it.

Location, location, location, they say, and if they’re talking about why smell and memory are inextricably linked, they may have a point. A piece in NPR teases apart the link between a memory and a smell, as writer Tom Stafford wonders why certain scents will unlock memories he had of his grandmother’s toy closet. Stafford writes:

Smell is unique among the senses in that it enters directly deep into the brain. If we look at the major pathways travelled by the other senses, such as hearing and vision, they start at the sense organs – that is, the eyes or the ears – and move to a relay station called the thalamus, before passing on to the rest of the brain.

With smell the situation is different. Rather than visiting the thalamic relay station on its journey into the brain, smell information travels directly to the major site of processing – the olfactory bulb – with nothing in between. We do not know what stopping off at the thalamus does for the other senses, but it certainly means that signals generated in the other senses are somehow “further away” from the nexus of processing done in the brain.

Scent, then, is a straight-line link between experience and processing, and the site where it registers snuggles up close and personal with the place where memories are made.

The view of the hills of Radda from Montevertine

The view of the hills of Radda from Montevertine

I bring up this inextricable link between smell and memory because I felt it last week. As Will Di Nunzio reveals in his expert picks for the day, last week we had a celebration at IWM, one filled with delicious food and a lot of really excellent wines. Some of the wines I loved, like the Raffaele Palma rosé that Will picked for his post, but I had no real-life context for. I’ve not been to Campania yet; I don’t know what its air smells like, and while I can guess, it’s sheer extrapolation. Other wines, like the seriously awesome Bruno Giacosa ’09 Barbaresco Santa Stefano, I have a faint sliver of sense memory; my time in Piemonte was very limited, but I did walk in vineyards and inhale the scent of the earth.

But a couple transported me to Italy in a single deep inhalation, specifically the Montevertine Rosso and the Cupano Brunello di Montalcino. Both of these wines smell so deeply of places I knew, places I’d spent time, places whose dirt I’d had under my fingernails, whose pointed scents I’d held in my nose, whose sun I’d felt on my shoulders, that they each felt like little time-travel machines, taking me back in time and across continents to Radda, to Montalcino, to places I know and love and haven’t seen in several years.

Wine is something that’s easy to enjoy because it tastes good, and it smells good, and it enlivens food, and it makes conversations more intimate. Yet for all these good things, wine is more than that. It’s a microcosm of time, of place, and of memory. And this, more than sightseeing, more than touching the barriques and hearing the winemakers’ stories, is what’s valuable about visiting the places that make the wine you love. Every time you want to visit, you need only open another bottle, pour yourself a glass, inhale deeply, and be there, in spirit and in love.

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