I hate to be the bearer of bad news to those of us who spend much of our lives thinking about food and drink, but our senses of taste and smell are responsible for little more than 1% of the way in which we perceive the world. Almost two thirds of our sense perception relies on sight, followed by touch (around 25%) and sound (15%). What is left over is for taste and smell. At a push, if we take away the visual clues, most of us can identify only a handful of scents – maybe 20 or 30 at most – depending on how often we come across them. It’s why most of us can easily identify coffee but might find it harder to distinguish between a mandarin, a clementine and a satsuma if given them blind – harder still whether a rose petal comes from a flower picked in the morning or after a languid day in the sunshine. Chefs and gardeners might get closer to identifying 50 or 100 scents blind, but that’s pretty much the limit without specialist training.
It’s one of the reasons that Alexandre Schmitt’s rather particular skills are in such high demand in the wine world. He is, to put it bluntly, considerably better than most of us at identifying flavours and aromas, having learned his craft over 20 years in the perfume industry before turning his attention to wine. Schmitt confidently claims to be able to distinguish around 1,500 different scents, a feat that has him working as consultant for, among others, Opus One, Petrus, Spottswoode, Dominus Estate, Harlan Estate, Château Margaux, Bodegas Torres, the Charlois cooperage group and Louis Roederer Champagne. If wine producers are in search of the extra nuance to set them apart from their competitors, Schmitt is one of the rare people who can help.
There are similarities between blending wine and assembling the components of perfumes
‘I loved art and music when I was younger, but at 16 my father insisted I concentrate on science,’ says Schmitt, who is French but speaks perfect English and looks something like a cross between a young Eric Morecambe and Jarvis Cocker. ‘I studied chemistry at university, then looked for something that could combine science with creativity. As soon as I began a master’s programme at the Institut International du Parfum in Versailles, I was hooked. Olfaction, identifying molecules and aromas, immediately grabbed me. But being a perfumer is a highly technical job, and much of your time is spent in a laboratory. Eventually, I wanted something more, and coming from Bordeaux, I have always had a passion for wine.’
‘There are similarities between blending wine and assembling the components of perfumes. There are various samples that everyone agrees on, then others that you are less sure about, questioning if they are too green or too vegetal. You have to decide if they are good for the blend in tiny amounts to give concentration, power or spice.
‘But in wine, there are no top or base notes as there are in perfume. Instead, it is about understanding aromas that will be successful immediately combined with older notes that will develop over a longer timescale. A timescale in perfume is how the scent will evolve over one day on your skin. With a wine, you need to consider how it will evolve over 20 years in a bottle. So, if using Cabernet Franc, you know that it will take its time to reveal all facets of its character, whereas a Merlot might be full of seductive aromatics and flavours when young. The blend needs to take both these things into account.’
Schmitt’s role varies depending on the client. For Opus One, he is part of a larger team of consultants and winemakers, coming in only at certain times of the year; for Spottswoode, he is their main consultant, working with them throughout the winemaking process. For some clients he might be called in to help with barrel ageing; for others, simply for blending the first and second wines. He might be helping them to finesse the aromatic signature of their wine, to identify flaws, to isolate aromatic compounds in different grape varieties or to understand how texture and taste are linked. He also works directly with barrel-makers and cork producers. Aromatics is just a small part of it – the ultimate aim is to develop the sensory perception of the team.
‘There is a need to define clearly words that people use all the time but by which they may mean different things,’ is how Schmitt puts it. ‘Balance is a good example. Balance of what? What does it mean? Different people have different answers, and my job is to help them reach a common understanding.
‘I don’t impose my ideas,’ he says. ‘Instead, I help to calibrate what others are experiencing. You have to ask difficult questions sometimes, and be unsparing in your opinions.’
He constantly pushes you to think harder about what you are experiencing
A typical session might start with laying out dozens of cosmetic products on a table and asking the people present to classify different textures – whether powder, cream, smooth, grainy and so on. This exercise will then move on to what these textures mean in terms of, for example, different types of tannins – whether supple, grippy, grainy or coarse. The idea is to establish a common scale.
‘We don’t always think about texture when uncorking a bottle, but it’s central to our relationship with what we’re drinking,’ he says. ‘Tannins, for example, can be rough in a glass of cheap Tannat, or smooth and silky in a high-priced Malbec. Acidity can be too sharp if the grapes for the wine were not ripe enough at harvest, or overly flabby if they were left for too long before picking. Texture gives clues and context to what we are drinking, even if we don’t realise it. And whether the textural elements of a wine match up to expectations forms a big part of our enjoyment and also of our perception of value. Think, for example, about a lemon. You might think you are only aware of the flavour, but actually the tension that comes from the acidity is crucial to the experience. Or think about defining tropical-fruit flavours in Sauvignon Blanc. Are you tasting passion fruit or mango? The answer is not just in the taste, but the texture. Passion fruit has a bracing acidity with more texture and juice, while mango is softer, richer, smoother.’
It’s this kind of insight that makes spending time with Schmitt both frustrating and inspiring. He makes the ability to define accurately the nuances of flavour maddeningly close, and yet constantly pushes you to think harder about what you are experiencing. Luckily, his first rule is something we can all try: simply slow down and pay attention.