Aromatic complexity: do we have it backwards?

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Aromatic complexity: do we have it backwards?

Postby wnissen » Tue Nov 20, 2012 2:46 am

Saw a Nature article about a fascinating experiment in combining odors, where the more odors you combine, the more similar the combined aroma becomes. It's a fascinating analogy to light, where you have to combine at least three colors to get white light, but you can also combine a different set and still get white light.

http://www.nature.com/news/the-whiff-of ... rs-1.11846

The scientists started with over 80 different single-molecule odors that intentionally spanned the various receptors in the nose. Then they made mixtures with varying numbers (not concentrations) of odors, and the tendency was that the more different odors in the mixture, the less distinctive the mixture was, but only from other mixtures of many different odors. In other words, the mixture of many odors had a smell that could be distinguished from simple odors, but not from other complex mixtures.

From a wine perspective, we tend to think of complexity as additive, but maybe it doesn't work that way. In particular, those laundry lists of aromas found in tasting notes seem more suspicious than ever to me. Now, it's also possible that this effect doesn't happen in wine, where the aromas tend to be chemically related. Wine could be more like a gem with various closely related hues. Still, really neat.
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Re: Aromatic complexity: do we have it backwards?

Postby John S » Tue Nov 20, 2012 3:23 am

Very interesting. It reminds me of the concept of 'gestalt'. That is, perhaps the combination of say, flavours is more than the sum of flavours in a wine. So while we focus on identifying as many flavours as possible in the nose and palate of wines, it's more about how those flavours combine to form a greater whole that is really important. Although maybe that's what we mean by such terms as balance, purity and even our emotional response to a wine?
"Tastes are perhaps first and foremost distastes, provoked by the disgust and visceral intolerance ... of the taste of others". Pierre Bourdieu (1984, p. 56)
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Re: Aromatic complexity: do we have it backwards?

Postby Steve Slatcher » Tue Nov 20, 2012 4:08 pm

It is indeed thought-provoking research from a wine point of view.

I have always been a bit suspicious of the idea of complexity in wine. But having said that I think the different aromas in a wine are often not all experienced at the same time. For me they tend to come and go, depending perhaps on swirling, temperature changes etc, etc.

Beyond that I find wines that have 3 or so different clearly delineated flavours/aromas are very attractive. Indeed, especially with food, simple wines with a single well-defined aroma can be good.

For me I associated what I call soupy flavours - where all the flavours merge together - with poor wines. Is that the white noise of wine, I wonder?
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Re: Aromatic complexity: do we have it backwards?

Postby Ben Rotter » Wed Nov 21, 2012 7:14 am

Interesting, thanks Walter.

I suspect (perceived) aromatic complexity in wine also has a lot to do with the relative concentrations of compounds, which are also influenced by temperature, oxygen exposure and (glassware) headspace. But from a wine perspective, this research really does beg your question regarding the chemical similarity (by both perceptual and physicochemical description) of wine aromas.
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