Talking Wine and Making Sense of Scents with Dr. Ilja Croijmans

“It takes practice to master something, and olfaction is no exception. Smells deserve our attention too”, Ilja Croijmans

We all know it is incredibly difficult to describe scents. Is this any different for wine experts? What kind of words do they use? And does their vocabulary extend to other areas than wine? For N.O.S.E. (Netherlands Olfactory Science Exchange) Caro Verbeek (scent and art historian) interviewed dr. Ilja Croijmans (cognitive scientist) on his recently published PhD ‘Wine Expertise Shapes Olfactory Language and Cognition’, supervised by Dr. Asifa Majid, co-supervised by Dr. Laura J. Speed and dr. Artin Arshamian at Radboud University Nijmegen.

What it’s all about

CV: Can you describe your research and its scope in a few sentences?

IC: During my PhD, I’ve investigated what the influence of wine expertise is on olfactory cognition. I’ve focused in particular on language, memory and imagery. In various experiments, I compared wine experts, who have years of experience with smelling, tasting and describing wines, to average wine consumers (novices). Wine expertise has a profound impact on these aspects of cognition: wine experts are better at describing wines, they have a better memory for wines, and their ability to imagine smells and tastes of wines is more vivid than that of novices.

CV: What makes wine tasting such a suitable and compelling topic to study olfactory language and cognition?

IC: Wine is highly multisensory – it involves both orthonasal (“normal smelling”) and retronasal (“smelling through your mouth”) smelling. Olfaction is really important to experience wine, without smell, wine tastes bland or plainly sour or sweet (ask an anosmic!). In addition, there is a lot of variation in wine expertise. By studying and practicing, you can really become an expert in wine, but there are many people that just like to drink it occasionally, and that is fine too: that gave me the opportunity to compare people with very high levels of expertise to casual wine consumers.

CV: Can you give some examples of typical and consistently used words to describe wine (not referring to colour or mouthfeel, but only olfactory words)?

IC: Most of those words are source based and some of them are abstract words referring to flavour. Examples are smooth, minerality, medium-bodied, red berry, fragrant, plum, white pepper, firm, pruny, thick, herbes de provence, big, kisselguhr, filtration, precocious, forward, concentrated, vegetal, hedonistic, sharp, perfumed, flabby, monopole, elegant aftertaste, meaty, lush, oaky, delicate, morsellated, savoury

 Important definitions

CV: For novices and non-experts: can you explain the difference between smell, taste and flavour? Retronasal and orthonasal smelling? And what does Somatosensory mean?!

IC: I hinted on this above. In Dutch, we make no distinction between taste and flavor (both smaak): a pity! With smell, people normally mean what they perceive when they stick their noses into something, scientists call this orthonasal smelling. What most people are not really aware of is that they smell through their mouths too! In the back of your mouth, there is an opening to the nose. If you chew on something, vapors rise through this opening and are perceived by the olfactory bulb in the nose: retronasal smelling. You can test this using a blindfold and holding your nose, and then try to distinguish between the taste of an apple and an onion: without your nose, this is almost impossible.

orthonasal smelling source- Monell interview Ilja Croijmans

Source: Monell Center

Taste is what the tongue registers: the basic tastes sweet, sour, bitter, salty, umami (and possibly fatty, creamy, high in carbs, spicy/heat/pain…).

 Flavor is the combination of taste and retronasal olfaction (in addition to other sensory experiences in your mouth, such as pressure (chewing/crunchy), temperature, pain), and influenced by what you see, smell, feel and hear during eating. Flavor is the whole multisensory experience. 

 Somatosensory means what is perceived by the body (“soma” = Greek for body), and mainly applies to things like touch, pain etc. This plays a role in flavor too, since the somatosensory system is also involved in taste, and registers how hard something is to chew, how warm it is etc, could all be called somatosensory.

“coffee experts were not more consistent when describing coffee, but wine experts were when they described wine”

CV: What was the most surprising outcome of your research?

IC: In the first study I did, I asked wine experts, coffee experts and novices to describe wine, coffee and common smells. I found it really surprising that coffee experts were not more consistent when describing coffee, but wine experts were when they described wine. Perhaps that for coffee, the balance between tastes plays a bigger role, or it could be that coffee experts talk less about the flavors of coffee with each other than wine experts discuss wine. Another pleasant surprise was that when we followed this experiment up with a new study (this time looking at memory for wines), wine experts were again more consistent when describing wines. So we could replicate the finding, which is really important for scientific progress.

“I think it becomes easier to describe scents given proper training and practice, even when you have no abstract vocabulary”

CV: It’s very difficult to describe scents because there is no vocabulary, at least in western languages. We often resort to hedonic values or sources. Are there words used by wine expert that describe aroma or flavour that aren’t source based or hedonic?

IC: I didn’t really come across terms that meet those criteria. Perhaps the Dutch words ‘weeiig’ and ‘rins’? I think there is also a tradeoff between being specific (i.e., using source terms) and using abstract vocabulary, with most wine experts preferring the first, while people in ‘smell cultures’ preferring the latter.

I think it becomes easier to describe scents given proper training and practice, even when you have no abstract vocabulary.

CV: What can ‘we’ learn from wine experts when it comes to training our linguistic and perceptual skills?

IC: It takes practice to master something, and olfaction is no exception. Smells deserve our attention too.

Imagining scents or ‘olfactorisation’

CV: You argue that the more words we have to code or label an object or experience and the more features we can linguistically discern, the easier it gets to imagine it. People from the Philippines report cases of odor imagery more often than Americans. Can you elaborate on this relation between language and olfactory imagination? Why does it differ between populations? And how does imagery relate to expertise? Can you imagine odors yourself?

 IC: This is a really difficult and technical question, don’t know if this is appropriate. Here we go:

Some scholars argue that imagery is purely semantic: when you imagine something, you think of the words. Others argue it is perceptual: when you imagine something, it gives the same experience as when you actually have it in front of you (without interference from words). In between these two views is a whole range of other views. Imagery is a form of memory: when you can imagine something, you recall it from memory. A sound or picture is relatively easy to imagine, but a smell is more difficult. Yet some people do report to be able to imagine smells, and for some professions is it pertinent (such as perfumers, or when a wine expert comes up with a new wine-food pairing or blends a new wine vintage).

I argue that experience makes the concepts for smells, including wines or wine prototypes, stronger and more elaborated. This includes semantic information, i.e., the words and language to describe smells, but also includes perceptual information. By training and practicing you elaborate on these concepts (describe more smells etc.) and pay attention to particular features of it. This strengthens the concept and makes it easier to recall. Having the words allows paying more attention to particular features, but just knowing words won’t allow you to imagine smells, it will just allow you to imagine the words. It is a combination of practicing and experiencing, and language can help. I see language as sort of a spotlight: it can direct your attention to particular aspects of the world. Having words for smells and using them (as some cultures do) will make that you have more attention for the smells around you. So it is an interplay between language, attention and experience.

grapevine interview Ilja Croijmans

History and fashion

CV: There were many more words for everyday smells in the past in the west (see here . Did people have more words for flavours and tastes in the past too? Has vocabulary for wine changed?

IC: I’d love to learn what these were! Wine vocabulary changes frequently, and follows particular trends in wine too. For example, James (2018) argues that Robert Parker, with his preference for so-called “coca cola wines’ (i.e., big, bold, sweet red wines), and his vocabulary attuned to this preference, has changed the way wines are being described as well as what wines are produced.

 Other authors (e.g., Shesgreen, 2002) argues that whereas it was common to describe how a wine ‘was bred’, i.e., some metaphorical extension taken from vocabulary on class and gender, this has shifted to the ‘italian fruit and herb garden’ way of describing wine, i.e., talking about diverse fruits and spices one may recognize in a wine.

Accuracy and ‘objectivity’: Knowing what the other person smells….

CV: Apparently there are 146 words that are consistently used by wine experts. Are these words used consistently in general or also for the same wine?

IC: These are the words that every wine expert in the sample of 13 used to describe a wide range of wines, used more frequently than how they are used in the comparative corpus (i.e,. a corpus made by google containing a trillion words sampled from a wide range of sources). The other analyses in that chapter show wine experts describe wines from the same grape variety and color in a consistent matter, and this analysis shows they use those words. We haven’t explicitly compared whether those exact words are used consistently for the same wines. 

CV: If one expert describes a wine to another and this other person could choose from let’s say 10 wines how likely is it the latter will choose the one described by the first?

IC: 66.7-69.3% 😊

There are a few studies that have investigated this. Solomon (1990) found out that experts could match other experts description to wines way better than chance, but not descriptions from novices (novices performed quite poorly in both directions). Gawell (1997) replicated this finding.

CV: You wrote that wines can contain 800 different aromatic compounds. Can’t wine experts just learn these by heart and name them just like perfumers learn about names of molecules?

IC: I think they could, with experience, sure. Complicating matter is that not all of these contribute to the flavor of a wine equally, and that some may overpower other flavors. Perhaps different from perfume is that wine is not a static entity, but a dynamic mixture that develops and ages.

Aesthetic appreciation

CV: One final question: have your cognitive and sensory skills for describing and tasting wine improved and does it make you enjoy it more?

IC: Yes and no. By learning what makes a good wine or any other enjoyable beverage, you can appreciate the craft and skill put into it more, and this enables me to appreciate the aesthetic value better. It is also enjoyable to talk about what you smell and taste, even though I may not be particularly good at it (I wouldn’t consider myself to be a wine expert). That said, it can be annoying sometimes too, since when you have a sense of what is good, you also have a sense of what is not good.

CV: Hope to share a wine with you after our next NOSE symposium!

ilja als denker

Caro Verbeek interviewing Ilja Croijmans


James, A. (2018). How Robert Parker’s 90+ and Ann Noble’s Aroma Wheel Changed the Discourse of Wine Tasting Notes. Revue de l’Institut des langues et cultures
d’Europe, Amérique, Afrique, Asie et Australie.

Shesgreen, S. (2003). Wet dogs and gushing oranges: Winespeak for a new millennium. The Chronicle of Higher Education.

Solomon, G. E. (1990). Psychology of novice and expert wine talk. The American Journal of Psychology, 103(4), 495–517.






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