A Sense for Smelling

Wine people are all about smell and taste. We are always sniffing and sampling and perhaps that might also be the reason why wine people are more alert to their loss of smell during Covid-19. Some even suggest that anosmia tells us more about our Covid-19 status than a thermometer!

During the time of virus, we’re all walking around with our noses and mouths covered. We’re not allowed to touch them and they have very much become the epicentres of our health. According to an article in the Journal of Otolaryngology, losing your sense of smell in these times (perhaps wait until you’ve taken off the mask…), might be an early indication of your status. While medical research is still underway, a symptom tracker app developed by a team at King’s College London and used by 1.5 million users between 24 and 29 March 2020, had some very interesting results.

“Of these, 1702 reported having been tested for COVID-19, with 579 positive results and 1123 negative results. 59% of COVID-19 positive patients reported loss of smell and taste, compared with only 18% of those who tested negative [12]. These results were much stronger in predicting a positive COVID-19 diagnosis than self-reported fever. Using all the data collected, the King’s research team developed a model to identify which combination of symptoms together could predict COVID-19 cases which include a combination of loss of smell and taste, fever, persistent cough, fatigue, diarrhoea, abdominal pain and loss of appetite. The strongest predictor is loss of smell and taste. In a similar study, Yan et al. found smell and taste lost were reported by 68 and 71% of COVID positive patients respectively, compared to 16 and 17% of COVID negative patients, with loss of sense of smell being the strongest predictor (OR 10.9 for COVID-19 positivity) [13].” Read more.

Smelling and tasting are very important senses, whether you drink wine or not. Even though we might take them for granted, it is when we lose them that we realise what a difference they make to the quality of everyday life. For those in wine, however, being able to smell is part of how they make a living.

Wine journalist, Jamie Good, writes about his brush with Covid and says: “… and worst of all my sense of smell has been affected.  I can still smell a bit, but it’s as if everything is masked, so all wines taste a bit the same and quite bad.” Christelle Guibert, CEO of Fine Wine And Spirits, is another well-known wine personality who had to endure a loss of smell and writes in her interesting and entertaining account: “But it became obvious very quickly that whether we had a Coche-Dury Meursault or – less of a personal favourite – a New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc, they both tasted the same – cold, watery alcohol. The wine provided some relief through inebriation, but zero pleasure in terms of flavour, complexity or subtly.” (Read more) Locally, wine all-rounder Samarie Smith also struggled to deal with a world without aroma and flavour.

While it seems ungrateful to complain about a temporary loss of smell when people are losing their lives and livelihoods, in this instance smell is not only important because it makes your wine experience better. If the loss of this sense is an early indicator that the virus has found its way to you, it can make you isolate earlier.

Other than its new-found fame as Covid warning bell, smell is also an important sense as it warns us of possible danger. Unpleasant smells can alert us to bad food, fires or gas leaks. Without smell, food doesn’t taste good and in extreme cases, smell deprivation can even cause depression. “Problems with our sense of smell have also been linked to early warning signs for more serious health problems such as Parkinson’s disease, Alzheimer’s disease, or multiple sclerosis.” (Read more)

When survival is not your priority, smell is also about enjoyment. The fragrance industry plays an important role in our lives – from perfume to household products. In the business of food and drink, smelling is essential.  The sense of smell prepares your brain for what it is about to taste. In wine, this cooperation between nose and brain is very important. What you smell and the brain’s ability to remember and to categorise the flavour are what differentiate wine critics and writers from everyday wine drinkers who can’t necessarily pinpoint the cassis or tomato leaf on the nose… (Read more)

Of course it is not necessary to identify those fine differences in flavour when it doesn’t pay your salary. We can enjoy the smell of perfume without identifying the patchouli or orange blossom. We can enjoy the Cabernet Sauvignon without being able to differentiate between blueberry and black cherry. In these strange times, however, not smelling anything might be cause for concern and I if you smell just fine, perhaps we should appreciate this wonderful sense to the fullest.


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