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20 October 2017updated 30 Jun 2021 11:52am

The real reason behind my prejudice against certain drinks

While the mind has an eye, it lacks a nose.

By Nina Caplan

Award announcements generally involve a party; when the award in question is for wine writing, this has the advantage of allowing disappointed shortlistees to emulate Telephus, son of Heracles, who could only be cured by what had wounded him. In his case, that involved seeking out his enemy, Achilles, and persuading him to crumble rust from his spear into the stubbornly suppurating injury he had inflicted. In mine, it was simply a matter of using the substance I write about to soothe the pain of not being rewarded for writing about it.

There was another benefit to this particular party: a goody bag. Fortnum & Mason had included crowd-pleasers such as lemon-curd biscuits that rendered my stepchildren ecstatic, but also a new tea infusion that caused me to frown in anticipatory disgust. “Spiced Rose and Fennel”? In my mind’s nose, I snuffed the cloying sweetness of artificial flower; my middle palate attempted to flee the brutal black boot of liquorice. Nothing would have induced me to try such a concoction… except its presence in my cupboard.

The fact that I loved this tea, its gentle floral perfume and savoury fennel freshness, reminded me to beware prejudice. Not only does the mind not actually have a nose, it is very bad at retaining smell – as I should know, after innumerable wine tastings sticking my nose repeatedly into a glass in an attempt to define a familiar but annoyingly elusive scent. The mind’s eye exists, metaphorically at least; we can all picture paintings, people, places. But those pictures have no aroma.

Smell, unlike touch or taste, largely bypasses the thalamus, a sort of inner-brain gatekeeper that processes sensory information, and goes direct to the amygdala, seat of emotion, and the hippocampus, which modulates memory. We see the past and analyse it. To smell the past, we reinhabit it.

There are scientific theories around children’s predilection for sweet foods (the need for more calories to fuel growth) and dislike of bitter foods (which might be toxic). Youthful gastronomic conservatism makes the same kind of sense: stick to what you know is edible. But what, in my mid-forties, is my excuse?

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With wine, I don’t need one: I’m as brave and adventurous as any Ancient Greek. At Jeroboam’s wine shop I tasted a selection of so-called unusual varieties. Some weren’t, really: Carignan was once the most common grape in the Languedoc; Semillon is more commonly blended with Sauvignon Blanc in Bordeaux, but it’s hardly rare.

However, I had never heard of Grechetto, the grape in a creamy Umbrian white by Antonelli, nor was Kékfrankos familiar, until I discovered it was the Hungarian name for Austria’s Blaufränkisch, a pleasingly sassy red grape. I tasted Sumoll, a lovely Aghioghitiko by Domaine Skouros in Nemea (where Heracles slew the lion), and a brightly fruity Zweigelt from the Jurtschitsch winery in Langenlois, Austria, and judged them on their merits. Yet it has taken me 40 years to revise my dislike of papaya, and I weep for the Negronis lost to a decade-long conviction that I didn’t enjoy Campari.

When my partner’s children are older, we will encourage them to keep retesting beetroot and parsnip, cabbage and dark chocolate. They may discover unexpected pleasures. With luck they will learn, earlier than I did, the value of an open mind: many injuries can be cured by what caused them. 

This article appears in the 18 Oct 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Russia’s century of revolutions