Devil's Advocate - Sex and Wine: the (not so) Sweet Smell of Covid

Wine tasters rely on the reliability and accuracy of their sense of smell. How many, Robert Joseph wonders, have been impaired by the pandemic.

Reading time: 4m 15s

Robert Joseph - the Devil's Advocate
Robert Joseph - the Devil's Advocate

For anyone who has learned the basics, the process of judging any wine invariably involves the way it smells

But, just as the advent of skin-contact and cloudy natural wines has changed the way wines are analysed visually, sniffing them is not as straightforward as it was. Previous, fairly specific, arguments about ‘acceptable’ or ‘unacceptable’ brett, reduction and VA have moved on to discussions of ‘funk’ that now include the once universally-hated ‘mousiness’.  Steven Graf in a 2017 blog post defines ‘funk’ as referring to “a characteristic known to be a flaw that can simultaneously contribute to the harmony of a given wine”; “spoilage bacteria/yeasts”, and “an agreed way of talking about a loose set of earthy, putrescent flavours and smells common in food, fermented products, beverages, soil, plants, etc.” 

The Sweet Smell of Rotten Eggs

Graf illustrates this with reference to a natural old-vine Pinot Noir - les Marcottes - from Domaine Vincent et Marie Tricot in the Auvergne. “In addition to the bright and fresh fruit, emblematic of their natural approach, there are notes of onion, rotten eggs, burnt rubber, charred earth, leather musk, and barnyard.” 

As Graf might admit, most traditionally-trained tasters would balk at at least some of these aromas, quite possibly dismissing the wine as faulty. But just how strongly they’d balk might vary from one individual to the next. Some are more tolerant of ‘a bit of’ brettanomyces or VA or reduction than others. And, of course, there’s anosmia - a total loss - or hyposmia  - reduced sense - of smell,  or  ’specific anosmia’ which relates to the inability to detect specific aromas. 

Specific anosmia is apparently far more common than many people might imagine. In 2015, Professor Ilona Croy and her colleagues at the Smell and Taste Clinic in Dresden, Germany gave 1,600 people 100 of the trillion or so odours human beings are theoretically capable of smelling. As their report revealed, almost all - 98.3% - the participants failed to detect at least one of them. The specific blind spots varied, naturally. One in 16 - 6% - couldn’t smell l-carvone, a major constituent of spearmint oil, while one unlucky person was blind to geraniol, a fragrance derived from plants such as rose, geranium and citronella.

Some specific anosmia, of course, is innate. I’ve known people who are almost unable to smell TCA, and others whose sensitivity is so acute that they can say “this wine’s corked" before picking up the glass. For others the condition can result from over-exposure. Older hands in the wine industry will be familiar with regions like Germany, the Loire and the white wine producing chais of Bordeaux, in the 1980s, when the use of SO2 was so heavy-handed that most people working there barely noticed it.

Pandemic Effect

This decade, however, smell researchers like Croy have suddenly become a lot busier, thanks to the effects of Covid 19. Wine professionals were like canaries in the mine in the early stages of the pandemic; their experiences reportedly helped to accelerate the realisation that a loss of smell was a significant symptom of the disease.

Large numbers of people have lost and then, thank goodness, recovered their sense of smell completely, especially with the more recent variants of the virus. However, according to an LA Times report, Dr. Bradley J. Goldstein, an ear, nose and throat doctor at Duke University Hospital, in the US believes that around 5% of people who experience smell loss during COVID-19 will develop long-term anosmia. Other estimates suggest that the as many as 10% may be affected in the long term, ranging from full-on anosmia and specific anosmia to parosmia, the crossed-wires phenomenon that leads sufferers to get imaginary or ‘wrong’ odours. For these unfortunates, everything may smell of burned rubber for example. Or chocolate may have the aroma of dog excrement.

A 2021 paper by Burges Watson et al considered Facebook posts by sufferers including “Poo now smelled better than coffee.” And “Wine smells like sewage. Prosecco is even worse.”

I have not met anyone who has had this fate, but I recently talked to a number of sommeliers who were very aware of the hazards of specific anosmia. One ruefully recounted realising that they had served a corked wine to a customer after failing to detect the TCA. Another mentioned a colleague who had done exceptionally well as a blind taster in major competitions but was now struggling to detect the capsicum note of Cabernet Sauvignon.

The link between nose and palate is well established and any wine professional will be familiar with the frustration of trying to taste when suffering from the common cold. Fortunately, this is usually a very short-term problem, but will the wine industry and others need to adapt to what might be far more widespread and longer lived? And might the implications extend beyond the professionals?

Sex Matters

In March 2019, a year before Covid or Coronavirus had entered the vocabulary, Professor Croy and her colleagues published a paper describing how nearly a third - 29% - of a group of 100 patients with olfactory disorders reported decreased sexual desire since the onset of the condition.  Facebook posts quoted in Burges Watson’s Covid-focused research two years later revealed specific consequences.

One person said “I can’t smell my boyfriend’s natural scent, which makes me feel more distant from him. Like he is a stranger. I used to feel comforted being able to smell him while cuddling. Worse is that his kisses taste really bad to me now, so I avoid that, but haven’t told him because I don’t want to hurt his feelings. Also I am constantly worried that I smell bad myself and it makes me very insecure.

“The worst bit is not knowing if I smell. It makes me really self-conscious. If we get intimate I can’t get lost in the moment anymore because I’m constantly thinking ‘what if I stink? Is that roadkill smell me or him?’”

Another said “His natural odour used to make me want him; now it makes me vomit. I can’t tell him. Imagine your partner saying that to you?”

I suspect that we will be totting up the costs of Covid for a long time yet, and many of them - broken relationships? Impaired careers in the food, drink or perfume industries? - may go uncounted. 

As may the fact that millions of wine drinkers across the world, have different experiences when they sniff or taste a glass of wine to the ones they had a few years ago. Some of course will have different experiences to others drinking wine from the same bottle.

A few - a tiny minority I suspect - may even welcome the’ funky’ rotten egg-and-barnyard aromas denied to their friends. 

Limited editorial corrections were made on 11/10/22




Latest Articles