Chocolate, Perception, SOMM Journal, Wine
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Honing Perception

Evaluating chocolate and fragrance can expand your tasting skills

Beyond our five senses—smell, taste, touch, hearing, and sight—our brains regularly perceive other sensations from temperature (or thermoception), which is part of flavor; pain (nociception); the passage of time (chronoception); and our body’s movement and orientation in space (proprioception).

In an effort to expand my perception beyond my daily work with beverage alcohol, I tackle the evaluation of chocolate and fragrance a few times each year by judging hundreds of products as part of an unpaid panel. We can make the case that judging wine and chocolate using a common language tips the scale in favor of the idea that tasting is based in objectivity: The rubric for evaluating the sensory characteristics, quality, and style of chocolate is similar to that of wine, and we can achieve consensus on that quality and style according to our analysis. The exercise is demanding but doesn’t require me to stretch too far beyond my comfort zone into uncharted territory while offering sheer gustatory pleasure.

However, evaluating fragrance, even using industry standard
guidelines, is considered by many to be almost entirely subjective.
Natural perfumer Mandy Aftel, who judges an industry award that bears her name, prioritizes the quality of ingredients and factors other than analytical evaluation. “My priority is what’s going into the bottle and whether a perfume is well made and evolves well,” she says. In her view, longevity or “dry down,” which refers to how long a scent lasts, doesn’t speak to anything other than the presence of chemicals.

Have you entered an empty elevator only to find it filled with fragrance worn by the previous passenger? In the perfume world, the trail a scent leaves in the wearer’s wake is known as sillage. Aftel says it’s the most immediate way to identify a synthetic fragrance: “Natural perfume doesn’t billow off the wearer leaving a trail; you must be very close to the person to smell it.”

When judging fragrance, I like to collaborate with fellow wine professional and perfume lover Mary Orlin, who has judged the TasteTV Artisan Fragrances of the Year Awards since its inception in 2012. While we can easily achieve a consensus for a description of the scents in question, we have very different emotional responses to them. Researchers have found that people inherently choose perfumes that interact well with their own chemistry, which provides at least one explanation for the highly individual nature of perfume choice.

“Perfume helped me decipher scent notes in wine,” says Orlin, “and my wine sensory training has helped me be a better evaluator of fragrance. I find them similar in the way that perfumes have a top, middle, and base note, [while] wine has aroma, a mid-palate, and finish.”

Guidelines for evaluating scent include two different aspects of quality: preference and emotional response being one and the quality of the ingredients and the accord or “soul” of the fragrance (which are key for Aftel) being the second. Other criteria include originality, power (also referred to as “projection”), radiance, longevity, and versatility.

The language of fragrance evaluation may be different, but I agree with Orlin that there are structural parallels to the analysis of wine. “An individual’s connection to perfume is profound,” said Aftel. “One of the most important factors we consider is beauty.”

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