I finally caught covid the other week. Very mild – a bit of a fever to begin with, a bit of a cough. Some more miserable days when the weather took a turn for the extra-toasty, but nothing to really grumble about. Except that I lost my sense of smell for a few days and that scared me.
Well, it should scare me. A sense – gone. We only have a maximum of five if we’re lucky, and the loss of any ought to be startling. I can’t imagine waking up unable to see or hear or feel but I dare say that if I did, people would understand my being somewhat panicked. But smell … well folk just aren’t as bothered.
If I was a bear or a shark or a dog or an elephant or, apparently, a kiwi (the bird, not the fruit) this would not be the case. All are far more dependant on their noses than are humans. In this excellent article of a few years ago, whisky writer Dave Broom relates that the Jahai people of southern Thailand place far more emphasis on smell than we do in the west; describing the sensory experience with more sophistication, depth and consistency.
In our western culture there really aren’t too many people for whom smell occupies a particularly large percentage of their time or thought. Perfumers, I suppose. Chefs, maybe. Drinks hobbyists.
Before I took an interest in drinks, smells really only imposed on my consciousness for fleeting moments of a day. Whereas I go through life constantly aware of what I am seeing or hearing, smells would be more sporadic. A snatched whiff of garlic or grilling meat as I passed a restaurant. Petrichor rising from the tarmac after rain. Pine needles, woodsmoke in winter. The stench of a toilet block or a sweaty changing room. The fresh spritzy perfume of half time orange wedges in school hockey matches. I didn’t go out of my way to exercise my sense of smell.
On entering the wine industry I was encouraged to actively think about what I was smelling on a day-to-day basis. Not merely the wines themselves, though when I worked in the shop I was lucky to have ample opportunity to familiarise myself with them both at our own tasting counter and those of other stores I might visit on stock runs. I was pushed to pay more attention to the aromas of anything I might eat, any plants I might find in gardens and on walks. To drinks besides wine, to cooking herbs and spices, to the various ambient odours of everyday life. Inevitably, the more I paid attention the more those aromas stuck, the bigger the mental library I was able to compile and the more automatically I paid attention to the ambient aromas that colour the world around me.
I also discovered that there is a tremendous amount of mythologising, self-aggrandising and, frankly, bullshit, around senses of smell in the drinks industry. It’s an ego thing of course; people competing over tasting notes to embarrassing degrees, eager to be perceived as some sort of supertaster. I would read of wine writers who claimed to be able to smell the garlic on someone’s breath from the far side of a crowded room – and maybe they could, but it wouldn’t have mattered either way. There would be whisky professionals writing absurd things like “I have isolated eight different honeys with absolute certainly” in their pooterish notes. Worse, I soon discovered that people would become competitive in tasting rooms, would proscribe the aromas you were required to find in one drink or another, or would tell others their smell was wrong. “Really? You’re tasting that? Oh.”
It would truly be a coincidence of epic proportions if all the drinks makers and communicators who set themselves up as supertasters really were as infallibly sensitive as they claim. In truth, for the most part, that level of arrogance is really just setting oneself up for a pretty embarrassing fall. Robert Parker, probably the most famous taster who has ever lived, famously got zero out of twenty when blind tasting Bordeaux wines once, for the most part failing to discern which side of the river each one came from. (This makes a meaningful difference in the region as the dominant grape variety is different on either side). He is far from the only prominent taster to have been similarly caught out.
Undoubtedly, some noses are more sensitive than others. Caroline’s, for example, is far more sensitive than mine. She smells things before I do and at a higher level of intensity. Nutmeg is another level up again (though she has the unfair biological advantage of being a cat). She knows instantly when a yoghurt is being opened; we might peel back the label with the utmost care and as silently as humanly possible, she might be sleeping the sleep of the dead, but there is never more than about half a spoonful’s time before the pattering of small paws can be heard hurrying yoghurtwards through the hallway. I cannot make my nose as sensitive as theirs. But that doesn’t make me less able to appreciate – and, critically, to explain my appreciation for – a drink’s aromas.
You don’t have to have magical sniffing powers to compile the most most useful tasting notes – by which I mean the tasting notes which allow the reader to most effectively gauge whether or not a wine, whisky, cider, perry might be worth a splash. These are not the notes which contain the densest list of aromas and flavours. Rather they are the notes which best articulate and evoke what the writer is smelling; which most effectively place a given drink in its context.
This isn’t something closed off from all but a special few. Smelling, tasting, and describing the aromas and flavours one finds isn’t some rarefied, pre-ordained gift from above. It is, like everything, a matter of paying attention, and of practice. Some will have a natural confidence in it, and for some it might come a little more slowly (as it did for me) but whoever you are it should come as no surprise that it is far easier to articulate the aromas in your hundredth tasting note than in your first. Your nose may not be any more physically sensitive by that point. But it is a good deal more practiced.
Engaging with what I am smelling not only opened a hitherto locked world of sensory experience for me, but it afforded me a far deeper personal appreciation of the food and drink I was consuming even on a casual level. Yes, there is pleasure to be found in simply drinking something without too much thought, but it’s a rare glass that I won’t stick my nose in far more often than I take a sip from it. The aromas of a drink are special, evocative and unique, and each one has a story to tell, however seemingly-humble that drink might be.
What’s more, as Chris has eloquently commented in the past, smells have a unique ability to trigger memories, even memories we might otherwise have lost entirely. Our sense of smell is a window into who we are, and the older I get the more comforting it is to know that at any moment an unexpected smell might shuffle me so viscerally back to the past.
So it was deeply disturbing when I woke up last week to discover my sense of smell had vanished entirely, and an enormous relief when it eventually returned as fully present and correct, insofar as I can tell, as ever. Aroma is part of what shapes our individual worlds. Not a competition, nor a stick to beat anyone with, but something those of us lucky enough to experience ought to take joy in wherever we can.
On which note, and apropos of nothing else whatsoever, let’s smell (and taste) a few perries. Three to get through; all pét nats, all from producers I admire a great deal.
First up is the 2020 vintage of Cwm Maddoc’s Betty Prosser. They’re not the only producer to harvest this pear – Monnow Valley and Palmer’s Upland Cyder also use it – but it’s nonetheless a rare variety indeed, mostly confined to a small handful of trees in Monmouthshire. I hugely enjoyed the 2018 vintage of this perry, indeed I described it at the time as my favourite Cwm Maddoc perry to date which, given I have run out of good things to say about this producer, is quite something. The 2020 is yours for £8.95 per 750ml bottle from The Cat in the Glass.
Sticking to single varieties, the 2020 vintage and Herefordshire producers, I have a Moorcroft from Bartestree up next. Surprisingly the first time this pear variety has appeared singly on Cider Review, possibly because I can’t remember Ross on Wye bottling one in recent years. It’s an early-ripening pear which is perhaps more famously known as ‘Stinking Bishop’ and is used to wash the rinds of Charles Martell’s Gloucestershire cheese of the same name. Since we’re chatting all things smell today I ought to jump in at this point and add that ‘Stinking Bishop’ was the sobriquet of the farmer on whose land this pear was originally raised, and is not a reflection on the aromas we are likely to discover. A 750ml bottle cost £10 from The Cat in the Glass.
Last up, rather excitingly, is the first ever perry from Find & Foster. Polly and Mat’s Devon cidery is unquestionably one of my favourites in the world, and I’ve probably not written as much about it as I ought to have, so I’m very much looking forward to trying a perry of theirs. I’m a little late to the party – I first tried this back at the 2021 Cider Salon, it’s been on sale for the better part of the year, and even wine celebrities like Olly Smith have wittered excitedly about it since. But of course, as is well known and widely acknowledged, nothing counts until it’s on Cider Review. It’s a pét nat made from four trees (hence the not very cryptic name) of Blakeney Red and Butt. Just 200 bottles were made, and somehow The Cat in the Glass still has a few – they’ll set you back £24.95 each.
Cwm Maddoc Betty Prosser 2020, 5.4% – review
How I served: Straight from fridge
Appearance: Rich gold, light petillance.
On the nose: Rather complex aromatics. Pear and pear skins, but also a somewhat sherried note – not in an oxidised way, rather it offers some of the aldehyde green apple, almond and light savoury yeast of a Manzanilla. With the softer, riper pear notes it’s an lluring, if delicate, combination.
In the mouth: Drier than the ‘medium sweet’ label had me expect. Round, ripe body and more fruity and floral than the nose. Poached pear, honeydew, floral honey in little dabs. A bit of that apple skin/almond character from the nose, but dialled back. Very fresh – acidity is gentle indeed, and just the lightest brush of tannin.
In a nutshell: Very tasty, bright and fresh, if not a 2018-style showstopper.
Bartestree Moorcroft 2020, 6.8% – review
How I served: Straight from fridge
Appearance: Pearlescent with a touch of rose. Medium fizz.
On the nose: Bold aromatics. Green pear, yuzu, cut grass and the skins of pears and kiwi fruits. A little riper canteloupe too – touches of tropicality. There is a bit of sulphur on this though – slightly reductive; just a little farmy. The fruit still comes through mind you – just a minor distraction. Which some people will very much like.
In the mouth: Really vivid delivery – this is a textural perry with lovely grippy tannins, a full body and a huge, fruity middle. A good whack of sweetness which the fruit and sugar balance nicely. Peach juice, tropical fruit, exotic citrus. One of those perries that wants a tiny cocktail umbrella! There’s still a touch of sulphur, but it’s very minor. Otherwise this is a riot.
In a nutshell: A big, rumbustious perry with just a touch of farmyard.
Find & Foster Four Trees Perry 2020, 4% – review
How I served: Straight from fridge.
Appearance: Clear gold, again with a rose tint. Bright mousse.
On the nose: Beautifully defined, clear aromatics. All the ripe fruit of Blakeney Red – canteloupe, kiwi, passion fruit, nectarine – plus the mineral complexities of Butt, that pear skin, wet slate and almost natural gas. (Ever since James pointed this out to me last year I can’t smell Butt pear without thinking of it – perry’s answer to Riesling and Kerosene … and I love it!) Almost a coastal salinity, too. Feels very of its place. Fruits and the sea.
In the mouth: Epic delivery, again combining the best qualities of both pears. Lovely, round, off-dry, juicy Blakeney Red body, bags and bags of pear fruit, plus that fullness and gentle tannic grip of Butt lending structure. Flavours follow aromatics perfectly but are even bigger and juicier – a pure fruit basket of pears, melons, passion fruits augmented by all those mineral qualities and a sherbety fizziness.
In a nutshell: A basket of ripe fruit swung on a coastal walk. Divine perry, worth every penny.
This trio makes me very glad of my restored nasal faculties. Three lovely young perries, all with their own distinct qualities but united by vibrancy, freshness and … aromatics.
All are worth your shekels and have much to recommend them, but the Find & Foster is my pick of the day. A superlative perry debut which I certainly hope will be repeated. Be sure to grab a bottle before it vanishes entirely.
This article was made possible by the generosity of people who wish to remain anonymous, but to whom we are immensely grateful. Thank you secret benefactors!