People who know wine are forever swirling and sniffing it. Swirl and sniff, swirl and sniff, sometimes several times before each taste. You might think they’re being silly, even pretentious, but in addition to enhancing the wine’s taste they’re actually boosting their brain power: scientists recently discovered that inhaling those exquisite aromas just might keep you from getting Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s diseases.
Vinepair reports that researchers at the Cleveland Clinic Lou Ruvo Center for Brain Health in Las Vegas studied the brains of 13 master sommeliers and 13 people who, in the scientists’ words, held “less interesting jobs.” They found the sommeliers, who sniff and taste wine every day, were less likely to get Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s than those who don’t smell for a living.
It turns out the parts of the brain that control smell, also control memory. It’s no surprise that our memory regions are the first to decline when a neurodegenerative disease such as Alzheimer’s sets in. And we’ve known for a long time that these same regions – the right insula and entorhinal cortex, if you must know – also identify aromas for us. But this study, published in the journal Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, is the first time scientists have documented that those areas not only become thicker when we smell a lot, but that thicker brain-parts means less risk of Alzheimer’s. “Smell lots of wine, build resistance to memory loss,” researchers wrote.
So when it comes to staying sharp and knowing your wines, (brain) size does matter. They called this a pilot study on “expertise in the brain” – isn’t that a great phrase? And those who smell deeply every day, exercising that part of the brain, apparently strengthen not only their ability to smell better – a critical skill for wine pros – but also their memory, another requirement for sommeliers who must remember vintages, soils, weather patterns and other details that make them wine experts.
But you don’t have to be a master sommelier to thicken-up your sniffing and memory quarters. It is true, researchers wrote, that “these differences [between the brains of professional sniffers and non-professionals] suggest that specialized expertise and training might result in enhancements in the brain…” But if you drink wine – or spirits, or beer – you might be able to sharpen your own memory and head off dementia by sniffing what’s in your glass and, with every sip, reaching with your mind to identify the smells.
This jibes, in an indirect way, with what a friend told me years ago. This lady, a nurse by training, built the first Alzheimer’s facilities in Ohio. We were talking about exercising our brains by doing mental calisthenics – crossword puzzles, Sudoku and other brainy games. She said those activities were fine, but a better tactic is to keep learning. Take a class – learn a language, visit new lands, keep exposing yourself to new information and memorize as much as you can.
She forgot to add, it helps to sniff and sip wine while you’re doing it. All of that learning is thirsty work.
(And if your friends, family, good-looking neighbors, UPS delivery person and other contacts enjoy learning, too, please share via the social media buttons below. Thanks!)
Wine Lingo of the Day: “Brett” is short for Brettanomyces, a yeast that can infect a barrel, a vineyard or an entire winery. It produces an unfortunate smell in the wine that will remind you of horses or a barn. At the same time, a tiny amount of Brett actually can improve the wine’s complexity. At that very low level, the Brett smell often dissipates with decanting and swirling.
Vino ‘Views: Brett is on my mind this week because I thought I detected a slight smell in my wine the other night. I was drinking one of my favorites, 2013 Montes Alpha Carmenère (14.5% alcohol, $25), and I wondered if it was infected. But after a brief decanting, the Brett aroma was gone and an earthy, sultry suede layered with French roast coffee emerged – and, in fact, the winemaker suggests decanting the wine for 30 minutes. The tannins were medium-low but the taste of thick grape peel lingered on the finish, with a hint of cantaloupe rind. On the second day the manly leather character softened to a plum, slightly floral taste. I’d saved this bottle for a cool fall evening; the Carmenére’s high alcohol level warmed me in my chilly living room. This wine is a BIG Sexy Red, and I loved it.
[Photo: “Mr. Sniff” by Mário Fernandes, courtesy of Flickr. Montes Alpha Carmenère sent to BigSexyReds for review.]