Sniff Your Wine, Prevent Alzheimer’s?

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.

mr-sniff

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.

montes-alpha-carmenere

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.

Stay warm,

Mary

[Photo: “Mr. Sniff” by Mário Fernandes, courtesy of Flickr. Montes Alpha Carmenère sent to BigSexyReds for review.]

 

 

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On Earth Day, I’ll Take My Wine Organic

Every community celebrates Earth Day – or, more accurately, International Mother Earth Day, as the United Nations renamed it in 2009, though I’ve never heard heard anyone use that wordy title. School kids plant flowers, neighborhoods sponsor cleanups, environmentalists remind us to reduce, reuse, recycle. It all helps.

This year, Earth Day stands out for a couple of reasons: more than 150 UN members will sign the Paris Agreement on Climate Change, an initiative supported by all 196 member-countries across the planet, pledging to strive for no more than a 1.5ºC global temperature rise. And the Earth Day Network, the group that first organized Earth Day in 1970, set this year’s theme as “Trees for the Earth” with the goal of planting 7.8 billion trees over the next five years.

Organic wine

My contribution will be a glass (or two) of organic red wine. I’ve tasted organic wines from various countries, including Chile, Argentina, Spain and Portugal. But if it’s made in the US, it must have that little green sticker you see in the photo above, “USDA Organic” – the US Dept. of Agriculture’s stamp of approval – or the winery can’t claim it’s organic.

For winemakers, it’s not easy being green. The government’s National Organic Program (NOP) set forth its requirements in a 7-page labeling guide. The most important feature of organic grapes is that they’re grown without fertilizers or pesticides. There’s a difference between organic grapes and organic wines – long story – but basically a vineyard must be free of substances on the NOP’s list of prohibited materials for three years before it can be certified organic.

So, how to keep a vineyard free of chemicals? By getting creative, mostly, and spending money. Spraying fertilizer and pesticides is easier and cheaper than investing in mulch to keep weeds down, or buying specialty soaps to help control insects. Some vineyard managers buy predator insects to eat the bugs that destroy their grapes. Some of the organic processes call for more people in the vineyard, which always drives up the cost.

And sometimes nothing works. If the vines become diseased or a pest invasion overwhelms the vineyard, the winegrower has no choice but to get rid of the problem as quickly and painlessly as possible. Once a non-approved fertilizer or pesticide is used, the vineyard loses its organic certification and has to undergo the long process of trying to go organic again.

It’s easier to grow organic grapes in some parts of the country than others. Few growers attempt it in the Midwest, for instance, because the humidity makes it easy for mold and rot to take hold of the vines, while dryer environments see fewer disease and insect problems.

Corks

But since few of us are lucky enough to own vineyards or wineries, there are other ways we can go green with wine. One is to recycle corks. We’ve all seen “cork art” – I’m not a fan, though I’ve seen a few works that were extraordinary. But there’s an easier way to recycle your corks, and that’s to sell them online, for about a dime each. A bag of 100 can bring you a cool $10, and they weigh so little, shipping costs are minimal. (You can sell those dreadful plastic corks, too, but you’ll only get about 5 cents each for those.) Some sellers “batch” them in different ways – Spanish wine corks, California corks, French corks.

Empty bottles

You can sell your empty wine bottles, too, for about $1 each. These cost more to ship, of course, but people who make their own vino need them. Soak the labels off, and you might want to separate them by color and shape.

Box wine

One last way to reduce your environmental footprint, wine-wise: drink boxed wines. It takes far fewer natural resources to manufacture and ship cardboard boxes with rubber bladders inside, than glass bottles. And stop snickering; some of this stuff is delicious. (And yes, some is nasty.) I’ve had great luck with Big Sexy Reds produced by Bota Box, Vin Vault and Black Box.

If you want to go on record as an “official” supporter of curbing climate change, go to the Earth Day Network’s website, http://www.earthday.org, and become a “citizen signer.” You can brag about it to the kids someday – over a glass of organic wine.

Wine Lingo of the Day =  Sustainable viticulture, growing grapes in a way that not only protects the environment organically, but also considers the long-term future of society and wine growing, addressing such issues as global warming, greenhouse gases and water usage.

[Photos by Mary Mihaly, Deb Harkness/Flickr (corks), Monika Andrae/Flickr (empties) and anokarina/Flickr (boxed wine).]

Cheers!

Mary