The Year Without Smell

Follow Your Nose Wine Woman Song scaled

In the greater scheme of things it was nothing. But it was a peculiar type of nothing that lasted for months.

I lost my sense of smell during the c19 times. As you can imagine, smell is important for wine. As I came to find out, smell is a lot more than just my profession.

Having no sense of smell put me in a loop for months. Then again, that’s not saying much in a rollercoaster year for everyone. My nose not working only added to the dizzy disorientation.

I got off relatively lightly compared to many people (including a friend who passed away during the early peak in 2020).

All you had to do was look out the window and see the ambulances lined up outside to remind you. To paraphrase Jack White and his ubiquitous football song, every person has their own story to tell, from the Queen of England to the hounds of hell.

Every generation has a story on how it ruined their lives.

Talking about wine is trivial, and yet, the wine industry was also deeply affected, like everything else.

For me, personally, it was a loss of smell. Because I am still coming to terms with this time without smell, I putting down my thoughts here.

Apart from being unable to move from the crushing fatigue, I had no sense of taste. Everything had the texture of stale white bread.

Or I could only smell chemical smells, even in things without man-made chemicals, like black coffee.

Sometimes I would imagine the the weird taste of coffee to have something to do with all the people who made the coffee – and the journey from where the beans were harvested to Italy to UK.

Coffee is one of my favourite smells in the world. I thank it for bringing me back to life every day. Now it was gone, and lost in my own memories, I thought about what was behind my daily coffee ritual (yes, even when unwell).

The web of people involved in the production of coffee: Who were they? Were they treated well? What were their lives like?

Did the virus allow me to have a super-sensory power – was I tasting sweat and tears of people far down the coffee supply chain?

When you have so much time on your hands, there is imagination. And a sensitivity to nature. Nature’s vast web connecting us together. Through supply lines, through virus, through the environment.

I spent most days looking at the trees outside the window change colour and the days grow longer and then shorter. 2020 was a jubilant year for nature. Nature was ecstatic. Not having cars and traffic was also a rare joy. Only until the cars disappeared, I realised how much noise and stress traffic caused. No longer did we have a fine black dust on the window sill.

It took me about 4 months to taste wine again. Or more to the point, trust myself I was tasting correctly.

I did not find any joy in wine or tasting – it fell dead flat like a prat fall on the tongue. I was not seduced by it – I just fell full of liquid.

The only upside was the pleasure I had sharing dinner with my husband in these formless days. The wine gave our time shape.

It made me think about wine in a new way.

Without taste, and without applying taste, it became its lowest common denominator. Almost a knock out one-two punch.

Without a sense of smell, wine had no greater meaning. But without smell, other things lost their meaning, too.

I felt like I was swimming in custard; that I became custard. (I ate a lot of the traditional Devon’s custard pandering to the sick child!).

Nietzsche and a nose for philosophy

Frederick Nietzsche announced philosopher’s must “have a nose” for philosophy.

Nietzsche claimed:

“All my genius is in my nostrils,” condemning philosophy for failing to give due attention to the sense of smell.

Philosophers move forward into the world with a sense that most people ignore until it is gone. To sniff things out. A sixth sense.

It took me a while to return my palate to a state where I could trust it again. Could I have lost it forever? Had my tastebuds been damaged forever? I mean, who knew what the virus was doing at the time.

I would ask my husband (who also has his diploma and has a superb palate) what he is tasting and see whether we match up. Carefully calibrating my tastes again.

What is left in wine when you lose your sense of taste?

When expressive wines are lost on you without a sense of taste, the relentlessness of drinking is what is left. There is the social relaxation, but the wine without taste is like a repeating formula when its stripped of it smell and context.

For nearly a year, if I did drink anything, I mostly drank the same wine. It was an unfiltered wine (with a lot of sediment) from Sicily, imported by Caves de Pyrene and about £9 a bottle.

It’s not a complex wine. It’s organic, like most wines from Sicily are organic by default. But the variation in each bottle helped me bring back my sense of smell.

By the time there was a vintage change, I could taste it. The difference. And I knew I was back.


Planeta Etna Bianco – I have always admired Planeta in Sicily. This is an affiliate link – if you click on this link I will get a few pennies. However, recommendations are my own.

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