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Lust and Wine
by Ben Canaider
Magazine Issue: AUS/NZ Issue One

PHOTOS: Anthony Geernaert

Men, women and drunken rude stuff... Ben Canaider explains how wine's powerful smells can bring men and women together and turn the dull stocky accounts girl into Cindy Crawford.

Men and women get together for some pretty odd reasons. Pairings of men and men or women and women are more natural and obvious, of course, and require less analysis, but men and women? That's the weird one. This is why God, Allah and Buddha got together and invented wine; they knew that nothing else besides this powerful elixir would help keep bringing the two sexes together. In this sense, if it wasn't for wine, we wouldn't be here; apes or ants or something really would rule the earth.

Wine has this power for two reasons. One is to do with alcohol, as you would expect; but the other is more concerned with smell, and this is the more fundamental reason behind the whole men and women and wine and sex equation. To understand this more completely, we need to go back to the primordial swamp, or as Catholics call it, the Garden of Eden.

When men and women were mere prototypes and God was playing around with them (a bit like the winemakers at Penfolds do with their experimental reds and whites), He decided to connect the frontal lobes of our brains directly to our olfactory bulb. The olfactory bulb, or organ as it sometimes called, is that bit of equipment behind your nose and between your eyes that processes smells. Its tiny receptors sort of dangle down into your retro-nasal passage and pick up the aromas that pass that way either during in- or exhalation. This is how we smell.

This information is then fed straight into our frontal lobes, which are the parts of our brain that do all the hard mental work. No other electro-chemical information is processed as directly or as quickly as smell; smells all have VIP passes backstage, no questions asked. This connection, incidentally, suggests something important about how we came to perceive our surroundings: through our sense of smell we came to understand the world. Indeed, from an evolutionary point of view, our olfactory bulb could be said to have helped develop our frontal lobes' size and sharpness. And it's in our frontal lobes that the emotional part of our brain also resides, so it's no wonder smells can trigger off such powerful memories. Like love and sex and lust and desire and heartbreak and rejection...

With a certain air of fascinating mystery, the smells of wine (of which there are myriad, and all generated by the combination of hundreds of organic compounds that reside in every single glass) help unlock these desires, feelings, and all-too natural urges. Descriptors such as earth and hay, game, briar, blackberry, nettles, bacon, bay leaf, nutmeg, and cinnamon might not read like some sort of erotic story, but when coupled with the physiological and psychological effects of alcohol they can turn the short, wide and mousy blond accounts girl into Cindy Crawford. And it doesn't necessarily take big buck wines to do it.

Of course much of this potential attraction depends on the chemical messages flying between you and Cindy. These little chemical signals are called pheromones: they're the external equivalent of hormones - the chemical messages that bounce around on the inside of your body.

Pheromones travel by air or water, and they serve to attract members of the same species, or to deter or even frighten them away ... Recent research and unfounded marketing hype in the US has suggested that the pheromones in certain grape varieties - particularly pinot noir - are remarkably similar to some human sex pheromones. All those smells you get in the pinot noir grape - spices, earth, musk and the slightly feral, barnyard notes - are very similar smells to those associated with the principal male smell, androstenone. Truffles and the sort of oaky smells in so much wine fermented or matured in new oak barrels are similarly androstenone-like. Can this explain the world-wide love affair for heavily oaked wine? Is Roxburgh Chardonnay like wine porn - all cleavage and lipstick and a loose adductor muscle? Is this why cabernet sauvignon became so popular all around the world in the opulent 80s - because it was full of that gradually rotting vanilla/wood odour? Talk about going back to the primordial swamp... But whilst androstenone is the key male smell (women produce it in tinier amounts), what about the female, or girl smell, as we say in these times of greater gender equality?

According to the seminal work conducted on human olfaction by American doctor, the appropriately surnamed John Amoore, the key female smells are thiethylamine and isovaleric acid; these are characterized by fish and cheese odours respectively... Fishy smells are a bit tricky to find in wine, it must be said, but Australia's randiest wine-making doctor, Max Lake, has suggested that isovaleric acid can be simulated in sparkling wine - and Champagne in particular - and soft cheeses.

Of course, what all this science and olfaction hocus-pocus does is prove what folklore and tradition have known for years: Champagne and fantastic Burgundy gets you on a sure thing; and if it wasn't for wine and all those pheremonic characters bursting out of the glass, we wouldn't be here. Sex would remain the deed of darkness committed between mere brutes. Sober brutes, it must be said, but brutes nevertheless.

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