The well established conventional wisdom is that as we get older we lose our ability to taste and smell. That’s not good if you enjoy food and wine and especially if you write about food and wine. This article on Food and Wine Magazine’s blog does not challenge the conventional wisdom but it does emphasize how much individual variation there is.
When it comes to the sense of smell, the U.S. National Institute of Aging reports that 30 percent of Americans aged between 70 and 80 and nearly a third of those aged 80 or older have some problems, while a 2002 study found 62.5 percent of 80 to 97 year olds had some smell loss. “The degree of decline varies widely,” says Cowart. It becomes harder to discriminate among smells and particular aromas that we lose sensitivity to can vary wildly from person to person.
Those odds are not awful.
Furthermore, memory can help put you in the category of the roughly 70% that don’t show much decline.
Memory also augments our powers of smell discrimination. A 2011 study of perfumers conducted by Jean-Pierre Royet, a neuroscientist at the University Claude Bernard in Lyon, France, showed that much of the ability to detect and identify thousands of different odours depended on how much training each individual had. Royet and his researchers compared the brain scans of novice perfumers and those with up to 35 years of experience while they tried to identify dozens of odours. Both groups scored well, but the pros were more accurate and faster and used a different part of the brain—the area involved in memory recall.
So wine and food professionals who eat and drink mindfully may be able to compensate for some decline in natural ability by relying on extensive taste memories.
And a great taster in decline might even be more discriminating than a normal person in their prime. I recall a dinner at which the great Napa Valley wine collector Barney Rhodes, in his late 70s, nodded off, then woke up to identify a mystery wine poured into his glass.
Scores of older winemakers, importers, brokers and sommeliers are still using their noses and taste buds to make critical decisions on wines—a fact that should give ageing wine lovers reason to continue to have confidence in their own wine opinions.
Some of the reports in this article are anecdotal and may be nothing but happy talk. But we have to take advantage of those half-full glasses when we find them.