Journalist Chandler Burr’s introduction to the wine world came via an invitation that most would kill for.
The New York writer's 2003 book "The Emperor of Scent," based on the work of scientist and perfume expert Luca Turin, had come to the attention of the then-editor of Gourmet magazine, Ruth Reichl, who proposed a trip. The magazine would pay Burr and Turin to go anywhere in the world and drink wine.
Turin chose southwest France, and the two merrily enjoyed a gourmet extravaganza through the region on their dream ticket, allowing Burr to discover the appellation of Jurançon, famed for its late-harvest white wines made from petit and gros manseng. Most famously, Jurançon wine was used at the baptism of the future King Henry IV to anoint the lips of the royal infant.
Back in New York, Burr filed his article. Reichl sent it back. “She said that she loved the narrative, but there was one huge, fundamental problem with it,” he recalls. “She sent me with Luca because he’s a perfume critic … but we didn’t do a single piece of criticism. There was nothing that said, ‘This is a good work or a bad work’.”
Turin once described Gucci Rush perfume as smelling “like an infant’s breath mixed with his mother’s hairspray.” As Burr explains, “His criticism was so witty and wry, and frequently so cutting and brutal, and that’s what Ruth thought he would do with wine."
Perplexed, Burr called Turin in London and put the question to him. Why had he not critiqued the wine as he would a perfume? Why had neither of them thought of it? (And: “What the fuck do we do now?”)
Turin called Burr back 24 hours later with his answer: “Never thought about it." After mulling it over, Turin announced that he could not critique the wines in the same way as eau de toilette. “Perfumes are made by humans," explained Turin. "They are works of art, and art is communication between humans. These wines are made, ultimately, by nature, and you can’t critique nature.” This comment was added as a footnote in the published article.
Of course, many winemakers would argue exactly the opposite, and Turin did go on to say that during the tour, he’d found a similarity between the Jurançon they had tasted and the great Caron perfumes Nuit de Noel and En Avion: a creamy marron glacé note. He also compared Sauternes to the big, fruity, floral style of Guerlain perfume. Yet, he still couldn’t critique them in the same way.
There are other points at which wine and fragrance overlap. In 2008, Givenchy created limited-edition Millésimes fragrances using specific floral harvests from that year, in the same way a wine vintage would. And Burr is currently in talks that would see him working with various perfumers to create a new wine-based perfume.
Experiencing life through one’s nose has opened new doors for Burr. After four years as The New York Times' perfume critic, he was hired to set up and curate the new Center of Olfactory Art at New York’s Museum of Arts and Design. His first exhibition, The Art of Scent 1889-2012, will allow visitors to trace the evolution of modern perfume using solely their sense of smell. It opens next month and runs until February 24, 2013.
Burr also works with chefs to host “scent dinners,” creating menus with each course, including one edible and one olfactory experience. The perfumes he uses have gastronomic ingredients. For example, at the Four Seasons Hotel in Bangkok, he paired Dior Addict – with notes of mandarin peel, tonka bean and green banana – with a fish course accompanied by a mandarin-green banana salsa and a tonka bean sauce.
At the Four Seasons Hotel in Florence, the Different Company's Sel de Vetiver was matched with crudo of scallops with sea urchin and sea truffle, salad of seaweed and rock salt from Cervia. The creator of the perfume had told Burr: "I decided I wanted to do a perfume that spoke about salt."
Early on, Burr was very strict about not having alcohol at the scent dinners. “Spirits wipe everything out and wine competes by getting into the nasal epithelium when really, you want a clean palate,” he says. Over time, however, he has discovered it can work. For example, sweet wine is an ingredient in the perfume J’Adore and typically used by the French in making poached pears.
In his native United States, Burr bemoans the overuse of room deodorizers and hand sanitizers, which has led to an often sanitized environment. As a result, he says, Americans "don’t have an education in scent,” unlike the French and Italians.
But he believes that wine can provide a way to overcome that shortfall, as tasting is one of the few situations in which people have to analyze what they smell.
“I think a lot of wine smells better than it tastes," says Burr. "I’m not saying it tastes bad, but on the nose it’s absolutely spectacular." And, most importantly, "when you taste wine, that’s one of the few times an American would get their nose right in it, because it’s so important to the experience of wine.”