The exotic fruits and fresh citrus notes leapt out of the Pyrenean white wine, but oenologist Sophie Pallas said the delicate undertones of pineapple were harder to detect than they would have been before she fell ill with COVID-19.
Like so many infected with the coronavirus, Pallas lost her sense of taste and smell – senses upon which her livelihood depended – which has forced her to retrain her palate.
Pallas’ story underlines the pandemic’s risk not just for vintners, sommeliers and oenologists in France’s multi-billion dollar wine industry but also for chefs, parfumiers, chocolatiers and others for whom finely-tuned taste buds or noses are vital tools of the trade.
“It was like being in black hole. It was a terrifying feeling, a total loss of my bearings,” Pallas recalled.
Wine, she said, “stopped generating any feeling, any emotion, any pleasure, because all I could detect was the alcohol and the acidity.”
France’s wine industry is worried.
A survey of more than 2,600 industry professionals by the Union of Oenologists showed that among those who had caught COVID-19, more than a third said the disease had affected their ability to do their work. Student oenologists were dropping out of courses after falling ill with the virus, the union said.
The union’s leader, Didier Fages, said the body had written to President Emmanuel Macron and Prime Minister Jean Castex to ask that wine tasters be moved to the front of the queue for anti-COVID shots to safeguard livelihoods.
Asked what it meant for a wine taster to be deprived of their sense of taste or smell, Fages responded: “It’s like asking a musician to play without his instrument.”
As she recovered, Pallas would raid her kitchen morning and evening and deeply inhale the scent of spices, vanilla pods, coffee beans — whatever she could lay her hands on — to retrain her nose.
While she now easily identifies the dominant flavours in a wine, Pallas said she still struggled with the deeper, more complex notes.
It is a process of re-education that is all too familiar to Champagne-maker Charles Philipponnat, who doctors put into an induced coma for a week as COVID-19 ravaged his body in October and awoke to find he had partially lost his senses.
The aromas of dark fruits and berries were simple to detect, but not those of tangerines and ripe citrus fruits, said the 58-year-old whose finest vintages sell for some 600 euros a bottle.
With early spring marking the start of the ‘assemblage’, the delicate blending of fermented and reserve wines to create the base for a champagne-maker’s next cuvee, Philipponnat said his taste and smell was back to 90% pre-COVID levels.
“It will have taken me six months to rediscover my reflexes,” he said.