The 2nd edition of Karen MacNeil’s The Wine Bible has recently come into my possession. I appreciate and find it totally collectible to obtain as many reference books and encyclopaedias as I can on topics that interest me. Philosophy encyclopaedias are a given, wine books are relatively easy to come by, and texts on fragrance seem to move closer into the realm of the textbook than anything else.
What I enjoy about such texts is the ability to draw the perspective of multiple authorities on the same topic. Johnson’s, Robinson’s, and MacNeil’s perspective of Northern Rhône reds expectedly vary. Burr’s, Turin’s, and Olfactics’ perspective of Kouros ought to vary, and I expect they do. The extent of this variation is what I am interested in, and I am keen to explore the underlying sameness that underpins each individual perspective in this blog post and beyond.
MacNeil’s voice as a writer shines through quite generously and is unlike any other wine reference book I have yet to encounter. Most impressive is MacNeil’s decision to begin her tome with the section: ‘What Makes Great Wine Great?’ (tackling the philosophy, I like it). She, like my fervid work on this blog, attempts to turn the subjective and move it as close to objective as she can.
Each quality MacNeil lists moves into an abstract realm. I will mention a handful of the perfume-related ones.
Distinctiveness, suggests MacNeil, is the ability for a wine to capture a distinctive quality stemming from varietal, stylistic, and geographic factors. Adding to MacNeil, I will argue that the factors that create distinctiveness are based on continued repeated observation, hence becoming an expectation. I have talked about this at great length in an earlier musing (here). And further, woven throughout multiple postings are discussions of novelty in perfume, and a discussion of how one ought to judge a perfume based on its adherence to a stylistic archetype, à la Oriental, Chypre, and Fougere, and whether or not it is fair to use that as a condition.
The counter-consideration for distinctiveness is quite plain to me: can the archetype shift? If the quality of immense perfume, florality and minerality is lost in a certain Riesling, is it necessarily not a good Riesling? Allow me to suggest the following hypothetical: A certain producer in the Clare Valley produces a $15 Riesling, and dismissing colour, it happens to replicate the flavour profile of a 1945 Chateau Mouton Rothschild (a full-bodied Bordeaux red, with an astronomical price to match). If we judge wine on that quality of distinctiveness alone, that Riesling would be a terrible wine. If we do not look at distinctiveness, I suspect we’d get a different story.
In the case of fragrance, I think that perfume doesn’t have to be distinct, but rather it should strongly and convincingly do what it sets out to do. Adhere strongly to a category; or not adhere, strongly, then forming a unique scent in its own right.
In this instance, it is important to consider if a fragrance is judged as an internal piece with its own internal conditions, or if fragrances are to be judged against everything else with a set of conditions shared between all works. If it is the former, then distinctiveness is self-defined and one must look at the (objective) reality of each note and also consider how they are positioned within the composition as a whole. If it is the latter, then not only are internal considerations to be made, but to also reference archetypes, all things previous, and the practice of scent categorisation.
This introduces MacNeil’s condition of precision, which moves closer to perfume. ‘Is it clear?’ is MacNeil’s basic consideration here. Balance follows naturally.
Personally, I do not want to smell a muddled perfume. A good perfume is a cogent exhalation; a story that begins and dies while its in-between features a shifting interplay of changing volumes of each and every note. It is with that line of reasoning that essential oil is not perfume, but a simple smell. Precision then takes a different definition on the matter of perfume. It is a clear evolution while maintaining compresence of its parts. A perfume’s parts, I feel once again, need to match the internal logic of the composition and of themselves. Rose and patchouli are simultaneously up and down, whilst the chypre trio forms a sphere. Adding lemon to tea rose lifts the fragrance, but requires grounding from a third ingredient to create balance.
Precision is capable in the context of abstract works. Jicky is largely figurative, yet the careful addition of synthetic materials blur natural reference points adding a softly disrupting layer, rendering it blurry yet still legible. In my view, Jicky still remains precise because the compresence of its notes is there and doesn’t read as at all unbalanced.
No. 5 is similar, highlighting abstraction through aldehydes as one of its main features. Adding a cocktail of aldehydes adds a feeling of tremendous space and a wash of pure and cool white light over the entire composition. This does not reduce clarity or compresence, but rather, I am keen to suggest that aldehydes modify clarity within the work, reworking the scent so that it requires its equilibrium to be reset. Balance is not necessarily symmetry, I’ve said this before.
Maxims to be used in perfume reviewing can now be distilled and drawn:
- Internal Logic – Distinctiveness is self-defined and one must look at the (objective) reality of each note and also consider how they are positioned within the composition as a whole.
- External Logic – Not only are internal considerations to be made, but to also reference archetypes, all things previous, and the practice of scent categorisation.
- Precision – It is a clear evolution while maintaining compresence of its parts.
- Balance / Equilibrium – Naturally follows from precision, and ought to be judged internally.
- A perfume’s parts need to match the internal logic of the composition and of [the notes] themselves.
- Equilibrium is paramount.
- Balance is not necessarily symmetry.
Automat, Edward Hopper (1927)
Why am I doing this, so utterly dogmatically? There’s a sea of reviewers out there. The best way to separate myself is to justify myself.
For economical reasons, I will continue further discussion of the topic in a future monthly musings post.
Slightly related: I was playing with the perfumes on offer at Men’s Biz and was rearranging our Melbourne display. We do things by category rather than brand at Men’s Biz, and after smelling classically-styled scents from each category, I decided to not only do it by category but on a principle of highest-pitch to lowest-pitch. Doing so reminded me immediately of a figure from ‘The Art of Perfumery, and the Methods of Obtaining the Odours’, Piesse (1820-1882), Smound (here), Turin’s vibrational theory of olfaction, and the Michael Edwards Wheel. I am keen to do some research…