perfume reviews

The rules of engagement for wine writing are largely unwritten, but strict: you can praise, whine, or complain about a given wine. But whatever you do, never, ever, under any circumstances, insult/offend/trash a winemaker or their respective wines. It’s simply not done. The perfume world is different. Exhibit “A,” Perfumes, the A-Z Guide, by Luca Turin and Tania Sanchez. Turin and Sanchez are a husband-wife team who also happen to be two of the most well-respected perfume experts and writers on the planet. Their Perfumes is a superbly written resource with chapters on the history of perfume, masculine and feminine fragrances, answers to frequently asked perfume questions, and my favorite chapter called, “How to Connect Your Nose to Your Brain.” But the majority of the book is made up of a guide with reviews of over 1,800 commercially produced fragrances for both women and men. It’s my favorite part of the book and worth the read.

Turin and Sanchez rate each fragrance on a scale of one-to-five stars as follows: one star for “Avoid,” two stars “Not Recommended,” three stars “Good,” four stars “Recommended,” and five stars for “Masterpiece.” After reading a handful of reviews, one quickly discovers just how different the perfume universe is from wine. Turin and Sanchez take no prisoners and will call out a perfumer by name and ruthlessly gut them and/or their respective house if they don’t feel their perfume is up to their standards. Or, worse yet, if they feel said perfume is a shameless commercial exercise masquerading as fine fragrance. But both writers also wax poetic about the best five-star perfumes with amazing prose, writing in a style completely foreign to what’s the norm for wine. These reviews are a joy to read.

But first, the one-star reviews, which are impressive in their own painful way. Here’s a selection of my favorites. If you’re keeping score, LT = Luca Turin and TS = Tania Sanchez.

One-Star Perfume Reviews

1. Alba (Profumum) “hazelnut coffee” (general description)

“This emetically vile composition smells like a cross between Tia Maria and floor cleaner.” LT

2. Armani Code Elixir de Parfum (Armani) “sugared floral”

“I have nightmares of being the Chihuahua in the purse of the woman who wears it.” TS

3. Amarige (Givenchy) “killer tuberose”

“…it is also truly loathsome, perceptible even at parts-per-billion levels, and at times incompatible with others’ enjoyment of food, music, sex, and travel. If you are reading this because it is your darling fragrance, please wear it at home exclusively, and tape the windows shut.” LT

4. Aqua Allegoria Pivoine Magnfica (by Guerlain) “nasty floral”

“Like chewing tinfoil while staring at a welding arc.”  LT

5. Atlas Cedar (Jean-Charles Brosseau) “peppery woody”

“Our masculine soup of the day is Pine-Sol with freshly ground pepper. Unconscionably hideous.” LT

6. Beat (Rimmel) “Alizé belch”

“At last we have commercially available in the West the powerful passion-fruit odor of which all clean bathrooms in Southeast Asia reek, I assume because it encourages visitors to leave quickly.” LT

7. Bright Crystal (Versace) “nasty floral”

“Hideously screechy.” LT

8. Clean Fresh Laundry (Clean) “lime musk”

“A sniff is enough to put you off personal hygiene for weeks at a time.” LT

9. Clean Provence (Clean) “citrus musk”

“I lived in Provence for eight years and mercifully never encountered this extraordinary accord of cheap gin-and-tonic and wet concrete.” LT

10. Heiress (Paris Hilton) “fruity floral”

    “Hilariously vile 50/50 mix of cheap shampoo and canned peaches.” LT

    11. Iceberg Homme (Iceberg) “sad shampoo”

      “That’s him alright. Now put him back in the freezer.” LT

      12. Laguna Homme (Salvador Dali) “trashoid oriental”

        “If you drive a Moscow taxi at night, this one’s for you.” LT

        13. Love in White (Creed) “burial wreath”

          “A chemical white floral so disastrously vile words nearly desert me. If this were a shampoo offered with your first shower after sleeping rough for two months in Nouakchott, you’d opt to keep the lice.” LT

          14. Nanette Lapore (Nanette Lapore) “fruity death”

            “In its own way, almost perfect: the most intensely sweet, cloying, syrupy fruity floral possible, radiating all the way down the block and lingering for years, causing fuzzy pink pom-poms to spontaneously erupt on shoes and sweaters all around your zip code. Vile, yes, but somebody in a jeweled cardigan has been waiting for it all her life.” TS

            15. Serpentine (Cavailli) “fruity amber”

              “An off-brand whiskey sour poisoned by your enemies. Run away.” TS

              16. Spellbound (by Estée Lauder) “medicated treacle”

                “Powerfully cloying and nauseating. Trails for miles. Frightens horses. Gets worse.” TS

                17. Ultraviolet (Paco Rabanne) “medicinal fruity”

                  “The bathrooms in hell smell like this. Aggressively, blindingly horrible, the worst part of fake grape flavor bolstered by the strongest artificial sweet amber concocted by man or devil. I want to cry.” TS

                  18. Ô Oui! (Lancôme) “over-exposed floral”

                    This is a fresh floral in which every blindingly powerful floral aroma-chemical has been harnessed to include a remarkable sensation of bone pain that rises from the roof of your mouth to your forehead, similar to what happens when you eat ice cream too quickly. Chiefly of neurological interest.” LT

                    Five-Star Perfume Reviews

                    At this point, it’s only fair to include some of Turin’s and Sanchez’ five star reviews, at the very least to provide some much-needed balance. As I mentioned, these reviews tend to be lengthy and prosaic, so I will paraphrase the highlights of some of the authors’ reviews of great and classic perfumes. Again, LT = Luca Turin and TS = Tania Sanchez.

                    1. 31 Rue Cambon (Chanel) “floral ambery”

                      “I cannot remember the last time, if ever, a perfume gave me such an instantaneous impression of ravishing beauty at first sniff. There is an affecting softness, a gentle grace to 31 that beggars belief … By contrast, 31 shows that in the higher reaches of art, time is suspended. One of the ten greats of all time, and precious proof that perfumery is not yet dead.” LT

                      2. L’Air du Désert Marocain (Tauer Perfumes) “incense oriental”

                      “One hale breath of Désert’s vast spaces clears the head of all the world’s nonsense … Even without the fragrance’s name to prompt me, I would still feel the same peace when smelling it that I’ve only felt once before, when driving across the southwestern desert one morning: all quiet, no human habitation for miles, the upturned bowl of the heavens infinitely high above … Each solitary object stood supersaturated with itself, full to the brim, sure to spill over if subjected to the slightest nudge. Wear this fragrance and feel the cloudless sky rush far away above you.” TS

                      3. Eau de Guerlain (Guerlain) “citrus verbena”

                      “Eau du Guerlain is to citrus what the mandolin, with its doubled-up strings, is to guitar. It is as if, by some arcane miracle of perfumery, the ivory and green notes of citron and verbena have been made to sing in harmony with the jaunty lemon-bergamot tune exactly a major third on either side, giving the whole thing a ravishing, nostalgic timbre. Even more miraculous, Eau du Guerlain has a coherent, fresh drydown that completely transcends the cologne genre. If you want citrus, there is simply nothing better out there.” LT

                      4. Insolence eau de parfum (by Guerlain) “Godzilla floral”

                      “…Maurice Roucel’s serious compositions are always complex, but there is so much going on here that it feels like a seventies action-movie poster, with a helicopter hovering over a burning building to the right, two cars jumping off a pier in the middle, a girl in a white dress being lifted out of a swamp in a guy’s arms at left, and an erupting volcano in the background. The accord is tuberose, red fruit, orange blossom, and a green-peppery Poême-type note that fits perfectly into this context. All four are heavy hitters, and the combination is simply huge. There is something reckless, irreversible, cataclysmic about pressing the spray button on Insolence EdP, even when it is pointed well away from you. I put some on a smelling strip, left it on the table, and walked out for lunch. The perfume ran after me: enough had strayed on to the back of my hand to create a cloud of pink-neon trashiness that made me feel like I was being driven to the local café in a stretch limo. When I came back, the strip greeted me heartily across the room. I know I will regret saying this (especially sitting next to it at dinners and concerts), but this Insolence is a masterpiece.” LT

                      5. Knize Ten (Knize) “amber leather”

                      “Knize Ten, like the sole veteran of the Grande Armée who lived long enough to be photographed, must feel terribly lonely these days, for it is the only survivor of the androgynous, reckless, dandified twenties leathers.… For a long period of time KT was out of stock, the firm did not know when it would come back, etc. I feared the worst. I cannot vouch for the exact resemblance of today’s formula to the original. What I can say is (a) it smells wonderful, with all the proper requisites of a leather, including smoky and amber notes firmly in place; (b) it contains a splendid strawberry top note, which, by a classic piece of perfumery misdirection, kisses you on the lips just as you focus on the dry, dark background; (c) it goes on forever in a completely civilized manner; and (d) it does not cost the earth. Let me put it simply: everyone should own this perfume, because there is only one like it.” LT

                      6. Kouros (Yves Saint Laurent) “musky fougère

                      “Twenty-seven years after its release, the structure of Kouros is still so novel, so immediately recognizable, and so impossible to imitate that it is probably a sporadic case in perfumery. It smells like the tanned skin of a guy with gomina in his hair stepping out of the shower wearing a pre-WWI British dandified fragrance: citrus, flowers, musk. It has that faintly repellent clean-dirty feel of other people’s bathrooms, and manages to smell at once scrubbed and promissory of an unmade bed. The fact that all these images are conjured up by a fragrance in itself so consummately abstract is a testimony to the brilliance of its creator, Pierre Bourdon. Such things happen not by accident but only as a work of genius.” LT

                      7. Missoni (Missoni) “kaleidoscopic floral”

                      “Maurice Roucel has, over the years, proved himself a master of compositions at both ends of the perfume time scale, i.e., harmony and melody… This is one of the most accomplished fragrances in years, combining in a uniquely convincing way both the horizontal and vertical elements of a perfume score. … The effect is an uncanny feeling that the perfume is alive, somehow composing itself as it goes along. Most other perfumes are rapidly fading photographs: this one is a movie.” LT

                      8. New York (Parfums de Nicolaï) “orange amber”

                      “Smelling New York as I write this, eighteen years after its release, is like meeting an old high school teacher who had a decisive influence on my life: I may have moved on, but everything it taught me is still there, still precious, and wonderful to revisit. New York’s exquisite balance between resinous orange, powdery vanilla, and salubrious woods shimmers from moment to moment, always comfortable but never slack, always present but never loud. It is one of the greatest masculines ever, and probably the one I would save if the house burned down. Reader, I wore it for a decade.” LT

                      9. No. 5 parfum (Chanel) “powdery floral”

                      “… Alone among fragrances known to me, it gives the irresistible impression of a smooth, continuously curved, gold-colored volume that stretches deliciously, like a sleepy panther, from top note to drydown. Yes, it contains rose, jasmine, and aldehydes in the same way that a perfect body contains legs and arms. But I defy all who smell this to keep enough wits about them to worry about the parts.” LT

                      “… It is an ideally proportioned wonder, all of a piece, smooth to the touch and solid as marble, with no sharp edges and no extraneous fur trimming, a monument of perfect structure and texture. And some people think perfume is not an art.” TS

                      10. Poison (Dior) “huge tuberose”

                        Reviewing Poison is a bit like road-testing an Abrams M1 tank in the evening rush hour. People just seem to get out of your way, and if they don’t, you just swivel that turret to remind them you’re not kidding. This is the fragrance everybody loves to hate, the beast that defined the eighties, the perfume that cost me a couple of friendships and one good working relationship. It is also unquestionably the best dressed-up, syrupy tuberose in history, and in my opinion it buries Amarige and the first Oscar de la Renta in the “make it a night he’ll never forget” category. Every perfume collector has to have this, but please never, ever wear it to dinner.” LT


                        What’s the take away here? The easy answer is that perfume writing, by its very nature, is remarkably subjective, far beyond what’s the norm for wine. And like wine, writing about perfume relies heavily on the expertise of the given writer. I’m envious of Turin and Sanchez for their ability to not only associate fragrances with shapes, colors, personalities, and life memories, but also their talent at crafting meaningful reviews of a subject so ephemeral. I’m also a bit jealous that in their industry, they’re allowed to not hold back and really let it fly if they don’t think a perfume is up to snuff. Would the wine world be better off with extremes in writing and reviews like the ones above? It’s hard to say, but at the very least there would be far more discussion—however heated—about important topics in our industry.

                        Sometimes I think we need to step outside the comfort zone of our insular wine world to see what other olfactory-based industries are doing. Even if wearing fragrance is taboo (pardon the pun) during wine working hours, we should explore it if only to broaden our olfactory vocabularies. I am the first to demand a no-fly zone for wearing fragrance at tastings and classes. But sometimes I think we as an industry deprive ourselves of the joy that can come from wearing fine fragrances. Finding a balance will only lead to a bit more olfactory enlightenment, much to the betterment of us all.