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Champagne Tasting

by Steven Novella, Dec 02 2013

One of my primary goals for this blog is to reinforce, strongly and frequently, the notion of neuropsychological humility – the understanding that our perceptions and memories are deeply flawed and biased. There appears to be almost no limit to the extent to which people can deceive themselves into believing bizarre things.

Psychologists have documented these flaws and biases in numerous ways, and when confronted with demonstrations of such people tend to be amused, as if they were being entertained by a magic show, but do not necessarily apply the lessons to themselves and their own lives. This is one of the key differences, in my opinion, between skeptics (critical thinkers) and non-skeptics – a working knowledge of self-deception.

With that in mind, here is yet another study showing that extrinsic factors and expectation affect our sensory perceptions. I will say right off that this is a small study involving only 15 subjects, but given the nature of the results it is still useful.

The researchers tested 4 champagne experts, 6 intermediates, and 5 novices with a blinded test of 7 different champagnes and sparkling wines ranging in price from £18 to £400. In addition to being blinded to the price, they were blind-folded so they could not see the color of what they were tasting. The results were essentially all over the place, showing no clear correlation to price or expertise. The intermediates and experts rated the £40 the highest, while the novices rated the £75 the highest. The novices and intermediates rated the £400 bottle among the lowest while the experts rated it average.

That much is not surprising – price does not necessarily relate to objective quality. For those on a limited budget, it is nice to know that inexpensive sparkling wine fares just as well as pricey champagne. Essentially, find something cheap that you like.

The tasters were also asked to estimate the ratio of red to white grapes contributing to the sparkling wine/champagne. Conventional wisdom has it that this ratio primarily determines the unique taste of each product. The study showed that even the experts were completely unable to infer this ratio from blindly tasting the sparkling wine or champagne. Rather, their judgements seemed to be influenced by dose and alcohol content.

This small study (which should be repeated with larger numbers) is in line with earlier studies showing essentially the same thing. For example, Morrot, Brochet, and Dubourdieu performed a study in which they colored white wine red, and then had 54 tasters describe the wine. They used red metaphors to describe the wine, as would typically be used to describe a red, rather than white, wine.

This demonstrates that what we see influences what we taste. There are many more examples of how one sense will influence another – essentially our brains integrate multiple sensory streams into one coherent narrative. What we experience is in no way objective, it is altered to make everything seem to fit together.

In another study researchers exposed wine tasters to positive and negative statements about the wine; they did this both before and after they tasted the wine, but before they reported their impression of the wine. The comments affected the tasters’ evaluations of the wine when they occurred before, but not after, tasting the wine. This suggests that the tasters were not just following what they were told about the wine despite their experience, but rather that the positive and negative statements actually affected their experience of the taste of the wine.

A recent analysis of wine contests over several years, including expert judges being given the same wine from the same bottle multiple times, shows general inconsistency in rating wine (poor intra-rater and inter-rater reliability).

In yet another study the price tag associated with wine affected the experience of “pleasantness” of the wine. There is a consistent pattern in the research – subjective experiences can be modulated by suggestion, expectation, and other sensory cues.

Of course this has profound implications for areas beyond wine tasting. Suggestion and expectation, for example, would also influence our subjective reporting of symptoms in a clinical study.

Conclusion

Wine-tasting may be particularly subjective, but there is plenty of other research to indicate that the basic phenomenon of subjective experience being highly modifiable by external and internal factors, is generalizable. This has implications for everyday life, in addition to research into any subjective phenomenon.

It is for this and other reasons that good scientific protocol always strives to minimize or eliminate any subjective variables from research.

Recommended Reading

12 Responses to “Champagne Tasting”

  1. António Marques says:

    Interesting – the Placebo Effect in full swing!
    Similar results can be also found in Hi-Fi equipment auditions – with people not being able to correlate price and quality of results… but only when they do not know the price and cannot see the products being used.
    What you know about the product (being it beverages, sound or anything else) influences what your brain “thinks” about it.

    • madscientist says:

      Well, you’d first have to find people who actually have good hearing. I would trust my luck with a violinist or cellist but not with a brass instrument player. If you pick people at random from the general public I wouldn’t be the least bit surprised if most of them couldn’t tell crappy speakers from good ones. I’m one of those people who really couldn’t care less about the brand; when I helped a buddy select speakers a few years ago we chose the $800 pair which was clearly vastly superior in quality to the $2600 pair.

  2. Thomas Paine says:

    Personal anecdotal experience with bourbon and beer, my preferred beverages, supports this. I really thought I could tell a $30 Maker’s Mark from a $14 Evan Williams. But in a blind taste test I could not. It was an eye-opening experience for me. And a money-saving one as well.

  3. Carl says:

    I believe there’s one more study worth mentioning which showed that the strongest predictor of how experts will rate a wine is how the other experts around them are rating it. In other words, inter-rating reliability is much higher when experts taste wine together than when they taste independently.

    By the way, the phrase “their judgements seemed to be influenced by dose and alcohol content” is probably true of all of us…

  4. James St. John says:

    I’ve kinda suspected for some time that wine connoisseurs were talking subjective fantasy. But then, I’m not into booze, personally. I have noted quite a few “geology of wine” field trips offered in association with geology conferences over the years. I’ve never attended one, so I wonder about the quality of the science associated with such field trips. Yes – they can talk about bedrock geology & soil chemistry & soil moisture & climate. But does this really relate in a meaningful, measureable, objective way to the grapes and to the wine?

    • tmac57 says:

      I think those factors would apply to almost any food crop.There is a reason that we have a ‘grain belt’.
      You can’t plant and successfully grow just any crop anywhere you like.Climate and soil matter.

  5. Martin says:

    “Suggestion and expectation, for example, would also influence our subjective reporting”

    This reminds me of some research Dan Ariely did by adding a few drops of vinegar to beer to create “MIT Brew”.

    http://lifehacker.com/5639710/budweiser-balsamic-vinegar-and-how-expectations-affect-our-views

  6. Tom says:

    How does one qualify as an “expert” in champagne? An ability to rattle off the various vineyards in a perfect French accent? An expensive wine cellar? Advanced cirrhosis?

    The New Yorker has a great article on a contemporary art dealer. I’ll bet the same holds true in that industry. Show a billionaire a swirl painted by a child and tell him it’s an early Rothko. Ka-Ching!

  7. Tom says:

    What on Earth are you on about?! Did you actually read the study? The “£400″ Champagne (actually £200) was faulty:

    “the wine professional who tasted the samples suggested that it appeared less expressive than normal on the palate and had a slight cheese or sweaty note on the nose (reminiscent of isovaleric acid, a characteristic of Brettanomyces spoilage).”

  8. madscientist says:

    The CO2 in the fizzy ones screw up my ability to sense the tannins – I doubt I can tell a fizzy white wine from a fizzy red one, much less so a fizzy pink one. In fact as far as the pink ones go, if I were blindfolded I imagine I’d have trouble telling a pink one from a white one.

    I absolutely agree that wine lovers should find a cheap wine that they enjoy; even when not blindfolded many of the more expensive ones (at least the vintages I’ve tried) failed to impress, so I stick to wines around 50 euro and less. There is also quite a diversity in people’s taste for wine; there’s no way you could get me to drink some wines which people love, and I’m sure there are people who would never touch some of the wines I drink. These days I tend to go more for beers though; many wines these days are so saturated with sodium sulfite that drinking them is as pleasurable as licking an ash tray.

    • tmac57 says:

      Mad- “There is also quite a diversity in people’s taste for wine; there’s no way you could get me to drink some wines which people love, and I’m sure there are people who would never touch some of the wines I drink. These days I tend to go more for beers though; many wines these days are so saturated with sodium sulfite that drinking them is as pleasurable as licking an ash tray.”

      As a skeptic you should try to challenge those positions.I think you might surprise yourself.Design a good blind tasting including wines that you dislike (of the same varietal just to insure apples to apples),and also try sulfite wines to non-sulfite just to be sure that you aren’t being biased by preconceptions.
      I particularly am interested in the sulfite detection,as it reminds me of people who claim that they can tell MSG in their foods strictly by how it makes them feel vs how it tastes.Most people get it wrong. Not saying you can’t,but knowing how sulfites improves shelf life,I wonder how much it really affects taste.