Does price (and letting wines “breathe”) matter?

Does price affect the “quality” of wine?  Yes, indeed it do.

At least according to results of a study that was released back in 2008, conducted by Antonio Rangel, Associate Professor of Economics at the California Institute of Technology (as reported by the Stanford Business Web site).  In this study, Rangel asked volunteers to blind-taste 5 different bottles of Cabernet Sauvignon, and then rate their preferences. Rangel ran this taste test 15 times with 15 different groups, and the wines were always presented in random order.

The only information given to the volunteer tasters was price tags.  However, two of the wines were presented twice; one with its true retail price, and the other with a fake price.  One bottle that actually retailed for $90 was presented as a $10 wine; and another bottle that actually retailed for $5 was presented as a $45 wine.

As the volunteer subjects tasted the wines, the researchers scanned their brains to monitor the neural activity in the medial orbitofrontal cortex – an area of the brain believed to encode pleasures related to taste, odors and music.

Wine lovers at the 2012 LoCA Uncorked

The results?  The researchers found that the inflation of the price of a bottle consistently enhanced the subjects’ experience of it, as shown by the neural activity, and the volunteers consistently gave higher ratings to the more expensively priced wines.  To quote directly from Professor Rangel’s report, “this study shows that the brain’s rewards center takes into account subjective beliefs about the quality of the experience… if you believe the experience is better, even though it’s the same wine, the rewards center of the brain encodes it as feeling better.”

Why should you be not surprised?  Anyone who has attended large wine tastings, where hundreds of wines are being poured, has probably experienced this scenario:  the biggest crowds are standing in front of a table featuring a well known, “prestige” producer.  To see what the fuss is all about, you squeeze in or elbow your way through to the front to get a taste.  People pushed in all around you are oohing and swooning in claustrophobic ecstasy.  Then you taste the wine yourself, and it’s… no big deal – in fact, disappointing!  You seriously start to wonder:  is there something wrong with me, or the wine?  Most likely, it’s the wine.

Professor Rangel’s study only confirmed what many of us have always known:  most wine drinkers (whether everyday consumers or so-called wine “professionals”) are easily swayed by reputations and price tags.  Heck, how many times have you been poured a wine in the home of a reputed “wine expert” who chatters incessantly about all the great qualities of a wine that you can barely stand to drink?

If you know what a good wine tastes like, chances are that a wine that doesn’t taste very good to you is probably not a good wine – no matter what anyone says!

The world of fine wine, as a matter of fact, is full of myths or mistaken notions, often passing for gospel.  Take the idea of letting a wine “breathe” – that is to say, opening a bottle or decanting it into another container long before drinking it, ostensibly to allow it to “improve” with the exposure to oxygen.  There is indeed many a wine expert (especially wine boors) who would never dream of enjoying a good bottle of red wine unless it has been given a chance to “breathe” for at least an hour.

In a December 1997 issue of Decanter – a highly respected wine periodical published in the U.K., which also happens to bill itself as “The World’s Best Wine Magazine” (and many wine experts would not disagree) – there was a report on a blind tasting involving six of the world’s most discriminating wine judges.  These judges included Hugh Johnson (the author of more best selling wine books than anyone), Steven Spurrier (the original organizer of the infamous “Paris Tasting” of 1976), Serena Sutcliffe (a Master of Wine), and Patrick Léon (a famous winemaker for several Bordeaux châteaux, such as Mouton-Rothschild).

In this tasting, the esteemed judges were asked to assess the quality of several red wines from France’s classic Bordeaux region (including 1961 Mouton-Rothschild, a 1982 Clerc-Milon, a 1980 d’Armailhac, and a 1990 Mouton-Cadet) that were

  • Uncorked a few minutes ahead of time, and then poured and tasted
  • Uncorked a few hours ahead of time, and then poured and tasted
  • Uncorked and poured into a decanter a few minutes ahead of time, before poured into glasses and tasted
  • Uncorked and poured into a decanter a few hours ahead of time, before poured into glasses and tasted
  • Uncorked, and then immediately poured into glasses and tasted (that is, no “breathing” at all).

For which wines, across the board, did these wine judges ultimately show the most preference?  You guessed it:  the wines that were uncorked, immediately poured and tasted.  It turns out that “breathing” – whether for a few minutes, or a few hours – doesn’t really “improve” wine at all.  At least not according to this stellar panel.

So what about the longstanding wine tradition of opening and pouring wines into beautiful glass decanters?  The reality is that the decanting of wines is, and probably always will be, a grand tradition; but if anything, for the same reason why test subjects in Professor Rangel’s study always found that $90 wines taste better than $10 wines:  because it is always a good thing in our minds!

And there’s nothing wrong with that.  That’s why we often dress in certain clothes, or follow certain rituals or patterns whenever we do certain things:  if certain things make us feel better, than it is better.  Even if it is just in our minds.

So when it comes to the decanting, or the deliberate oxygenating, of wines that we bring to the table:

  • Do not throw out your beautiful crystal decanters just yet – it doesn’t hurt to use them to enhance your enjoyment of wines (red or whites, even pinks!).  As long as you remember that it’s primarily for aesthetic purposes; since the actual benefits derived from aeration are probably less significant than simply pouring wines into good sized, properly shaped wine glasses, and enjoying them immediately (which brings up another good point:  never scrimp on the quality of wine glasses, which can actually enhance the taste of wines).
  • It is still true that young red wines that have hard or rough tannins can soften or “round out” with aeration, especially in a decanter; but probably not so much because of the exposure to oxygen as the simple change in your sensory disposition – wines tend to soften and round out more because your palate becomes conditioned to the taste of tannin, rather than because tannins have undergone actual transformation on a molecular level.  This is the same principle experienced when you taste a tart citrus fruit or hot chile pepper – the more you taste them, the less sour or hot they become.
  • The quality of perceptions are affected by sensory disposition in similar fashion – aromas and flavors are more likely to sharpen and grow in attraction after a few minutes because the palate and mind become more attuned to them (especially when influenced by external suggestion).  Your mind can adjust and focus more on sensations, the same way that your eyes adjust when you turn off the lights.
  • Although “great” wines (such as French Bordeaux, or many of California’s finest Cabernet Sauvignons) have been known to benefit from decanting, wines over 10 years old (and especially those over 20) are just as likely to recede in quality if decanted more than a few minutes before consumption – they start to taste tired when exposed to too much air (hence, the Decanter findings, where they found that just-poured wines tend to taste the freshest).  This is why many longtime wine aficionados have always known that the safest thing you can do when it comes to older red wines is to pour and enjoy the wine immediately after opening, with or without decanting.
  • Finally, it’s important to remember that many positive changes commonly ascribed to decanting are probably due to simple temperature changes – a commonly underrated factor.  Aromatic byproducts of esters and alcohol can vary drastically at different temperatures, as do the effect of tannin and alcohol on the taste buds.  Red wines that are medium to high in tannin and body tend to taste tight and hard at temperatures below 60° Fahrenheit, and harsh or rough above 72°.  In fact, if you prefer the natural fruit qualities intrinsic in red wines, the optimal serving temperature for most reds is usually somewhere between 62° and 68° (well below normal “room” temperatures); and closer to 60° for softer reds like Pinot Noir, French Beaujolais, or many easier drinking, contemporary style American reds made from grapes like Zinfandel, Grenache or Tempranillo.

As with all things, beauty is always in the eye of the beholder when it comes to wines; the same way that perception of quality is highly individual.  The important thing is to know your own taste and preferences, and all the myths and illusions commonly associated with wine will soon take care of themselves.

Moment of truth for wine lovers at 2012 Lodi ZinFest

 

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