Does Expensive Wine Taste Better or Is It Just an Illusion?

In the 1996 French movie Ridicule, a wine expert produces an elaborate and humorous tasting to prove context is influential. For example, the bottle’s label can affect a person’s perspective when rating the taste of expensive versus cheap champagne. In the movie, while nearly everyone correctly identified the inferior wine, a small percentage thought it was the most beautiful champagne they had ever tasted.

Why does this happen?

A status symbol

There are plenty of reasons why expensive products have a leg up on cheap ones. Consumers might be willing to pay more for a product that is associated with a brand they consider a status symbol. People might also see higher prices as a sign of quality—if something is worth so much, it must be good!

A limited supply

Similarly, something that has been scarce—especially if there’s a limited supply—is automatically perceived as better than an identical product that is anywhere at any time. People have different opinions about whether it is the taste of wine or just a mind’s trick that makes it more enjoyable.

Made with better grapes

One opinion says that expensive wine tastes better because it is made with better grapes and is more carefully treated. Another says that costly wines do not necessarily taste better than less expensive ones, but we simply think they do because of the price.

Unique aromas

If you’re a wine drinker, you’ve probably overheard a conversation about the merits of expensive wines. It’s a common belief that more expensive wines are better than cheaper options. Those with fine-tuned palates can discern between distinct smells and flavors. Some soils are unique, and the vines growing on them have rare aromas very distinctive to the terroir. Santorini and its amazing Assyrtiko is the perfect example. Volcanic soil is extremely poor in potassium, resulting in very high total acidity and aromas of sea breeze and stone fruits. 

Expensive Wine

Expectation bias

There is a decisive factor wine experts call expectation bias.[1] When we buy an item that costs $20, we expect it to taste like $20 worth of food. We will not find the same level of complexity and depth in a $20 bottle that we might get from one double or triple the price. But when we drink something expensive, our brains do some mental math and assume the experience was worth it.

Reasons expensive wine tastes better

Experts claim that it’s not just your mind playing tricks on you—there are legitimate reasons expensive wines taste better. The first and very important fact is the balanced taste and organic aromas of terroir. Expensive wines keep the same quality throughout the years of their production. Winemakers such as these in Chablis will have less wine or none if the quality is not outstanding.

Purity

They often made expensive wines with more care and precision. Expensive wines typically come from areas with better growing conditions (e.g., California vs. Washington). This also contributes to their purity and cleanliness of flavor.

Aging

We can usually expect to be able to age expensive wines for more extended periods. This gives them smoother finishes and more decadent flavors than cheaper wines that haven’t been aged as long or at all.

Packaging

Wine producers often packaged expensive wine into more elaborate bottles. The shape and color of these bottles can influence our perception of how the wine tastes. The size and style of the label and text on the bottle can also contribute to this perception, giving us a feeling that we’re supposed to like it more.

An experiment at Cornell University showed that people preferred white wine poured from a fancy bottle over plain wine from a jug—even when it was the same.

Glass shape and material

When it comes to drinking wine, we tend to think it tastes better if we drink it from a glass that looks nice but isn’t super fancy. A study[2] found that people rated some red wines as 5% better when served in glasses labeled “expensive,” even though all of them were cheap table wines in disguise.

Expensive wines will usually benefit more from aging than cheaper wines, thanks to the complexity and intensity of the wine.

Association of price with quality

The more we have to pay, the more value we place on each sip. But paying more for a bottle of wine can shift your enjoyment and appreciation of it. Studies have shown that the more we pay for each sip, the better we think it tastes. In one study, participants rated the taste of cheap wines higher than expensive wines when they were told they were drinking something cheap.

But once they thought they were drinking something expensive, the opposite was true. They evaluated it as being tastier. This is probably because we’re so used to being disappointed by cheaper options that we expect lower going in—and thus, we’re pleasantly surprised if it’s decent.

Pleasure of luxury

Food and beverages are not just nourishment—we also consume them to experience a larger perception of quality and luxury. This may be partially why we love spending so much on wines aged in oak barrels. They taste how the best wines should taste, or at least how we think they should. 

A bottle’s packaging—the shape, the way it looks in its gift box, the fanciness of its label—has nothing to do with the quality of its contents. However, it’s still essential for communicating that sense of luxury and desirability.

This doesn’t mean you need to spend a fortune on wine. As long as you like what’s inside your glass, there’s no need to worry about where its grapes came from or how much oak barrel aging went into making it.

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On this Day in Wine History

Whether expensive wine tastes better than cheap wine has been raging for years since its discovery in 4100 BC in Armenia[3].

Jan 16, 2008: According to one study published in Stanford’s journal,[4] people who drank from the same bottle of wine reported that the taste was significantly improved simply because they were told that the bottle had cost more than it did.

Jan 30, 2017:  A researcher who studied wine tasting at Cornell University’s Food and Brand Lab[5] found that people who tasted a variety of wines could not accurately tell different types of a given wine apart, nor could they tell labels apart if they didn’t know which producer had made which label. This indicates that the perception of quality is affected.

November 2005: A researcher named Frédéric Brochet published a paper called “The Colour of Odors” in the journal Perception. In it, he described an experiment he’d conducted with 54 students from the University of Bordeaux II. He selected two glasses of wine: one expensive and one cheap.

The first was a bottle of red Bordeaux that retails for about $90; the second was a red table wine that cost about $4. Brochet poured both wines into identical glasses but dyed the cheap wine with food coloring to make it look like it came from the same grapes as the expensive bottle.

Then he asked the students to sample both wines and tell him which they liked better. The students preferred the expensive bottle—even though they were drinking the same thing.

Jan 14, 2008: A study conducted by researchers[6] shows that when participants know the price of the wine, they can identify differences in quality between cheap and expensive bottles. In another experiment, the same participants were given two glasses of identical wine and told that one was expensive and one less so. The majority reported preferring the supposedly expensive one.

References

[1] University of Bonn. “Why expensive wine appears to taste better: It’s the price tag: When a bottle costs more, the reward centre in the brain plays a trick on us.” ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 14 August 2017. <www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2017/08/170814092949.htm>.

[2] American Society for Testing and Materials. (1981). Guidelines for the

Selection and Training of Sensory Panel Members, ASTM STP 758

Committee E-18 on Sensory Evaluation of Materials and Products (pp.

1-35): American Society for Testing and Materials

[3] A landlocked country in Asia, former Soviet Republic

[4] Lisa T. Price changes way people experience wine, study finds. Jan 16, 2008. Stanford Report

[5] Jie Li, Ph.D. Cornell University, 2017: Three Essays on Marketing and Consumer Behaviour of Ambiguous Products: The case of Wine

[6] Kathy S. Wine Study Shows Price Influences Perception. Caltech, 2008

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