Wine “experts” are frauds

Cheeky little test exposes wine 'experts' as weak and flat


(Originally published in the Times of London)

Monday January 14, 2002

DRINKERS have long suspected it, but now French researchers have finally proved it:  wine “experts” know no more than the rest of us.

Their rituals as they pronounce judgment have been revealed as little more than self-delusion by an awardwinning French study.  They base their views as much on colour and labels as upon a wine's bouquet and flavour.

“The truth is that you cannot define taste objectively,” said Frédéric Brochet, a researcher from Bordeaux whose study won an award from the Amorim wine academy in France.  The opinions of the so-called connoisseurs are are no better and perhaps worse than that of the occasional drinker, he said.  The greater the expertise, the greater the cultural baggage that prevents you from perceiving the actual taste in your mouth.

M Brochet carried out two studies.  In the first, he invited 54 of Bordeaux's eminent wine experts to sample different bottles, including a white wine to which he had added a flavourless substance giving it a red colour.  Not a single expert noticed.  “It is a well known psychological phenomonen – you taste what you are expecting to taste,” M Brochet said.  “They were expecting to taste a red wine, and so they did.”  Similar experiments elsewhere had come up with similar results.

“About 2 or 3 per cent of people detect the white wine flavour, but invariably they have little experience of wine culture.  Connoisseurs tend to fail to do so.  The more training they have, the more mistakes they make because they are influenced by the colour of the wine.”

In the second test, 57 experts tasted the same average bottle of Bordeaux wine on two occasions.  The first time it was labelled as a high-prestige grand cru, and the second time it was labelled as a cheap vin de table.  When they thought it was a grand cru, the experts described it as agreeable, woody, complex, balanced and rounded.  When they thought it was a vin de table, they said it was weak, short, light, flat, faulty and with a sting.  Forty said the wine was good when they thought it was expensive, but only 12 when it was cheap.

“This is why wine frauds are virtually never detected on taste alone, but because someone tips off the police who look at the paperwork,” M Brochet said.  He has studied the brain activity of wine tasters and found that those sections handling information relating to colour and knowledge operate alongside those which deal with flavour and smell.  What we perceive is a mixture of thought, vision and taste.

Indeed, the brain receives more information more quickly from the eyes than from the mouth or nose.

M Brochet also points out that the molecule that gives what is described as the taste of blackcurrants, redcurrants or raspberries in red wine is identical to that which gives an apricot or peach taste to white wine.  The description of the connoisseurs changes because the colour is different.

Copyright 2002 Times Newspapers Ltd.