Explainer

How Your Deceiving Eyes Can Change the Taste of Wine

Before a drop of wine touches your lips, the colors around you have affected its taste

David W. Brown By October 18, 2021
Photo by Andrew Twort / Alamy Stock Photo.

As anyone who’s had one too many can attest, wine can really do a number on the brain. But, as researchers have discovered, the brain itself can just as powerfully change wine, to the point that a glass of white is indistinguishable from a rosé. It’s not telekinesis at work, but rather survival mechanisms and neurological shortcuts that cause the tongue and nose to take cues from the fingers, eyes, and ears. When someone sips a glass of wine, tactile sensations, colors, and sound can heighten, diminish, and disrupt the tasting experience. The wine is the same, but we are not. 

What this means is that trendy, colorful stemware now appearing on store shelves, and those garish green goblets in grandma’s china cabinet might actually change the taste of wine. So what is going on here — and when are you better off reaching firmly for the Riedel?

The prediction machine

“The brain is always making predictions about the world,” says Janice Wang, a psychologist and assistant professor at the Department of Food Science at Denmark’s Aarhus University. “It is an efficiency mechanism. Food is one of the things about which we are really good at making predictions, because by the time you put it in your mouth, if it’s poisonous, it’s too late.”

Wang and other researchers conduct experiments to learn how mental shortcuts affect even the most basic of gustatory experiences. In one such investigation, psychologists presented wine experts and novices with three glasses of wine: a white, a rosé, and the same white dyed to resemble a rosé. Test participants described the flavor and aroma of the false rosé as closer in similarity to the real rosé than the white — despite the false rosé, in fact, being the white. In other words, if it looked like a rosé, the tasters rated it as such. Ironically, wine experts were more likely to make this mistake. It’s not that the experts were frauds, but more that they were grappling with powerful psychological forces that evolved over millennia. First, perceptions of taste are shaped by the visual appearance.

“It’s so hard to turn this off,” says Wang. “It’s not that wine experts are stupid. Rather, it shows how good the brain is at making predictions and being efficient.” When the eyes see a rosé, the brain essentially loads the rosé profile. This might be the brain’s way of offloading a good deal of labor it might otherwise have to expend. It would be overly taxing, Wang explains, if every bit of information had to be taken in by the brain, processed from scratch, broken down, and reflected upon every single time. Wine novices did not describe the fake rosé as if it were a real one because they had no previous expectations. There was no rosé profile for the brain to load.

This means that those colorful wine glasses might improve your Instagram account, but aren’t doing your wine any favors. “I think the color of stemware would have a similar influence to the color of wine itself,” says Wang. “What it’s fundamentally doing is changing your expectations of what you’re going to taste.”

She says that’s one reason why serious wine drinkers shun novelty stemware. “Wine experts sometimes insist on having proper glasses that are smooth — no crazy bumps or designs or color or gold rims. Such things are annoying because they mess with their expectations about the wine.”

Other taste changers

Professor Charles Spence, an experimental psychologist at the University of Oxford, explains, “Colors seem to prime taste expectations, and by so doing bias taste. That can be the color of the cup, lighting, or, of course, the color of the drink itself.” 

The colors on the bottle itself can also prime taste perceptions. Wine labels not only tell drinkers a lot about what is about to be poured into the glass — the vintage and region of origin, the producer, and sometimes the grape, among other things — but also affect the taste of a wine. Experiments suggest that red and black wine labels set a drinker’s expectation for the red wine inside: the drinkers expect the wine to taste tangy. Red and orange labels prepare the drinker for a fruity wine.

Sounds also affect taste. When “Carmina Burana,” Carl Orff’s powerful, sometimes thunderous orchestral masterpiece, was played during a tasting experiment, drinkers were more likely to rate a wine as powerful and heavy. When “Waltz of the Flowers” from “The Nutcracker” by Tchaikovsky was played, drinkers were more likely to call the wine in their glass subtle and refined.

Even the sense of touch can affect the taste of wine. Wang and Spence ran an experiment in which participants at a science and wine symposium touched velvet with one hand while tasting an off-dry white wine. They were more likely to describe the wine as sweet both in terms of aroma and taste when their hand was on the velvet, versus when it was on sandpaper. It is possible that the brain, enjoying the sensation of velvet, mapped that pleasing sense of touch onto the senses of smell and taste.

What’s in the glass

This research has no end of application to the hospitality industry, which has a vested interest in maximizing patrons’ wine drinking experiences. It even applies to the stemware business. As Wang and Spence write in a paper published in International Journal of Gastronomy and Food Science, “In addition to altering the bowl size of different glasses to best suit different types of wine, the width and texture of the glasses stem could also be altered, for instance, using a rough-textured stem to tone down the heady overripe fruit notes found in some warm climate red wines.”

Asked if there are best colors or more disruptive colors of novelty wine glasses, Spence says, “I guess that depends on the wine and the wine taster.” He adds that it might be fun to know if there exists a color associated with cork taint — that is, wine ruined by a contaminated cork. “I’m not aware of anyone having done that research,” he says, “which, now I come to think about it, would be a jolly good idea.”

There is no wrong way to drink wine, so there’s no need to chuck cherished, tinted antique stemware in the name of wine snobbery. Sentiment and intergenerational communion are essential to the wine experience, after all. But when uncorking that one special bottle, pass over the Instagrammable glasses of green, violet, and blue. To accurately appreciate the wine inside, clear crystal is best. The wine should be the star of the show, after all — not the glass holding it.