Written by: Tim Edison

Updated: May 11, 2023

Can Wine Experts Really Tell The Difference Or Are Wine Snobs Just Faking It?

Can Wine Experts Really Tell The Difference Or Are Wine Snobs Just Faking It?

Wine enthusiasts all over the world are often confused by the complexity of the wines. It often seems wine experts can sense dozens of aromas and at least a couple of tastes in each glass. That is, while us, mortals, can only tell whether we like the wine or not, resting confused about all those tasting notes. But can wine experts really tell the difference or are wine snobs just faking it?

A question that torments not only the wine enthusiasts but also the scientists. So, what’s the truth?

Like most wine enthusiasts, I always believed connoisseurs, sommeliers, and those who dedicated years of their lives to studying wines could really tell the difference between a good and bad wine. Yet, I was still curious to know what science has to say. And the answer shocked me.

Can Wine Experts Really Tell The Difference? A Scientific Standpoint

Multiple scientific studies investigate whether or not wine experts can accurately identify the differences between wines. Perhaps the most popular study was conducted by Frédéric Brochet in 2001.

Defined by the specialty press as a “mischievous” experiment, the study revealed an unexpected side of wine tasting - after all, wine snobs might be just faking it.

How Was The Experiment Conducted?

Brochet used the experiment to support his dissertation claiming wine snobs are not actually able to tell the difference between two wines. To prove his claim, the then Ph.D. student invited 54 students of enology at a wine tasting.

In the first instance, he served the panel with two different wines, a white wine, and a red wine. The jury was then asked to taste and describe each wine.

The enology students conducted an exemplary wine tasting, identifying herb and floral aromas in the white wine, and red fruit aromas in the red wine. Nothing awkward up to this point, but the things were to take a different turn in the week to come.

In fact, one week later, Brochet invited the students again at a second tasting.  He served each participant two glasses of white wine, one of which he had previously colored with red food dye.

The second wine tasting was conducted in the same exemplary manner, but the participants still described the dyed wine using characteristics relevant for the red wines. This means the participants only based their decision on the color, and not on the actual smell or taste of the beverage.

Why Is That?

It is hard to tell which mystery lies beyond this study, but other scientific research has shown that the human brain processes the visual information before processing the smell and taste. In other words, Brochet tricked the brains of all those who tasted the dyed wine, determining the participants to automatically associate “specific” red wine characteristics to a white wine containing a colorant.

To conclude his thesis, Brochet wrote that the wine’s color provides significant sensory information which misleads subjects. He didn’t actually say it out loud, but in other words, this means wine snobs are just faking it.

What Are The Implications Of This Study?

Wine infographics with food pairing, bottle and glass type, wine types and colours.

Now you know wine snobs can’t really tell the difference between one wine and another. Phew! At least us, the mortals, weren’t actually just missing the point, but we genuinely can’t identify any differences between a white and a red.

However, the implications of this study go well beyond the mere consideration of whether or not you can describe your wine as fruity or flowery.

The more profound implications suggest winemakers could charge way too much for some wines considered exceptional when at the end of the day, the consumer can’t actually tell the difference between their wine and a cheap wine bought from the supermarket.

So, why are we paying so much for “exceptional” wines?

The answer is simple. What we were taught about wines tricks our brains into thinking a Grand Cru is better than a supermarket wine.

Flavor-wise, you’ll probably not feel any difference between them. And other studies show that wine experts who were served the same wine from two differently labeled bottles have described the beverage differently.

How Was This Study Conducted?

The author of this also controversial study was, once again, Brochet. He invited wine experts to attend a wine flight between a wine served from a grand cru bottle and the same wine labeled as table wine. Despite drinking the same beverage, the experts described the “grand cru” wine as balanced, round, and complex, and the “table wine” as weak, faulty, and flat.

What this means is that our brains not only bases its judgment on visual stimuli, it also bases its judgment on misconceptions.

In other words, your guests will appreciate more a cheap wine served from a fancy labeled bottle than an expensive wine served from a bottle labeled as cheap.

What About Good And Bad Wines?

With all this in mind, one could wonder what’s the deal with all those wine experts. What does enology study after all, if we literally can’t tell the differences between the wines? Are good and bad wines just a result of marketing?

Beyond smell and taste considerations, things are a bit more complex. Good wines exist, and so do bad wines. It is all in the quality of the grapes and how the wine was made. Perhaps you’ve heard about natural wines before. Maybe you know there are biological and biodynamic wines.

When assessing quality, one must consider not only the quality of the grapes but also the quality of the winemaking process.

As sad as it may seem, America is an industrialized country, and only a few wineries still use the traditional winemaking process. Things are slightly different on the Old Continent, where wine has a much more rooted history.

What we can say for certain is that natural wine is always better than an industrialized wine, healthier and tastier.

What Is Natural Wine?

Natural wine is wine obtained through a traditional winemaking process. Grapes are typically harvested and processed manually, and there is little intervention from the machines. Natural wine is also free of chemical yeasts and stabilizers. The fermentation occurs naturally, and the wine is raked and bottled without using any clarifying agents.

While natural wine can be less stable in the long run, it is healthier. It contains no additives and is therefore even healthier than biological or biodynamic wine.

Obviously, large-scale winemakers may trick you into believing industrialized wine is fine, and sulfites are actually good for your health. But what happens here is the same thing as claiming you can sense the tasting notes in the wine.

Bottom Line

So, can wine experts really tell the difference? If you were expecting a different answer, I’m sorry to disappoint. Wine experts can’t tell the difference, but that doesn’t mean wine snobs are totally faking it. At the end of the day, those people are just fooled by their brains and conditioned by what they were taught.

Even if telling the difference between the wines is near impossible, that doesn’t mean all wines are good. There is a huge difference between industrial wine and natural wine. The latter is always more expensive than the former but contains no chemicals.

I couldn’t advise which wine you should drink. However, if you don’t want to develop sulfite sensitivity and want to lead a healthier life, natural wine is perhaps the way to go. Or at least educate yourself to drink organic or biodynamic beverages.

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About the Author Tim Edison

Tim started Wine Turtle way back in 2015.
These days he contributes to Wine Turtle (and other renowned wine publications) while continuing his wine education.
Tim's wine of the month is the Coates & Seely Reserve Brut NV (from Hampshire, England).

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