Do you buy organic wines?
Whatever the answer, it is true that a growing number of wine lovers are turning to sustainable production practices when purchasing wine.
My friends in the wine industry have often shared with me how difficult it is to produce grapes without the use of conventional herbicides or pesticides. Pests, especially, are difficult to manage. However, certain growing conditions may be more appropriate to limit interventions in the vineyards.
Besides, organic wines may be more sensitive to spoilage, sometimes developing reductive notes.
Some critics argue that organic wines tend to have more flaws than wines made using more conventional practices.
Are "flawed wines" more acceptable when an organic stamp is present on a wine bottle?
A group of Portuguese and Brazilian scientists posed this question and conducted a study to answer it. They published their findings this month, February 2020.
The research was built on previous findings suggesting that an organic label had a strong effect on people's liking for the wine, more so than the wine itself.
Also, the quality of organic wines was judged superior when people tasted the wines with this information compared to their judgment when tasting the wines blind. This group of researchers wondered if this halo effect of the organic label was different depending on the tasters' experience in wine tasting.
The researchers recruited 48 students enrolled in the Vinifera EuroMaster of Viticulture and Oenology, who shared a similar wine descriptive language and training. Forty-seven untrained volunteers also participated in the study.
These two groups of tasters attended three different sessions to taste four white wines and four red wines each time.
Among the four white wines , three were organic, and one was conventional.
The researchers selected the red wines following the same principle.
The two conventional wines were from Burgundy. The scientists selected these wines because they tended to express some off-notes initially, which disappeared after aerating the wines.
The wine selection also took into account the need to have a large variety of flavors represented in this small sample set.
The wine tasters tasted the white wines first, then the red wines. Within each wine set, the order of tasting was rotated to avoid the position bias.
For each wine, tasters rated:
The tasters also described, with their own words, the flavor of the wine.
The presence of the organic label boosted the liking scores by 76% on average compared to the liking scores in a blind tasting. The increase went up to 113% for the conventional white wine but presented as an organic wine in the second session.
Similarly, the familiarity scores increased for some of the wines when presented as organic wines; people were also willing to pay a higher price by 86% on average.
Isn't it interesting, this halo effect? Especially for knowledgeable tasters.
As discussed many times in this forum, with wine knowledge comes increased susceptibility to cognitive biases. These biases are the errors we make when we taste with our a priori knowledge on what wines should taste like, rather than tasting with our senses only.
When the wines were clean, their flavor description didn't vary much between session #1 and session #2. However, the findings also showed an effect of the organic wine status on the perceived flavors when some off-notes were present.
The experienced tasters categorized the two clean organic wines as conventionally made and the two conventional wines mostly as organic wines. The other four "flawed" organic wines were correctly identified as organic.
The descriptors mostly associated with the organic wine were "Animal/Undergrowth," "Unpleasant," "Oxidized," and "Reductive."
Novice tasters tended to like less or pay less for organic wines in the second session, compared to the trained tasters. They also used more emotional terms to describe the faulty wines, such as "horrible" or "weird."
The effect of information on wine appreciation has been demonstrated many times, whether the information is the name of the grape variety, the wine brand, the mode of production, the wine region, or the price.
It is unsettling to see in this study that future wine professionals were seduced by the organic label when evaluating faulty wines. The researchers explained that these students had received proper education on wine fault recognition. Therefore they were knowledgeable and still rated the faulty wines favorably under the halo of organic wine production.
This result reminded me of a situation I was in, many years ago. At a professional wine dinner, a famous winery owner brought a bottle of Chardonnay of his sustainable production. While all the guests were enamored by the wine, my colleague and I barely touched our glass of this badly oxidized wine.
Biases indeed exist whether you are a wine student or a wine professional. My recommendation: stay true to what your senses are telling you.
Published February, 16 2020
Reference for this article:
Mylena Romano, Mahesh Chandra, Mkrtich Harutunyan, Taciana Savian, Cristian Villegas, Valéria Minim, and Manuel Malfeito-Ferreira. Off--Flavours and Unpleasantness Are Cues for the Recognition and Valorization of Organic Wines by Experienced Tasters. Foods, 2020, 9, 105- https://www.mdpi.com/2304-8158/9/1/105