Beauty is in the Eye of the Beholder: How Color Affects the Perception of Quality in Wine

Is a top notch wine the product of countless hours of carefully coaxing out delicate flavors through years of toil from vines to wine, or does it depend on how the person tasting that wine subconsciously reacts to the visual, tactile, or sound stimuli in the room?  Research has suggested that how someone perceives the quality of a particular wine may not be all about how the winemaker crafts the wine, and that tastes may be influenced other factors including the color of the room or the color of the glass into which the wine is poured.


How much can color influence our perception of quality? 

In 2003, Dr. Jeannine Delwiche from the Department of Food Science and Technology at Ohio State University  took a Chardonnay and added red food coloring to create the look of a rosé wine, a red wine, and an untreated control white wine.  Volunteers tasted all three wines and found that despite the fact that the wines were all Chardonnay, the flavors perceived matched the typical flavors and characteristics of a wine of the associated color.  In other words,volunteers described the “rosé” wine as being more fruity and having the lowest scores in fullness/body, complexity, and maturity, while they described the “red” wine as tasting more complex, with dark red ripe fruit flavors, highest fullness/body, and maturity.    Blind tasting tests prior to the experiment showed that the addition of red food coloring did not change the flavor of the wine, so all of the differences in descriptors between the wines in the experiment were due to visual cues alone.

Are these differences perceived by all wine drinkers, including experts? 

In 2003, a collaboration between researchers at the Centre for Viticulture and Oenology at Lincoln University in New Zealand and from the Department of Psychology at the University of Otago also in New Zealand found that even wine experts identified red wine aromas in Chardonnay that was colored red, though when they were not allowed to see the wine color, they were more accurate in their taste descriptor assignments. Compared with the experts, wine novices performed much worse when they couldn’t see the color of the wine, so while experts were fooled some of the time, their greater knowledge of wine from their past experiences allowed them to determine flavors and aromas of the wine without visual cues.

It’s not just the color of the wine that can influence perceived quality, even the color in the room in which the wine is consumed may also influence the perceived flavors, aromas, and quality.  In 2009, a group of German researchers found that while in a tasting room, participants preferred the flavors of a Riesling slightly more when under blue or red lighting, while they didn’t enjoy the wine as much when in green or white lighting.  Additionally, participants would be willing to spend more money per bottle when in blue or red lighting, compared with green or white lighting.  In a more precise and controlled trial in the laboratory, when presented in blue or green lighting, the participants noted that the wine tasted spicier, while the blue or red lighting conditions resulted in a perceived reduction in fruitiness.  One explanation for this slight discrepancy related to the differences seen with red lighting between the tasting room and laboratory experiments could be a result of emotional experiences and not so much a result of the color actually changing the flavor of the wine.  In other words, emotional experiences can change the flavor of a wine, so perhaps the mood of those volunteers in the tasting room was different enough than those in a controlled laboratory that the effects of ambient lightning elicited slightly counterintuitive results.  Certainly more research is needed on this idea.

different wine glasses

The influence of color on taste and perception of quality isn’t limited to wine.  Additionally, it isn’t color alone that can alter one’s sensory perceptions.  A recent article in the peer-reviewed journal Flavour examined both the tactile and color characteristics of cutlery on the perceived quality of yogurt.  Results indicated that yogurt was perceived as higher quality and more expensive when it was consumed from a lightweight spoon compared with a heavyweight spoon.  Relating these results to wine, studies have shown that consumers consider wine in heavier bottles to be higher quality, and also that consumers prefer lighter, thin-lipped glassware to the thicker styles.    Generally speaking, the physical characteristics of tableware or glassware can significantly influence the perceived flavor and quality of the food or beverage therein.  Also, in addition to the objects’ color, the expected weight of the tableware or glassware can influence perceived flavor and quality, so if one is drinking a wine out of a well-designed glass with features similar to those that are considered to be high quality, the perception of the flavor and quality of the wine therein might very well also be increased.

Can this influence of color be applied to the marketing of wine, particularly in terms of label color? 

In a collaboration between researchers in the OECD Economics Department in Paris, France and researchers in the Department of Business Economics at the Universitat Autonoma de Barcelona in Spain, it was found that the color of the label alone didn’t change consumer preference for any particular wine. Interestingly, the combination of label shape and color did appear to influence consumer choice.  In particular, those color/shape combinations that proved to be the most effective were browns, yellows, blacks, and greens, in rectangular or hexagonal patterns.

It appears from the research that color of wine, or any consumable, does affect the perception of quality.   Specifically,different colors may trigger different emotional and physiological responses that can significantly affect a persons’ individual tasting experience.  Depending upon our individual brain wiring, as well as our personal past experiences, the effect of color on how we perceive quality may be more or less significant than the effect of color for someone else.

Though I’ve mainly focused on color in this piece, sensory perception involves all of the senses, though some may have greater influence than others. Color affects the sensory characteristics of an item; however, when you add in another sense, such as smell touch, the influence of color may still remain though the direction or strength of this influence may change.  Since in the real world we’re exposed to multiple stimuli, it’s important to consider not only color, but also the interactions between color and all other external sensory stimuli on perceived wine quality.

There is much more to wine tasting than just the flavors and aromas of the wine.  Winemakers can do their best to create an outstanding wine; however, once the wine leaves their hands, how consumers perceive the quality of that wine is highly dependent upon not only flavors and aromas, but also other stimuli including visual cues, tactile sensations, and individual knowledge and memories.

[author] [author_image timthumb=’on’][/author_image] [author_info]Becca Yeamans has a Bachelor’s of Science in Biology from Saint Michael’s College in Colchester, VT, and a Masters of Science in Environmental Sciences from the University of Virginia in Charlottesville, VA. She has extensive research experience as well as experience working in the wine industry. She is a freelance writer with a focus on wine science and research, and is the author/creator of the technical wine blog, The Academic Wino. You may also follower her on twitter @TheAcademicWino or on Facebook on The Academic Wino Facebook page.[/author_info] [/author]