The Effect of Culture and Expertise on Perceived Wine Quality: A Case Study with French and Spanish Red Wines

Buy some fine French wine for the holidays.

Disclaimer: While this post has a sponsor, all facts and opinions expressed are those of the research article I am presenting as well as my own, none of which have been influenced in any way, shape, or form by the sponsor.  I do not accept suggestions or recommendations from the sponsor for any story ideas or post content. 

Great wine quality is something that every winemaker strives for.  I don’t know anyone whose goal is to make the world’s worst bottle of wine, so determining what makes a quality wine, or more specifically, how consumers perceive wine quality is important for every winery to grasp. There has been a lot of research on extrinsic qualities of wine and how those relate to overall perceived wine quality, including bottle size, bottle weight, label design, grape variety, region of origin, numbers of awards, et cetera.  However, not as much is known about intrinsic qualities of wine such as aroma and taste, and how specific qualities or combinations of qualities are perceived by consumers to represent a high or low quality wine.

With intrinsic qualities, there is likely to be a wider range of variability in terms of how quality is perceived, depending upon many factors including personal level of wine expertise, experience, and culture.  In fact, in food studies, it has been shown that consumer culture as well as consumer familiarity with a product significantly influences perception of flavor and overall quality in the food product of study.  Though these types of studies have been frequently examined in food products, studies focused on wine are extremely limited.  Those few studies related to this topic have basically looked at the concept of “product familiarity” and how experience and familiarity with a particular style of wine influences the perception of wine quality and preferences.  Other studies have found that novice consumers tend to

La Rioja vineyard.  Copyright R. Yeamans 2013.

La Rioja vineyard. Copyright R. Yeamans 2013.

relate quality with their personal experiences, which leads to a large variability in quality perception from consumer to consumer.  On the other hand, wine experts armed with significantly more knowledge about a particular wine varietal or winemaking style base their quality “scores” on less subjective characteristics resulting in less variability from expert to expert.

The study presented today aimed to add to the limited knowledge regarding the influence of intrinsic characteristics of wine quality, specifically examining whether or not consumer culture as well as their level of expertise leads to increased (or decreased) quality perception.

Methods

After a small pilot experiment to find wines that were relatively variable in terms of their perceived quality, six Spanish wines from La Rioja and six French wines from Côtes du Rhône were selected for the study.

Participants were recruited via ads in public areas, online, on the radio, and in the newspaper.  Participants were required to be regular consumers of red wine (i.e. drinking red wine at least once every 2 weeks), have no experience in the wine industry, lives in La Rioja or Avignon for at least 10 years, and be at least 18 years old (legal drinking age).

  • Spanish consumer participant demographics:
    • 51.8% men, 48.2% women
    • Ages 19-67, median 39.5
    • 56 participants total
    • French consumer participant demographics:
      • 48.1% men, 51.9% women
      • Ages 19-67, median 42.5
      • 52 participants total

Expert participants were eligible to participate if they were established winemakers, wine researchers, wine professionals, had many years’ experience with wine, or were graduate students in Viticulture and Enology programs.

  • Spanish wine expert demographics:
    • 51% men, 49% women
    • Ages 24-56 years, median 35
    • 59 experts total
    • French wine expert demographics:
      • 67% men, 33% women
      • Ages 22-72, median 45
      • 60 experts total

Photo By Unknown XVIIIe (Scan book Côtes du Rhône) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Photo By Unknown XVIIIe (Scan book Côtes du Rhône) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Side note: French wine experts were significantly older than Spanish wine experts (though there were no age differences between consumers of the two cultures.

All participants were presented with a series of 6 wine samples at one blind tasting session and were asked to rate them in terms of their quality: very low quality; low quality; high quality; or very high quality.  Participants were allowed to place as many wines in one particular quality category that they desired.  The tasting session was in a controlled research tasting facility and lasted about 20 minutes for each participant.

Results

  • Quality perception was found to be significantly different for Spanish consumers only, while there were no differences in quality perception between Spanish experts, or either French test group.
    • Spanish consumers frequently rated Spanish wines from La Rioja as “very high quality” significantly more often than French wines.
    • AROMA:
      • Aromas of wines in this experiment were found to be clustered into 3 different groups for all of the participants.
        • Cluster 1: 5 Spanish wines were found in this cluster, and were characterized by wood, leather, and toasted bread by the Spanish participants, and by smoky, fresh wood, cardboard, and wet cloth by the French participants.
          • These characteristics were seen as positive for both Spanish and French consumers while they did not seem to be important to French experts and were seen as negative for Spanish experts.
        • Cluster 2: 3 of the French wines were found in this cluster, and were characterized by red fruits and alcohol for both Spanish and French consumers, while Spanish consumers also noted aromas of apricot or fresh, and French consumers noted solvent-like aromas.
          • These characteristics were seen as negative for both Spanish and French consumers, while they were seen as positive for both Spanish and French wine experts.
        • Cluster 3: One Spanish and one French wine were found in this cluster, and were characterized by animal and vegetal aromas for the Spanish consumers and blackcurrant bud for the French consumers.
          • This cluster received the lowest quality score from both Spanish and French consumers, while it received the second lowest quality score from Spanish and French wine experts.
  • Higher quality scores were associated with aromas of wood-related terms for both Spanish and French consumers.
  • Lower quality scores were associated with aromas of animal and sulfur for Spanish consumers.
  • Higher quality scores were associated with aromas of vanilla and red fruits for both Spanish and French wine experts.
  • Lower quality scores were associated with aromas of vegetal, blackcurrent bud, animal, and musk for both Spanish and French wine experts.
    • Dried fruits were negatively associated with quality for Spanish wine experts.
    • TASTE:
      • The only characteristic that was significantly correlated for both Spanish and French participants was for astringency.  All other flavors were highly variable between all of the groups in terms of perception of quality.
      • Higher quality scores were associated with the “balance” characteristic for Spanish wine experts, while Spanish consumers preferred wines with lower astringency.
      • Higher quality scores were associated with increased complexity for both Spanish consumers and Spanish wine experts.
      • Lower quality scores were associated with increased “bitterness” for French wine experts, while higher quality scores were associated with increased “sweetness” for French wine consumers.

Conclusions

Overall, the results of this study showed that perceived wine quality is dependent upon experience, as was evident by the large variations in perceived quality by “regular” versus expert wine drinkers.  Breaking it down further, the results showed that there were no differences in perceived wine quality by wine experts from different cultures.  In other words, both Spanish and French wine experts were, on average, in agreement about the quality of the wines in this experiment, and rated them more along enological/winemaking, grape growing, and other technical characteristics than any other factor.

On the other hand, the results of this study indicated that wine consumers tended to associate wine quality with their own personal experiences with wine, leading to more subjective quality scores compared

Photo By Milartino (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Photo By Milartino (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

with the more objective scores assigned by the wine experts.  Simply put, experts rely on their vast wine technical knowledge to make quality assessments, while the wine consumer has only his or her own limited past experiences to assign quality judgments.

Digging a little deeper, the results of this study indicated that Spanish consumers preferred their own local La Rioja wines over French wines, though this culture preference was NOT found when the focus was on French consumers.  In other words, the Spanish consumers ended up scoring La Rioja wines a higher quality than French wines from Côtes du Rhône.

Why is it that Spanish consumers scored La Rioja wines higher, while French consumers did not score wines from Côtes du Rhône higher?

The authors of this study speculated that the reason why Spanish consumers ended up scoring La Rioja wines better than Côtes du Rhône wines because of the fact that they were simply used to La Rioja as their drink of choice, and subconsciously associate quality with wines that share similar characteristics as wines La Rioja.  Well, if that were the case, then wouldn’t it be the same for French consumers?  Shouldn’t the French consumers score wines from Côtes du Rhône higher than wines from La Rioja?  The results of this study indicated that this was NOT, in fact, true, so why would there be this difference between Spanish and French wine consumers?

The difference in perceived quality of wines for French and Spanish wine consumers, according to the authors, may have something to do with what they drink in the comfort of their own homes normally.   Surveys held concurrently with this study found that out of 93 consumers from La Rioja, 73% of them primarily drank wines from La Rioja.  It makes sense to me then that if the majority of folks from La Rioja drink almost exclusively wines from La Rioja, they would be more likely to associate higher quality with those wines that share similar organoleptic characteristics as La Rioja wines.  In terms of the French consumers, however, a survey held concurrently with this study found that out of 95 consumers from the Côtes du Rhône region, 74% of them are used to drinking and purchasing Italian wines, and NOT wines

Photo by Adriaen van Ostade [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Photo by Adriaen van Ostade [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

from the Côtes du Rhône region.  Therefore, it makes sense to me that the French consumers did not show cultural preferences for the Côtes du Rhône wines during the blind tasting, since the aromas and flavors of Côtes du Rhône wines are out of their realm of experience.

Finally, in terms of the aroma of the wines versus the tastes, flavors, and other mouthfeel characteristics, it was interesting to see that aroma was significantly more important to determining perceived wine quality than any other characteristic.  The only taste/flavor/mouthfeel characteristic that seemed to matter in terms of assigning wine quality was astringency.  In summary, the results indicate that aromatics seemed to play a more important role in the assignment of wine quality, which taste/flavor seemed to play a more secondary role.

Overall, I thought this was a pretty interesting experiment.   In particular, what I thought was most interesting that often times, the regular wine consumers’ perception of quality was opposite of what the wine experts classified as a quality wine.  What does this mean for using expert opinions and recommendations for choosing wines at the wine shop?  Of course, this is just one experiment using one small subset of the wine consumer market so my next thoughts are pure speculation, however, if anything, this study reinforces the idea for me that there should be wine experts representing a range of different taste profiles.   You see a lot of experts and blog that have similar Robert Parker-esque preferences, though where are the voices for different flavor profiles?  Where is the sweet wine expert, etc?

The results of this small study indicate that perhaps we may want to broaden ourselves when it comes to writing about or recommending certain wines.  We all have different tastes, different palates, and most of us aren’t going to become wine experts, so where is the voice for the average wine consumer?  What’s quality to the experts may not be quality to a big chunk of the consumer pie, so perhaps there needs to be a better way to market to this potentially large population of consumers in order to further increase wine consumption throughout the world.

What do you all this about this study and this topic in general?  Please feel free to share your experience, thoughts, questions, comments, or whatever else you’d like to discuss related to this topic.

Source:  Sáenz-Navajas, M-P, Ballester, J., Pêcher, C., Peyron, D., and Valentine, D. 2013. Sensory drivers of intrinsic quality of red wines: Effect of culture and level of expertise. Food Research International 54: 1506-1518.

1 comment for “The Effect of Culture and Expertise on Perceived Wine Quality: A Case Study with French and Spanish Red Wines

  1. December 16, 2013 at 7:26 pm

    “…out of 95 consumers from the Côtes du Rhône region, 74% of them are used to drinking and purchasing Italian wines, and NOT wines from Côtes du Rhône” – sample alarm bells ringing here! If they had said 74% normally purchased Bordeaux (ubiquitous) or Languedoc-Roussillon wines (affordable) or Vin de Table (very affordable), I wouldn’t have been too surprised. But specifically saying they normally drank Italian? How prevalent are Italian SKUs at retail in the Rhone region? How representative was this sample?

What do you think about this topic?