Putting the Theory Behind the “Vinotype” to the Test with Science

The concept of wine and food pairing is one that is well ingrained in many people’s minds: red wine with red meat, white wine with fish, etc.  The idea is that the complexities of a specific wine will complement best with the composition of a specific type of food. For example, as

Photo courtesy Flickr user Marco Verch

Master Sommelier Evan Goldstein suggests in his book Perfect pairings: A Master Sommelier’s Practical Advice for Partnering Wine with Food, Cabernet Sauvignon works very well with red meats as the body and big tannins require fat and protein to balance out and harmonize with the wine.

There is another, more recent approach out there, Vinotyping, that effectively throws out the whole idea of one perfect wine pairing with one perfect food type and instead focuses on the consumer themselves, which is led by Master of Wine Tim Hanni. A play on the word “phenotype”, the Vinotype approach focuses on an individual’s own genetics and experiences, and categorizes that individual as one of four different Vinotypic classifications: sweet, hypersensitive, sensitive, and tolerant.

Stepping back a little bit to take a quick glance at the science behind the Vinotype concept, it helps to have a basic understanding of “genotypes” and “phenotypes”.  In the most simplistic terms, your genotype is basically your genetic code.  You get half your genes from mom, and half from your dad, and the combination of the two for any given trait is your genotype.  Phenotype, on the other hand, is this genotype in “real life”.  In other words, it’s the observable characteristics that you see based upon your genotype and interactions with the environment.

For the Vinotype theory, it focuses the phenotype on how it relates to wine and wine preferences.  As Hanni defines in his book Why You Like the Wines You Like, the “vinotype” is “the set of observable characteristics of a wine-imbibing individual resulting from the interaction of its genotypic sensory sensitivies in a wine-related environment”.  So, in other words, your vinotype is a combination of your genetics and your experiences with wine and other beverages, and the interaction between the two.

Putting Vinotyping to the Scientific Test

Photo courtesy Flickr user Kurman Communications

In a new study published in the International Journal of Wine Business Research, researchers from Michigan State University aimed to evaluate the Vinotype theory from a scientific perspective, by looking at any association between everyday food and beverage preferences to wine preferences, as well as whether one could predict what kinds of wines someone would like based upon their everyday food and beverage choices.

The Study Approach

To answer these questions, participants first completed a questionnaire to determine their food and beverage consumption habits as well as their preference.

Next, participants were invited to a reception where they would taste 12 different food and wine combinations at different stations. At each station, participants were asked to taste the wine and food items separately and to rate them separately.  Then, they were to rate their how much they liked or disliked the combination of the two items.

For the food and wine pairing stations, the researchers recruited some of their students to identify combinations they believed would be either well liked or disliked by most people (which they determined via investigations and research).

The reception lasted about 2 hours, with the total amount of wine and food consumed per participant adding up to about 530mL of wine (44mL pour per station) and a full meal of food (appetizer sized portion per station). Participants approached each station in random order, depending upon how busy a particular station was at the time.

A total of 231 individuals participated in the questionnaire portion of the study, with the majority of them being students at the university. 41% were men (59% women), with 90% of them falling in the 21-30 year old age bracket.

75 of these participants went on to complete the reception portion of the study: 29% were men (71% women), with 92% of them falling in the 21-30 year old age bracket.

Summary of Results

A lot of associations were made from comparing the food and beverage behavior and preferences as indicated in the questionnaires and the preferences gleaned from the food and wine pairing reception.  Here is a selection of several of those associations:

POSITIVE ASSOCIATIONS (An example: if you like to drink instant coffee, then you probably like Syrah wines).

  • Instant coffee was positively associated with Syrah.
  • Buying coffee from coffee shops was positively associated with oaked Sauvignon Blanc and oaked Chardonnay.
  • Diet soda was positively associated with Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, and Syrah.
  • Wine consumption was positively associated with White Zinfandel.
  • Craft beer in draft form was positively associated with Red Zinfandel.
  • Photo courtesy Flickr user wackystuff

    Vodka consumption was positively associated with Merlot.

  • Gin consumption was positively associated with oaked Chardonnay.
  • White tequila consumption was positively associated with White Zinfandel.
  • Consuming cocktails at dinner was positively associated with traditional and oaked Sauvignon Blanc, unoaked and oaked Chardonnay, and Merlot.
  • Consuming only tap water and wine at dinner was positively associated with dry Riesling.
  • The smoked oysters served at the reception were positively associated with oaked Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon, Pinot Noir, Red Zinfandel, and Syrah.
  • The BBQ pork served at the reception were positively associated with Cabernet Sauvignon, Pinot Noir, Merlot, and Red Zinfandel.

NEGATIVE ASSOCIATIONS (An example: if you like spicy foods, you probably don’t like White Zinfandel).

  • Strong negative association between liking spicy foods and liking Riesling with residual sugar and the White Zinfandel.
  • White Zinfandel was negatively associated with many spices and foods, including: cilantro, ginger, green and stuffed olives, strong smelling and pungent cheeses, blue cheese, asparagus, radishes, and squash.
  • Buying coffee “to go” from a restaurant (NOT a coffee shop) was negatively associated with oaked Chardonnay and Merlot.
  • Regular soda was negatively associated with Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrah.
  • Regular tonic water was negatively associated with White Zinfandel.
  • Wine consumption was negatively associated with oaked Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Red Zinfandel.
  • White wine consumption was negatively associated with Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot.
  • Domestic brand beer from a can was negatively associated with unoaked Chardonnay.
  • Craft beer from a can was negatively associated with sweeter Riesling and White Zinfandel.
  • Rum consumption was negatively associated with oaked Chardonnay.
  • Dark rum consumption was negatively associated with Cabernet Sauvignon, Pinot Noir, and Red Zinfandel.
  • Brandy consumption was negatively associated with dry Riesling, traditional Sauvignon Blanc, Pinot Noir, Merlot, and Syrah.
  • Irish whiskey consumption was negatively associated with dry Riesling and traditional Sauvignon Blanc.

PREDICTING THE ENJOYMENT OF WINES: ANALYSIS OF ASSOCIATIONS

  • For predicting whether someone likes red wines, analysis of the associations found that preferences for blue cheese, brandy, canned imported beer, and BBQ pork were most important.
  • For predicting whether someone likes oaked white wines, analysis of the associations found that ordering tea “to go” at a restaurant, buying coffee at coffee shops, consuming no beverages with dinner or consuming cocktails with dinner were most important.
  • For predicting whether someone likes dry Riesling wines, analysis of the associations found that preferences for canned import beer, brandy, smoked turkey, adding milk/creamer to coffee, melon, bottled craft beer, draft domestic beer, and consuming juice with dinner were most important.
  • Photo courtesy Flickr user Steven Lilley

    For predicting whether someone likes unoaked Chardonnay, analysis of the associations found that preferences for consuming juice with dinner, strong smelling cheese, and smoked cheese were most important.

  • For predicting whether someone likes Sauvignon Blanc wines, analysis of the associations found that preferences for buying coffee at coffee shops, regular sodas, and seltzer water were most important.

A COUPLE OTHER RANDOM STATISTICS

  • Women were more likely than men to enjoy the following wines: sweet wines, red wines, unoaked Chardonnay.
  • Younger drinkers tended to like sweeter wines more than older drinkers.

Study Limitations

As with all studies, results need to be taken with a grain of salt.  The size of that grain all depends upon how many limitations there were in the given study.

For this particular study, it’s important to note that the sample population does not represent the population of wine drinkers as a whole in the US.  If you recall, the participants were mostly students between the ages of 21 and 30, with the majority of them being beginner-level wine consumers. Though the study was limited by that regard, it is important to remember that often times it is the beginner wine consumers that are most overwhelmed by wine in general, and thus could arguably benefit the most from the implications of the results of this sort of study.

Another important thing to note was that this study did not test Tim Hanni’s Vinotype theory EXACTLY.  What it did was test the concept, but it did not use the exact questions the Vinotype theory uses to predict wine preferences in individuals.

Conclusions

Overall, this study claims to provide some scientific support for the Vinotype theory as developed by Tim Hanni, though due to the limited sample size, more research should be done to confirm if the theory holds up across all types of consumers. For the most part, participants in this study were young college students with little to no wine experience, so it would be interesting to see the study repeated with a sample more representative of the general population.

In fact, as a follow-up to this study, Hanni says that there are currently preliminary discussions involving research teams from “Cornell, UT Houston, Southern Oregon University, Johnson & Wales, Hong Kong Polytechnic Institute, Washington State University and some others to participate in the fully expanded study of the Vinotype wine preferences phenomenon.”  This expanded study will include more geographic areas as well as a larger cultural pool.

Speaking with Tim Hanni via email, he explained to me how the Vinotype movement as a whole is progressing from when it was first introduced. Specifically, Hanni says that while there seems to be a general resistance to change overall, the movement is gaining ground, with the most gains happening though the “adoption of [these] principles more and more by the Wine & Spirits Education Trust programs and curriculum.”.  Additionally, the biggest challenge in getting the Vinotype message heard has been with “the scope of well-intentioned wine educators and enthusiasts that were taught the misinformation and lore, combined with so many educational organizations that are still teaching the same stuff! All the dynamics of a very large ‘collective delusions’ that, as I discuss in my book, has a powerful hold – people come to a seminar or read my work, but the ‘collective’ holds a powerful sway and it is too easy to revert back to the ‘same-old-stuff’.”

In providing preliminary support for the Vinotype theory, the current, small-scale study does not say that traditional wine and food pairing combinations are wrong.  In fact, these combinations are perfectly right for many consumers.  The important distinction here is that the industry recognizes that there are a wide range of palates out there, and that regardless of how good you might think the pairing is, someone else might decide to order a cocktail instead of a glass of wine because they felt too much pressure to order something they knew they wouldn’t even enjoy.  It’s important to understand that through genetics and individual experiences, everyone has their own unique set of tastes and preferences and might be more likely to purchase a glass (or bottle!) if the pairing focused more on them, and not the food on the plate.

Source:

Borchgrevink, C.P., and Sherwin, A.L. 2017. Predicting wine preference: testing the premises of the vinotype theory. International Journal of Wine Business Research 29(3): 251-268.

2 comments for “Putting the Theory Behind the “Vinotype” to the Test with Science

  1. November 4, 2017 at 3:20 pm

    Very interesting, but as you suggest, it doesn’t really test “vinotypes” in a controlled sensory manner. A number of the correlations found can be explained by shopping habits, psychograpics, etc. And some vinotype associations may be obscured by same. But it’s a nice start. And the negative correlation between liking Riesling with RS and spicy foods is pretty funny, considering that’s one of the most frequently recommended pairings by “experts”.

    • Becca
      November 7, 2017 at 10:13 am

      Thank you for your insightful comments! I also thought the negative correlation between liking Riesling and spicy foods, as I actually like that combination. HA! Just confirms that there are lots of different tastes out there!

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