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By Roberto Burro, Ivana Bianchi, Arianna Fermani

There have been many studies on the richness and variety of the language that professionals use to describe or market wine. There have also been some studies which have investigated the difference between experts and non-experts in terms of their ability to perceive, discriminate, evaluate and talk about wine.  We asked a related, but simpler question: how much do standard wine drinkers really understand when experts speak about the sensory properties of wine?

Italy is renowned for its wines and guidebooks on the subject are published every year with the aim of helping non-experts to find their way around the many varieties of wine that are currently available. In these books, many terms are used to describe the sensorial properties of wines, from how they look to, their aroma or their taste and texture. The objective of these guidebooks is to  tell us what we will find when we open a certain bottle, and also help us to figure out which ones we might prefer and therefore want to buy.

We looked at seven popular wine guidebooks and we focused on 12 wines corresponding to 31 registered Italian DOC or DOCG wines originating from the Veneto Region in the north of the country. We picked out all of the terms they used to refer to sensory characteristics and then classified them according to the sense modality they referred to. We discovered that 40% refer to smell, 40% to taste, 16% to visual properties and 4% to general properties, such as, for example, “armonico”, which means well-balanced in English.

So, we just saw how often they refer to these properties related to the senses, but what do we discover if we have a closer look at the specific characteristics that are described? Do we get a clear idea of what the terms really mean? And, by the way, is my interpretation the same as other standard consumers like myself, or does the same word mean different things to different people? Last but not least, do we understand what we are really supposed to understand?

558 standard consumers and 31 sommeliers (all from Italy) helped us to find the answers to these questions. In order to investigate, we used 64 terms corresponding to the most frequently used descriptors in the guidebooks, and those most commonly used in the official tasting scales of the Italian Sommelier Association. The results were intriguing, as we will see.

But first we need to explain how we went about investigating standard consumers’ understanding of these terms used to describe properties. We decided to use a rather novel technique and asked them not to tell us how they understood the terms but to identify the opposite property. The rationale for choosing this method was twofold. Firstly, people in general have an intuitive idea of what opposites are and secondly, most of the tasting scales used by experts are modelled in terms of opposite poles on a dimension. For instance, the dimensions relating to acidity and tannin and alcohol content all range from low to high, while the one relating to body ranges from light to full, for flavor intensity it goes from light to pronounced and for finish the range is from short to long. One of the most significant results of our study is that the participants were in fact able to identify the opposite property (and therefore also the underlying dimension) in more than 85% of cases. This indicates that most of these properties have a dimensional structure in non-experts’ minds. This is very positive since it means that there are points in common in the lexicons used by experts and non-experts. 

The fact that the participants were usually able to identify an opposite still does not tell us anything about whether these opposites were consistent with those chosen by the other participants. In the case of white wines, for instance, 12 different terms were associated with the target property vecchio (Eng. old) and this was the smallest number of opposites chosen. But 100 different terms (an impressive result!) were proposed for the target property with the highest number of opposites, that is, franco (Eng. focused). The 64 properties were then grouped into four clusters (see Figure 1). Cluster 3 includes the properties that people were more uncertain about and so there were more “I don’t know” responses, and a greater number of different opposites proposed than for the properties in the other clusters. Conversely, cluster 4 groups the properties that were interpreted in a more consistent way. The other properties fell into the two groups in between. There were also some differences between red and white wine, between males and females and between the different age groups.

Figure 1 – Terms understood with varying consistency (or univocity) by non-experts

A second study produced even more interesting results. In this investigation, experts were asked to rate to what extent they agreed with the opposite most frequently identified by the non-experts who had participated in study 1. The idea was to measure the gap between the dimensions that sommeliers and non-standard consumers refer to. Again, the results could be divided into three groups. The experts expressed a high degree of agreement with 23 of the dimensions identified by the non-experts for red white and with 24 dimensions for white wine (i.e. for only 37% of the dimensions). For the remaining 63% of the dimensions, the degree of agreement was either moderate or low.  This means that in almost two thirds of the cases the experts meant one thing …. and we understand something different!

Figure 2 – Some examples of the dimensions identified by non-experts and the extent to which the experts agreed.

To sum up, all of these results reinforce the idea that there is a serious risk of misunderstandings occurring and that wine producers really need to do some research into what standard consumers understand in order to improve how information about wine is conveyed.

Roberto Burro is an Associate Professor of General Psychology at the University of Verona, Italy.  His scientific interests are in the fields of Psychophysics, personality traits and psychological research methodologies.

Ivana Bianchi is an Associate Professor of General Psychology at the University of Macerata, Italy. Her research interests focus on Experimental Phenomenology and the perception of opposition.

Arianna Fermani is Associate Professor of History of Ancient Philosophy at the University of Macerata. She is a sommelier and has produced a series of articles and videos on wine and the senses.

They are all among the founder members of Cognitive Metrix (a spin-off of the University of Verona aimed at linking Psychology and innovation in industry). This work was funded by the Veneto Region as part of the European Social Fund 2014-2020 (head researcher Prof. Roberto Burro) and developed in collaboration between the Department of Human Sciences at the University of Verona, the Department of Humanities at the University of Macerata (Prof. Ivana Bianchi and Prof. Arianna Fermani), the Consorzio Tutela (Regulating Consortium) Vini Valpolicella and the Casa Vinicola Sartori, Italy (wine producers).

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