If you can't tell the difference between cheap and expensive wine, why pay more?

Article date: 20 April 2011

Edinburgh Science Festival 2011

This is the question posed by Professor Richard Wiseman after an experiment he carried out at the Edinburgh Science Festival found that people’s ability to tell an expensive wine from a cheap wine faired no better than chance. It’s a question which has caused quite a stir in the wine world – just google “cheap wine experiment” and you’ll see what we mean.

Opinion seems to have split broadly in two between those who think this shows what a load of rubbish is talked about wine and those who believe that palette education is needed more than ever. One commentator even went so far as to say that a vote for cheap wine far “from being a message of hope… is a counsel of despair. Its roots reach back to the idol-smashing puritanism of the Cromwellian era…” So let’s take a closer look at the experiment to see if it can shed any more light on the argument.

As Richard Wisemen explained to Supermarket Wine this was a “double blind test”, which meant that participants and researchers didn’t know which wine was which. There were 8 styles of wine from Champagne to Rioja with a cheap and expensive version of each. Participants could only pick one wine from each table and had to say if they thought it was expensive or not. All the wines were sourced from The Cooperative and were not from ones normally subject to discounting.

578 people took part and the overall score was 50%. “I was expecting that some wines would be easier to tell apart,” said Professor Wiseman, “but I was surprised just how close to chance it was across the board.” Clearly some people think they can tell the difference, such as wine critics (on whom this sites relies so heavily). Asked if he would expect a different result with such a group, Wiseman said “my guess is that they would fair no better… especially if it was done with wines they were unfamiliar with.”

This brings into question the premise that value and quality are interlinked. It’s reasonable to assume that most people make this association, otherwise why buy expensive wine at all? So does this experiment break this link? As The Guardian put it, In a blind taste test, volunteers were unable to distinguish between expensive and cheap wine. But actually the experiment didn’t find this. Participants weren’t asked to tell the difference or distinguish between expensive and cheap. They only tasted one wine from each type, there was no comparison.

As Richard Wiseman pointed out, it would be an entirely different, but no less interesting experiment if participants were asked to compare or express a preference or simply say if they liked a wine or not and then see how cheap and expensive match up. What this experiment has found is that you can’t tell if a wine is expensive in a blind tasting. And if you can’t tell, is there any point buying expensive wine?

The results may well come as no surprise to many supermarkets who trade off people’s expectation that price and quality are the same. There’s been a lot of debate over “half price” or “too-good-to-be-true offers”. These wines fly off the shelves because shoppers believe that they are getting a really good wine for a bargain price. But this taste test would seem to negate this.

The debate will rumble on. And while it does we should remind ourselves what really matters when it comes to wine: enjoyment. If you like it, does it matter how much it costs? Surely – and this being the raison d’etre of Supermarket Wine – the best thing is to discover new wines, new varieities, new tastes. So stop worrying if a wine should taste expensive or not and start enjoying new sensations.


  1. joed says:

    If you can’t tell the difference between cheap and expensive wine, why pay more?

    I couldn’t agree more. There are only two kinds of wine in the world, the kind you like and the kind you don’t.

    If you don’t like, don’t buy it again. If you do like it, buy it and drink it again.

    But hunt round for the best price.

    13 May 2011

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