Light, buttery, with hints of cat’s pee: Why companies use elaborate descriptions on wine labels (and what they really mean)

New research suggests that the descriptions of the wine printed on the label have as much of an impact on your enjoyment as does the actual quality or taste of the wine itself.

    Nearly matured but equally overcooked Voignier. Strong kalamata olive, over-ripe vanilla and strong-willed apple. Cliff-edge body like summers lost.

Sound tasty?

Researchers from the University of Adelaide found that intricate descriptions of wine have a placebo effect on consumers, influenced their perceptions of what they drink.

The researchers conducted a study with white wines and 126 regular white wine consumers. The consumers evaluated the same set of three commercially available white wines (Chardonnay, Riesling and Sauvignon Blanc) under three information levels: a blind tasting with no information; after hearing basic sensory description; and after being given an elaborate/emotional description of the wine.

Participants greatly preferred the same wines when they were presented along with more elaborate descriptions, including information regarding winery history and positive wine quality statements.

Study lead Sue Bastian concluded: “Cleverly written wine and producer descriptions when coupled with unbranded wine tasting can evoke more positive emotions, increasing our positive perception of the wine, our estimation of its quality and the amount we would be willing to pay for it.”

If they describe it right, you’ll like the wine better and pay more for it, regardless of what plonk is actually in the bottle.

The meaning of some puzzling wine descriptions:

    Cat’s Pee: A negative acidic tart aroma associated with Sauvignon Blanc.
    Chewy: A tannin that makes you want to chew it from the sides of your mouth.
    Buttery: An aroma compound diacetyl from oak which is easy to identify in white wines.
    Toasty: A hint of burnt caramel on the finish.
    Smoky: A burnt charcoal-like aroma usually associated with red wines.
    Voluptuous: More fruit than tannin.

I’ve taken these definitions from an infographic provided by the good folks at Wine Folly. You can consult the full chart for the meanings of 120 common descriptions for wines.

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