Brain scans show we prefer low-alcohol wines

There are many factors that influence consumers to buy a certain wine, including the brand, price, origin, and taste. Recently, winemakers have begun shifting toward making wines with a higher alcohol content– but new research suggests this might not be the best idea.

A team of researchers in California set out to explore this question. Published in PLoS One this January, the researchers used Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI) to determine what our brain activity looks like while tasting wines with a low versus high alcohol content. Everything else about the wines (including the color, PH, and sugar).

For the study, participants laid in the scanner and were given either a low alcohol-content wine, high alcohol content wine, or a tasteless liquid. Researchers scanned participants’ brains while they tasted each drink type, and participants rated how much they liked each drink on a 1-20 scale.

First, the researchers compared both wines to the tasteless solution, allowing them to get a baseline reading. Next, the researchers compared the low alcohol-content wines to the high alcohol-content wines. The researchers found that overall, people preferred wines with a low alcohol content. In particular, areas of the insula and cerebellum showed differences in activation, and these areas are involved in taste intensity perception.

“Our finding thus seems to suggest that the low-alcohol content wines induced a greater attentional orienting and exploration of the sensory attributes of wines relatively to high-alcohol content wines,” the researchers explained.

They also found differences in activation in regions of the cerebellum. This brain area is responsible for attentional orienting—when we try to pay more attention to something or divert our attention away from something. In this case, participants oriented their attention toward the low alcohol-content wines, savoring them. Lower activation was observed in these regions while participants tasted the high alcohol-content wines, suggesting that they were savoring these wines less, or even trying not to savor them.

“Our findings regarding the stronger activation in the cerebellum for low-alcohol content wine seem to support the intuition of some professional wine experts that such lower-alcohol content wines have a better chance to induce greater sensitivity to the overall flavour expressed by the wine. Especially striking then is the fact that these differences were found for wine consumers that were not professional or experts,” the researchers said.

Considering that winemakers have begun making more wines with a high alcohol content, these results are surprising. The researchers also pointed out that the high alcohol content of some wines can overshadow its’ various smells and flavors.

The researchers said future research should explore how other attributes of wine, such as its acidity, influence our like or dislike toward these wines. Further research in this area has important implications for the wine industry, as well as wine consumers.