Applied consumer and sensory science is a discipline that is widely used and accepted in the food industry. It is only recently, with the expansion of the wine industry, that sensory tools have been used in wine consumer research to identify consumer likes and dislikes.
This post features the research of two academics from the Australian Wine Research Institute who discuss the value of sensory evaluation applied to wine consumer research.1 They argue that “For the wine industry, producing wines free of deficiencies and with sensory characteristics that appeal to consumers is of fundamental importance.”
Rigorous sensory methods — assessing wine under blind and controlled conditions and applying statistical methods to gather valid insights — can help pinpoint customer preferences. Sensory evaluation techniques are used to guide winemakers in the development and creation of wines that are free of defects and that exhibit desirable sensory profiles. Sensory science can tease out the descriptors that make similar wines distinctive. This is valuable information in an increasingly competitive and global market.
Consumer Research on Wine Preferences
Research shows that consumers’ preferences in wine are very eclectic and are not often aligned with the judgement of wine experts. The data also suggest that there is no correlation between price and consumer liking, when wine is tasted blind. Moreover, studies have concluded that wine consumers can be sensitive to small sensory differences on key wine descriptors. In a California Cabernet Sauvignon study, consumers reported a taste preference for oaky samples displaying dark and red fruit. They noticeably disliked the wines that were described by a sensory panel as “sulfury”, “bretty” and “musty.” They also disliked wines that presented a vegetal and vegetative character.
The diversity of consumer preferences can be explained by a multitude of variables. Demographic factors (age, nationality and gender), the degree of wine exposure and consumers’ personality traits (confidence, frugality, degree of experimentation) have been shown to affect liking. Interestingly, researchers have shown that demographic factors were not strong predictors of preference except for a limited number of wine types. Preferences in wine could also evolve rapidly if wine education was provided or if the consumer was exposed to different wine styles.
Descriptive Tests & Sensory Profiling
The heterogeneity of the consumer response creates a need to identify groups of consumers who share similar likes and dislikes, also referred to as “clusters.” Sensory methods applied to consumer research are of two types. Descriptive tests conducted by a trained sensory panel are used to describe the sensory profile and intensity of wines. Sensory profiling includes the identification of defects, taints and off-notes. Preference tests (ex: 9-point hedonic scale) serve to gather consumer data on liking. The combination of these 2 test methods allows wine producers and researchers to match consumer preferences to wine profiles.
In a study of Chardonnay, Rieslings and Sauvignon Blanc wines (US$15-20), two clusters of consumers were identified and mapped. Over 2/3 of consumers reported liking wines displaying tropical and tree fruit with a slight sweetness. The same consumers didn’t favour wine samples described as “high alcohol”, “oaky” and “dry”. A second cluster of consumers were found to prefer the oaky wines over the sweeter and fruitier white wine samples.
In another study of inexpensive California Chardonnay, 25% of tasters reported liking wines with floral aroma. Two other and distinct groups of consumers were identified, neither of which liked the floral wines.
Customer Rejection Thresholds
Other consumer tests have focused on determining Customer Rejection Thresholds (CRT), defined as the level of an odour or taste compound which gave a significantly lower preference. The CRT for cork taint (2,4,6 trichloroanisole or TCA) in white wine was determined to be slightly higher than the panel’s detection threshold for this compound.
Through consumer studies, low preference or negative wine descriptors have been described. Consumers are sensitive to fruit intensity and fruit type and appreciate the right combination of fruit and oak in a red wine. They tend to dislike acidic and bitter wines and object to “brett”, the barnyard aroma produced by brettanomyces yeast. Sulfur-related flavours (onion, garlic, struck match), oxidation (sherry, bruised apple notes), green and vegetal aromas, cork taint and volatile phenols (leather, medicinal, smoky) also tend to be disliked. In addition, studies show that “hot” character and “warmth” wine attributes, which relate to the alcohol content of wine, are not strongly correlated to consumer preference.
Sensory Evaluation Helps Winemakers!
Sensory evaluation of wine can help winemakers and their teams adjust their practices towards a desirable product. In the winery, simple sensory tests may be utilized to inform decision making. The use of descriptive sensory tests should always be preceded by some sensory training. Sensory references, such as the Aroxa food-grade standards2, may be of great value to in-house panels. Sensory references can prevent the development of “cellar palate” and can support refresher training on wine defects (smoke taint, TCA, sulfur).
Interested in sensory testing or sensory training? Contact Sirocco to discuss your business needs and request a quote.