Can Neuroscience Teach Us About Winemaking?

By Neuroskeptic | March 22, 2015 5:52 am

Modern winemakers may have erred when they switched to producing high alcohol wines. According to a new paper, from Spanish neuroscientists Ram Frost and colleagues, a low alcohol content wine actually produces more brain activity in ‘taste processing’ areas than more alcoholic varieties do.

But what does the brain really have to say about Beaujolais? Can scanning help us pick a Sauvignon? Will neuroimaging reveal the secret to a good… er… Nero d’Avola?

frost_wine_brain

In their paper, published in PLoS ONE, Frost et al. note that alcohol levels in wines have risen lately: “Whereas 30 years ago levels of alcohol of 12% or 12.5% were common, today’s bottles on the shelves commonly display levels of 14%, 14.5% or even 15%.” Why? Because winemakers “seem to… assume that strong wines are, on the average, more appreciated by wine consumers.” Frost et al. say that high alcohol wines are seen as being ‘powerful’, ‘intense’ and ‘full-bodied’ and that this is considered desirable.

But are strong wines really better? To find out, Frost et al. used fMRI to measure brain activity from 21 occasional-wine-drinking volunteers. During the scan, participants tasted samples of different wines (all red) via a tube in their mouth. In each scanning session there were two wines, one low alcohol and another high alcohol, the two being selected to be similar in all respects except alcohol content.

Unexpectedly, the data showed stronger brain activity to low alcohol wines compared to high alcohol ones, in the right insula and in the right cerebellum. Frost et al. say that these areas are known to be sensitive to taste intensity perception. So, contrary to the popular belief that strong wines are strong tasting, “these wines induce weaker activation relative to the low-alcohol content ones.” There were no parts of the brain where the strong wines caused more activity.

How can that be, given that the strong and weak wines were chosen to be matched on flavour? Frost et al. say that the greater brain activation to low alcohol wines means, not that they contain more flavour, but that people tend to pay more attention to the flavor when the alcohol content is low: they hypothesize 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 authors conclude that their fMRI data fit with what many winemakers and critics have always said:

The main criticisms of this “New World” (high alcohol) approach to winemaking are that these wines often lack finesse, and also that the high-alcoholic content overshadows the subtle flavours and aromas that the wine could exude. Our findings seem to support this view… that such lower alcohol content wines have a better chance to induce greater sensitivity to the overall flavour expressed by the wine.

The controversy over the alcohol content of wine (especially red wine) has been raging for years. Broadly speaking it pits “brash, bold”, high alcohol New World wines from Australia, California, etc. against “elegant, authentic” Old World varieties from places like France and Spain. Hmm. One American wine critic recently blasted the partisans of low-alcohol as “Eurocentric, self-proclaimed purists.”

So has neuroscience proven the purists right?

Being someone who hates all red wine, I’m perhaps not really qualified to comment, but as a neuroscientist, I will say that Frost et al.’s approach does seem valid if we accept that activity in the right insula and cerebellum represents subjective perception of flavour intensity (and nothing else); Frost et al. didn’t test that hypothesis, they rely on citing other papers.

Also, it’s not clear whether an brain scan is the best way to approach the question of whether high alcohol is overpowering. Surely the same thing could be demonstrated using a taste test, albeit it might require a carefully worded set of questions. But it would be a lot cheaper than 21 fMRI scans.

As for myself, I’ll stick to white wine, or even better, beer. Forget red wine, I’ll have a Chimay Rouge.

ResearchBlogging.orgFrost R, Quiñones I, Veldhuizen M, Alava JI, Small D, & Carreiras M (2015). What Can the Brain Teach Us about Winemaking? An fMRI Study of Alcohol Level Preferences. PloS one, 10 (3) PMID: 25785844

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  • NeuroWendy

    Agreed – this is somewhat interesting, but why not just use a taste test?? All of the recent obsession with brain scans and this privileging of the brain over subjective experience is quite maddening – and I say this as a neuroscientist! Thanks for your balanced summary and challenging of the relevance of this work.

  • practiCalfMRI

    As Dr. Erskine pointed out on Twitter this morning, the higher alcohol content could be a confound:

    https://twitter.com/practiCalfMRI/status/579697062029086721

    An “alcohol plus water” control – two, actually, one for each of the wine styles to be emulated – would have been useful. Acute alcohol has been shown to alter BOLD responses. See the section, “Alcohol” in this post:

    http://practicalfmri.blogspot.com/2014/12/concomitant-physiological-changes-as.html

    A measure of cerebral blood flow (CBF) as well as physiologic parameters (especially heart rate) would also have allowed further checking for confounding effects.

    (Unrelated: the FOV is given erroneously in the paper as 1342 x 1343 mm, which presumably relates to Siemens’ default “mosaic” style of image display.)

    • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/neuroskeptic/ Neuroskeptic

      Thanks!

      Another possible issue I just spotted: multiple comparisons correction. The authors selected 30 ROIs to perform the key low alcohol vs. high alcohol contrast. They present ROI contrasts as significant if p < 0.005. Which corresponds to Bonferroni correction over 10 ROIs but not 30… if I am reading it correctly.

      • practiCalfMRI

        At least you read it 😉 I skimmed. (This is the equivalent of swirling the paper’s contents around in my mouth for a few seconds before spitting it into a jug.) In any case, it’s probably time to add a couple of notes to PubPeer.

  • feloniousgrammar

    It’s my understanding that there is higher alcohol content in wine now because of higher temperatures that raise the sugar content in the grapes. The alternative, in places like the U.S. where alcohol content is regulated, is to water it down.

    • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/neuroskeptic/ Neuroskeptic

      I think that’s part of the reason, but many winemakers actively desire and encourage high alcohol levels by leaving grapes to ripen for longer.

  • Tim Shakespeare

    The abstract starts “Over the last few decades, wine makers have been producing wines with a higher alcohol content, assuming that they are more appreciated by consumers. To test this hypothesis, we used functional magnetic imaging….” This seems odd to me – if I wanted to know what consumers appreciate I would test their attitudes, preferences and behaviour; not stick them in a scanner and make some reverse inferences, which are prone to many problems http://dx.doi.org/10.1016%2Fj.tics.2005.12.004

  • feloniousgrammar

    Not everyone’s a connoisseur.

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  • Marion Meads

    On the other hand, low alcohol wines are not biologically stable so they are bombarded with high levels of sulfites and sorbates to make them stable. It is the high levels of sulfites and sorbates that define these wines. I experimented with the scores given by wine judges and the sulfite and sorbate components played a major factor.

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Neuroskeptic is a British neuroscientist who takes a skeptical look at his own field, and beyond. His blog offers a look at the latest developments in neuroscience, psychiatry and psychology through a critical lens.

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