Mark Allan Thornton, the Harvard PhD student who has done groundbreaking work trying to make sense of the gibberish that is wine back labels, has done it again. His second study has found that the back labels on cheap and expensive wine seem describe the same flavors with dfferent adjectives, depending on how much the wine costs.
“The presence of ‘dark’ indicated a less expensive wine on average, whereas the nearly synonymous descriptor ‘black,’ which appears in the same flavor cluster, was strongly associated with the back labels of more expensive wines,” he told me in an email. “In other words, I think these results suggest that people may use different words to describe the same flavors depending on whether the wine is expensive or cheap.”
The good news? That the goal of the study was see if certain flavors could only be found in more expensive wine. Given that the first study found what Thornton calls a “quite modest” relationship between price and quality, given what’s written on the back label, this is even better news for consumers. If you want dark fruit flavors, you’re just as likely to get it with a cheap bottle as an expensive one.
So what’s the catch? As Thornton notes, wine back labels are not unbiased reviews, but marketing material. Hence, the study starts with a strike against it. In addition, he says, finding enough wine back labels to work with to overcome this handicap is problematic, given how unwilling the wine business is to share data (also a problem in the first study).
Still, the conclusion is worth pondering (and probably isn’t all that surprising give how confusing back labels are), as are several other highlights:
• White wine descriptors vary more with price than red wine descriptors do, which doesn’t seem to make much sense. My guess? Maybe the presence of sweet white wines offer more opportunity for variation.
• Balance and complexity, which should be the goal of every winemaker, are useless as back label descriptors. Balance was used on cheap, but not expensive, white wine, and not at all with red wine. Complexity had no correlation with red wine pricing and appeared on expensive white wine. Does this mean wine marketers don’t think cheap white wine drinkers care about complexity and figure we’re not smart enough to understand that it will be difficult for a $5 red to be as complex as a $100 red?
• Vanilla, oak, and color were associated with more expensive wines, while dry, clean, and tropical were associated with less expensive wines. Again, this is baffling, since clean should be a goal for every wine.