Tasting order and wine scores

It is well known that your perception of a wine is affected by what was tasted immediately beforehand. This is similar to how other senses behave. If, for example, you sit in the dark for several minutes and then expose yourself to normal daylight, it seems to be exceptionally bright until your eyes adjust. With wine, if the previous wine was flabby, your current wine will tend to taste sharp; if it is was very dry, then sweet, etc.

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However, in addition to that effect, the order in which you taste wines can help determine how much you like them. I have already written about Antonia Mantonakis’ research, where she presented sequences of wines to consumers, and asked which wine they liked best. In actual fact the same wine was offered in each glass, but the tasters still expressed a preference. For shorter sequences (2 or 3 glasses) they tended to prefer the first wine tasted, while for longer sequences (say 5 glasses) they preferred the last one. If you are thinking “that just goes to show how little the average consumer knows about wine”, you should be chastened by the fact that those with better wine knowledge were even more prone to this bias. But how much practical significance does it have? The consumers were after all asked to distinguish between identical wines, and they may have thought any differences were very small.

Later work[1] by French researchers throws more light on this order effect. Here the experiments were performed on wine professionals  tasting in competitions that awarded medals to Beaujolais Nouveau wines. Here, in each of two competitions of around 400 wines, approximately 100 tasters scored wines on the 100 point scale, each taster being given two flights of between 10 and 12 wines. But into each tasting sequence of wines registered in the competition, the experimenters added the same wine (an unregistered one) into the first and penultimate positions. For each competition, the average score for the penultimate wine in the sequence was greater than that for the first wine: 82.99 vs 79.78 for one competition, and 83.93 vs 81.78 for the other. Those differences are not only statistically significant, but also significant from a practical point of view. To get some feel for the practical significance, note that the difference between a silver and gold medal winning scores is 6 points. Also, as the required score to achieve a silver medal was 81, in one of the competitions the position of the wine would have decided whether the wine received a bronze or silver medal.

If wine scores and medals are important to as a consumer, then you should probably be concerned about the sequencing used in tasting flights. On the other hand, if you do not pay much attention to such things, you can now add order effects to the list of reasons that justify your position.

[1] Carole Honoré-Chedozeau, Jordi Ballester, Bertrand Chatelet and Valérie Lempereur, “Wine competition: from between-juries consistency to sensory perception of consumers”, BIO Web of Conferences 5, 03009 (2015)

Author: Steve Slatcher

Wine enthusiast

2 thoughts on “Tasting order and wine scores”

  1. It’s kind of obvious…but why did I never think about it stuff. Clearly a ripe subject for an article of some length, but to publish it would not please those who judge and award medals, or perform tastings for the very same publication.

    At trade tastings, I generally find my palate begins to flag after around fifty or so samples, fewer for alcoholic reds, and I can saunter through German Kabs all morning. So many more macho tasters claim to manage a hundred, maybe two hundred. Who am I to say they’re bluffing, but perhaps some think their faculties are less impaired than they really are. Like the man who thinks it’s safe to drive after a couple of pints, not everyone knows their own limits. And who knows how mine are doing after even thirty tannic 2010 Barolos or McLaren Vale Shizzas?

  2. I think competition organisers are already aware that there are order effects, or at least that they might exist. The referenced article mentions that some already present wines to different judges in difference orders, but that is quite an overhead in terms of organisation so it is not normal. The authors speculate that the effect is due to an unwillingness to give higher scores until the tasters get a better feel for the wines. In the competition with the lower difference between first an penultimate wines, that lower difference could have been due to 3 “warm up” wines, so that is another possible solution.

    Palate fatigue is a different issue – note that each judges in the experiment had only two flights of 10-12 wines (with a break in between). I can just about manage 100 wines in a day, but I am under no illusion that I am a competent taster by the end of it. Even with spitting I count it as a success if I can walk out unassisted afterwards 🙂

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