journalism for dummiesOne of the big debates in the wine world is over the virtues of ripe, alcoholic fruit bombs vs. subtle, restrained wines with lower alcohol. The general public seems to like the fruit bombs, based on what they purchase, much to the consternation of somms and wine experts who prefer wines with finesse.

This week the wine press is all atwitter with results of a study purporting to show that people prefer low-alcohol wines. Under a headline “Science has spoken: Big wine doesn’t mean more flavour” we get this gem from The Globe and Daily Mail:

It appears that haughty Euro-centric wine connoisseurs were right all along: Lower-alcohol wines are more interesting than the big, fat ethanol bombs coming out of California, Australia and Chile. No more arguments, please. Science has spoken.

At least that’s what we’re left to conclude from a fascinating study conducted at the Basque Center on Cognition, Brain and Language in San Sebastian, Spain. Researchers used magnetic-resonance machines to peer inside the brains of drinkers as they (the study participants, not the researchers) sipped various wines, some with moderate alcohol and some with considerably more. Contrary to prevailing wine-industry wisdom that most consumers prefer brawn to finesse, the scanner revealed startling images. There was greater activity in the taste-processing regions while the subjects drank the lighter wines. The implication: Lower alcohol encourages stronger attention to aroma and flavour nuances.

I call bulls**t on this “report” and the conclusion the researchers draw may be overstated.

Functional magnetic resonance imaging, or fMRI, is a technique for measuring brain activity. It detects changes in blood flow in response to neural activity – when an area of the brain is more active it consumes more oxygen and to meet this increased demand blood flow increases to the active area.

No one knows how increased blood flow and neural activity correlates with subjective experience. fMRI tells us nothing about why there is increased activity. In this case, the increased neural activity could have resulted from the test subjects having to work harder to detect flavor in the lighter wines. It certainly does not entail there is more flavor in the lighter wines. (For an account of some of the problems with the interpretation of  fMRI imaging see this)

The abstract from the study seems to me to overstate what can be inferred from the imaging:

Wines were closely matched for all physical attributes except for alcohol content, thus we interpret the preferential response to the low-alcohol content wines as arising from top-down modulation due to the low alcohol content wines inducing greater attentional exploration of aromas and flavours.

“Attentional exploration” is one thing; preference quite another. Sorry folks. Science is not going to tell you what you should drink.

At best we have an example of a journalist not doing her homework. A quick Google search will point you to information on the pitfalls of over-interpreting fMRI imaging.