Pricier Wines Taste Better Than Cheap Ones—but Not for the Reason You Think

Don't let the price tag fool you.

wineIevgenii Meyer/ShutterstockIf you’ve ever treated yourself to a particularly expensive bottle of wine, you know what a treat it is. Studies have shown that a higher price tag does actually make the wine taste better (unless we’re talking about the world’s best wine, which costs just $10). But it has nothing to do with the grape quality.

In reality, pricy bottles might not actually taste much different from cheaper wines. Your brain just tricks you into thinking it does.

University of Bonn researchers fed wine to volunteers who were lying in an MRI scanner. Before letting participants taste, the price of the wine was shown: either €3 (about $3.60), €6 ($7.17), or €18 ($21.50).

The catch? All the wine actually cost €12 ($14.34).

Even though all the wine was the same retail value, the fake price skewed how the volunteers thought it tasted, according to study results in the journal Scientific Reports. “As expected, the subjects stated that the wine with the higher price tasted better than an apparently cheaper one,” co-author Hilke Plassmann, PhD, said in a statement. On average, they rated the most expensive wine a 5.21 out of 9, but the cheap wine got just a 4.19 rating. (Before you sample your next glass, brush up on these wine terms you need to know.)

Taking a peek at the brain scan results, the researchers noticed something interesting. A part of the brain that deals with decision-making and expectations, and a part involved with the reward and motivation system both lit up more for the supposedly pricier wines. “Ultimately, the reward and motivation system plays a trick on us,” co-author Liane Schmidt, PhD, said in a statement. Your brain expects expensive wine to be better quality, so you judge the flavor as better—even if it actually tastes the same as a cheaper bottle. (Don’t miss these other sneaky ways stores get you to spend more.)

And your brain isn’t just trying to make you feel better about spending so much on a bottle of vino. In some parts of the study, participants “paid” for their sips with a set amount of money the researchers gave them before the start. But whether volunteers saw their accounts dwindling or not, the more expensive bottles tasted better. So a pricy bottle your best friend brings for dinner would taste just as good as one you shelled out for yourself.

Interestingly, a low price tag might skew your perception more than a pricy bottle. A week after the fMRI session, researchers asked participants to sample the $14 wine without knowing the price. When they blindly sipped the wine, participants gave a rating of 5.03—closer to the rating they gave the expensive bottle. Apparently, your low expectations of a cheap bottle will affect your taste buds more than the way you look forward to a quality expensive wine. So when it comes to cheap wine, what you don’t know won’t hurt you.

And that cheap wine habit could actually help your health; find out what happens when you drink a glass of wine every night.

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Marissa Laliberte
Marissa Laliberte-Simonian is a London-based associate editor with the global promotions team at WebMD’s and was previously a staff writer for Reader's Digest. Her work has also appeared in Business Insider, Parents magazine, CreakyJoints, and the Baltimore Sun. You can find her on Instagram @marissasimonian.