Although it's easy to spot the difference between various wines, such as whites or reds, we don't always know how to distinguish quality, aside from a price tag. Researchers found the price of a wine bottle may influence tastebuds, too. A team from the University of Bonn found that people perceive more expensive wine to taste better, even if it's identical to its cheap counterpart.

MRI brain scans confirmed identical wine tasted better when participants believed it had an expensive price tag. When the prices were higher, the researchers noted the medial prefrontal cortex and ventral striatum — areas of the brain associated with reward and motivation — were activated. The researchers suggest the reward and motivation system is highly activated with higher prices, which increases the taste experience for drinkers.

In other words, the reward and motivation system tricks the brain into thinking the expensive wine tastes better.

But, the marketing placebo effect does have its limits.

"If, for example, a very low-quality wine is offered for 100 euros, the effect would predictably be absent," said study author and Professor Bernd Weber, Acting Director of the Center for Economics and Neuroscience (CENs) at the University of Bonn, in a statement.

In the study, published in Scientific Reports, Weber and his colleagues conducted a series of tests using an average to good quality red wine with a retail bottle price of 12 euros (€). To record brain activity while 30 participants (15 women, 15 men) tasted wines, they were asked to lie down in an MRI scanner. Each time, the price of the wine was shown first, randomly as 3, 6, and 18 €; the participants were given 45 € of initial credit.

The particpants were given a milliliter of the respective wine by researchers through a tube in their mouths. Following, participants were asked to rate how good the wine tasted on a nine-point scale via a button. Their mouths were rinsed with a neutral liquid before the next identical wine sample was given for tasting.

Professor Hilke Plassmann from the INSEAD Business School, with campuses in Fontainebleau (France), Singapore and Abu Dhabi, stressed identical wine led to a better taste experience when participants expected it to be higher quality because of its price.  

Taste perception was not affected "whether the participants also had to pay for the wine or whether they were given it for free" said Plassmann, in a statement.

Taste couldn't have been driven by the wine itself, since all the products were objectively identical in all the tastings, so it was also likely influenced by its price tag.

Previous research confirms most people can't really taste the difference between cheap and expensive wine. It's known wine drinkers get more enjoyment from an expensive wine and less pleasure from a cheap one, because expectations influence neurobiological responses. However, how much we're influenced is contingent on the structure of our brain.

The 2015 study found people with more volume in areas of the brain that control sensory awareness are less vulnerable to marketing placebo effects. These people are more likely to decipher for themselves if a wine tastes cheap. Meanwhile, those with more volume in areas of the brain associated with reward seeking and emotional self-evaluation are more vulnerable to the effects of wine price tags. The researchers believe as soon as this group sees a high price, they begin to anticipate the experience, whether they do it consciously or not.

Furthermore, blind tasting studies have confirmed when prices are hidden, most people did not enjoy expensive wine over cheaper ones. They even tend to rate inexpensive bottles slightly higher. This reaffirms the presence of a price tag can influence perceived taste.

Now, Weber and his colleagues want to explore whether it's possible to train the reward system so it's less vulnerable to placebo marketing effects. The researchers believe this could be possible by training one's own physical perception, like taste, to a greater extent. In other words, using one's own judgement and personal experience with wine can help distinguish between an average and good bottle of wine, without looking at the price tag.

Source: Schmidt L, Skvortsova V, Kullen C et al. How context alters value: The brain’s valuation and affective regulation system link price cues to experienced taste pleasantness. Scientific Reports. 2017.