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White wine finish: It’s not all talk

white-wineBringing science to conventional wisdom, a recently published study from Washington State University reveals how different flavors “finish,” or linger, on the palate after taking a sip of wine.

“A longer finish is associated with a higher quality wine, but what the finish is, of course, makes a huge difference,” said sensory scientist Carolyn Ross. The study, which is one of the first to look at how different flavor components finish when standing alone or interacting with other compounds in white wines, all started with a question from one of Ross’ students in a wine and food sensory science class.

“We were talking about flavor finish and which compounds finish later or earlier,” Ross explained. “I said, well, anecdotally, fruity flavors finish earlier while others, like steak or oak, finish later.”

In a recent article in the journal Food Quality and Preference, Ross writes how her team trained panelists to identify and measure fruity, floral, mushroom, and oaky (or coconut) compounds in wines. They found that, indeed, fruity flavor perception disappears from the palate earlier than oaky, floral, and earth flavors perception. They chose the fruity, floral, mushroom, and oaky compounds to reflect the diversity of the wine aroma wheel.

“There can be hundreds of different flavor compounds in wine,” said former graduate student and co-author, Emily Goodstein referring to the intricate relationship between taste, aroma, and flavor. “We wanted to ask: What finishes longer? Are these assumptions really supported? Can we back it up with some sensory data?”

Goldstein and Ross trained a panel of volunteers to actually measure the intensity and finish of flavor compounds commonly found in white wines using a time intensity method. Ross drew an analogy between the time intensity of wine with that of chewing gum: the longer you chew, the fewer flavors you perceive in the gum. Although much more complex, wine is similar in that its flavor changes and diminishes over the time it is in your mouth.

Oak (coconut), in particular has a longer finish than fruity and floral, said Ross. That finish and flavor not only affect the wine drinking experience, they affect economics and the amount that a consumer is willing to pay for a bottle of wine.

“There’s been research that says if it’s more oaky people will spend more money on it, but this isn’t exactly the case.” She refers to a study from Jill McCluskey in the WSU School of Economic Sciences on people’s willingness to pay for America’s most popular wine, chardonnay.

In this case, participants were willing to pay about 5% less for a full oaked bottle of Chardonnay relative to the unoaked Chardonnay. They were also willing to pay less for the medium oaked (70% oak treatment) relative to the unoaked Chardonnay, but the difference was not statistically significant, said McCluskey.

“The novice consumers’ negative response to full oak treatment is interesting because full oaked Chardonnay commands the highest retail price in the market,” she said. “Typically oaked Chardonnays are more expensive because they are more costly to produce and take a certain amount of expertise to perfect the incorporation of oak into the wine. Many reserve Chardonnay wines receive high levels of oak treatment and have a premium price compared to the vintners’ other Chardonnays.Novice consumers may not be able to appreciate an oaked Chardonnay. Although this study suggests a mildly negative response to oak, more experienced consumers may respond differently.”

Read more about the willingness to pay for Washington Chardonnays study at http://intl-ajae.oxfordjournals.org/content/94/2/556.full or the latest article on wine finish from Ross’ WSU Sensory Lab team at http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0950329314000330, which will be in print September 2014.