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Food & Wine Science has spoken: Big wine doesn’t mean more flavour

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.

"It was surprising, and definitely not intuitive," Ram Frost, a professor of psychology at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem in Israel and the study's lead author, told me by e-mail. "The initial intuitive prediction would be that the brain would react more strongly to the powerful wines. It is the modulation of brain areas (in the cerebellum) that are related to sniffing and exploration that provided us with the likely explanation that powerful wines do not really 'invite' explorations of aromas and flavours, consistent with many Old World wine sommeliers."

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In the study, 26 relatively inexperienced wine consumers were served pairs of red Spanish wines from Rioja, Navarra and Cataluna selected to match parameters known to affect aroma and flavour. (The subjects were lying down and fed through a tube, as though they were keeled-over football fans with crazy beer hats.) The wines were chosen to be "virtually identical" in terms of flavour criteria as well as price, according to the study, which was published in PLOS ONE, an open-access, peer-reviewed online journal. The only significant difference was alcohol content, which differed by roughly 1.5 per cent, with the lower-strength wines in the 13- to 13.5-per-cent range compared with up to 15 per cent for the hangover-inducers.

Curiously, the average rating for wines in each pair was the same. In other words, participants reported enjoying the light and strong wines equally. It was only under the scanner that the subconscious betrayed a different story. The researchers believe this to be the first study that examines the brain's response to a specific character in wine, and it could pave the way for future probes of such fundamental wine traits as acidity, tannins and sugar.

Does it change how you will approach your next glass of chardonnay or pinot noir? I'm not about to pour my cellared Napa cabernets down the sink (though I'll be mindful not to sip them during my next MRI exam). But I wonder if this hard-core science will in any way encourage winemakers to pull back on the alcohol spigot and the sometimes stupidly overripe styles some have been turning out, including those not just in California and Australia but in my beloved southern Rhône Valley. Producers around the world have been scratching at the ceiling of natural alcohol content during the past three decades, letting their fruit hang long on the vine into autumn to ripen with high sugar (which converts to alcohol during fermentation), partly under the assumption that potency equals pleasure. Now we know: Alcohol numbs the mind in more ways than one.

I'm leading my brief notes today with a fine white from New Zealand made by two doctors, John and Brigid Forrest, who have mastered a way to reduce sugar in grapes while achieving full phenolic ripeness – by selective leaf removal in the vineyards. The wine is terrific, and it weighs in at an astonishingly low 9.5-per-cent alcohol.

Forrest The Doctors' Sauvignon Blanc 2013 (New Zealand)

SCORE: 91 PRICE: $19.95

This one's lean, as should be expected of a refreshingly light, 9.5-per-cent alcohol white, but it's dry, without the residual sugar of wines whose low alcohol comes by way of prematurely halting fermentation to arrest the yeasts' activity. The classic New Zealand punch of passion fruit and gooseberry fruit comes through, framed by an aromatic grassy note. Perfect for summer, whenever that comes. Various prices in Alta.

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Blue Mountain Chardonnay 2013 (British Columbia)

SCORE: 92 PRICE: $20.90

At this price, I'd happily take a case or two (interprovincial shipping laws permitting) in part to pour for foreign visitors who naively think Canada remains a marginal player in the wine world. What a gem. This medium-bodied white, with relatively moderate 13-per-cent alcohol, displays substantial mid-palate depth without the heavy oak of many of its Californian counterparts. Tropical-fruit and peach notes mingle with candied citrus, crisp acidity and deftly managed oak-barrel aging. A fine match for garlic-roasted chicken and a whole lot else. Available direct through www.bluemountainwinery.com.

Fielding Estate Riesling 2014 (Ontario)

SCORE: 89 PRICE: $18.95

Sweeter than off-dry but impressively balanced by tight acidity, this complex white, measuring just 10.5-per-cent alcohol, offers up notes of green apple, crisp peach and lime zest. A good choice for whole-grilled, herbed trout.

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Township 7 Cabernet Sauvignon 2012 (British Columbia)

SCORE: 89 PRICE: $26.99

From the sun-drenched Blue Terrace Vineyard in Oliver, this Okanagan red serves up classic notes associated with Bordeaux's left bank, including black currant, black olive and leather, with a vibrant minty backdrop as well as nuances of vanilla and chocolate. Dry, dusty tannins make it ideal for fatty lamb or beef dishes and should bode well for five to eight years in the cellar. Available direct through www.township7.com.

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