New Study Reveals that Cork Plays a Central Role in the Perceived Quality of a wine

Research Conducted by the Behavior and BrainLab of the IULM in Milan, Italy, Highlights the Significant Part Played by Cork in Improving the Perceived Quality of the Wine Tasted

Natural cork is preferred by the majority of the wine trade, professionals and consumers around the globe as the gold standard for sealing and aging wine. But how deeply rooted is winemakers’ and wine drinkers’ preference for cork compared to other closures, and how does it impact the perceived experience of drinking a wine? A new neuroscience study conducted by the Behavior and Brain Lab of IULM (The University Institute of Modern Languages) in Milan, Italy, has found that cork plays a central role in improving the perceived quality of a wine being tasted.

The research, conducted in Italy, confirmed that wine drinkers of all ages and experience have a higher cognitive and emotional response to smelling, tasting and even listening to a wine sealed under cork than they do with a wine sealed under screw cap. The study was organized on behalf of the cork promotion campaign and backed and supported by APCOR (The Portuguese Cork Association) and ASSOIMBALLAGGI – Federlegno/Arredo. The APCOR project emerged as an extension of an experiment conducted in 2018 by the IULM Behavior and BrainLab, and expanded in 2022.

The objective of the study was to show how the wine experience can be influenced by the preliminary information provided to wine tasters—specifically that cork was used to seal a wine–and can even result in the most experienced wine-drinkers making a completely different assessment of the same product. To conduct the study, the researchers analyzed the perceived differences between a wine that was believed to have been poured from a bottle sealed with a cork and a wine that was believed to have been poured from a bottle sealed by a screw cap. They used the same wine, with 50 percent taken from a bottle with a cork and 50 percent from a bottle with a screw cap.

The study involved 40 participants who were divided not only by gender and age groups but also their expertise in wine. The sample group was split with between 50 percent who were considered wine connoisseurs and 50 percent who represented average consumers of wine.

The researchers began by focusing on the power of emotional experience, starting with sound. They played two recordings, one that clearly sounded like a cork being pulled from a bottle, and the second that sounded like a screw cap being opened. The cork produced the best response with a cognitive engagement was 39 percent higher than for the screw cap. The emotional activation for the cork was 64 percent higher for the cork.

The results remained consistent for the subsequent smelling and tasting stages. During the smelling stage, the wine that was thought to come from a bottle with a cork produced a cognitive engagement of over 34 percent, while the emotional activation was 59 percent greater than the wine with a screw cap. In the tasting stage, when the participants believed they were drinking wine from a bottle with a cork, their cognitive engagement was found to be 80 percent greater than when they thought they were drinking wine from a bottle with a screw cap. Moreover, the participants showed an emotional arousal of over 238 percent if they were convinced that they were tasting wine from a bottle with a cork.

Sealing a wine with cork also increases the perceived value of the wine according to the study. Participants estimated that the cost of the wine sealed with cork was € 7.69, or € 1.44 more than the wine sealed under screw cap (+16 percent). They were also willing to pay € 7.78 per bottle, € 1.21 more than for the wine with a screw cap (+18.5 percent).

Participants were also asked to analyze the label of the wine, which specifically involved 3 different stickers providing information on the type of stopper being used (plastic, cork or screw cap). The study found that 90% of the participants opted to view the label with the sticker relating to the cork stopper versus the labels with the screw cap and plastic stickers.

The study was conducted using specific neuroscientific techniques such as an EEG helmet and special sensors. Researchers analyzed the emotional and cognitive reactions by detecting the skin conductance and heart rate of the participants. The analytical methodology also included the use of an Eye Tracker, which traced and monitored the visual paths of the participants on the bottles, thus providing qualitative and quantitative feedback.  

By utilizing these techniques, the study was able to overcome the rational processing that takes place after an experience, which according to scientific literature, has been shown to be unreliable and tainted by a series of voluntary and involuntary distortions, social filters and personal experiences. The focus was instead on primordial, immediate and unconscious emotional and cognitive reactions, which are essential to the understanding of consumer behavior.

When taken as a whole, the results mark an important step in understanding the considerable effect that cork has on consumers’ rational and irrational perception of higher quality wine. It also provides key insights for the future and evolution of cork, which as a 100 percent natural and renewable product is one of the most sustainable closures on the market, and is part of a supply chain pursuing innovation and enhancements in production.

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