Johannes Gutenberg Universität Mainz Psychologisches Institut Mainz
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Dr. Daniel Oberfeld-Twistel

Wine and color: Effects of ambient light on taste and aroma

                        Deutsche Flagge Diese Seite auf Deutsch: Effekt der Umgebungsfarbe auf Geruch und Geschmack von Wein


Black glass in red light

It is a well known phenomenon that the color of a drink has an influence on its taste. This influence is so strong that even experts believe to identify red wine aromas in a white wine colored red with odorless food coloring (Morrot, Brochet, & Dubourdieu, 2001, Brain and Language).
Does this interaction between color and aroma generalize to an effect of ambient color? Does maybe the illumination of a restaurant lead the customers to praise the served food?

We sought to answer this question by studying the effect of ambient lighting on the taste of wine. The study was done in cooperation with the winery Fritz Allendorf (Rheingau, Germany).

The results were published in the Journal of Sensory Studies:

Oberfeld, D., Hecht, H., Allendorf, U., & Wickelmaier, F. (2009). Ambient lighting modifies the flavor of wine.  Journal of Sensory Studies, 24(6), 797-832. [PDF] [Abstract]

Interested in our results? Then read on…

Experiment  1:
Wine-tasting in colored ambient light at the winery
In order to avoid an influence of the ambient light on color of the wine, we served dry white wine (Riesling) in black glasses in which the color of the wine was not visible.
Visitors of the Allendorf winery participated in the experiment. Each subject tasted the wine under only a single light-color (blue, red, white or green light; between-subjects design) in a specially designed color room.

We then asked the subjects to fill in a questionnaire about the taste of the wine. They had to...

    .... evaluate the aroma regarding fruitiness, acidity, spiciness, sweetness and                
on a scale from 1 (low) to 10 (very high)

    ... assess the intensity of the aroma and its stability

    ... evaluate the overall impression ("I don´t like this drink at all" ... "I like it very much")

    ... specify the maximum price they would spend for a bottle of the wine just sampled
Results Experiment 1
  • We found a statistically significant effect of the ambient color on global liking: the subjects reported to like the wine better when tasted in red or blue light rather than in green or white light.

  • The subjects were also willing to spend over 1 Euro more on a bottle of the same Riesling when they tasted it in red light compared to when they tasted it in green light.

Contrary to our expectations, ambient color had no influence on aroma dimensions such as fruitiness or sweetness, nor on the intensity or stability of the taste.

This means that ambient light color has a greater influence on the overall impression of a sampled wine than on the components of its taste. To review these surprising results we did another experiment with some modifications.

Experiment 2
Labaratory experiment with wine tasting in several ambient colors
In Experiment 2 each subject tasted two different wines in each of the four light colors (within-subject design).
We expected this method to be more sensitive to changes in aroma caused by ambient lighting, because the subjects directly experience the change in color.
In addition, we wanted to find out if the more positive evaluation of the wine found in some conditions in Experiment 1 was caused by a positive or agreeable emotional state possibly induced by some light colors. Therefore we asked the subjects to evaluate their current emotional state in each light color setting.
Results Experiment 2
This time, ambient color had a clear effect on the aroma of the wine.
  • In blue and green light, the wine tasted spicier than in white light
  • Blue light made the wine taste more bitter

Surprisingly, in this experiment the overall assessment of the wine was not significantly influenced by ambient color.

Nevertheless, only 19% of the subjects could tell correctly that they had tasted only two different wines in the course of the experiment. 56% believed to have sampled more than two wines.

As in earlier studies, the subjects judged the blue light to be the most agreeable, followed by red, green and finally white light.
However, we did not observe a clear relation between the emotional evaluation of the light-color and the liking of the wine.
Experiment 3:
Direct comparison between two glasses of the same wine,
tasted in two different ambient colors 
In this experiment, we used a method more sensitive to small changes in aroma due to changes in ambient lighting.

The task was easier this time: each subject tasted two glasses of the same wine one after another. The first glass was presented in a different ambient color than the second glass. The participant decided which wine had tasted better, sweeter and fruitier. From this data the average perceived sweetness of the wine in relation to the light color was calculated, using a special statistical method.

We found that the same wine tasted 50% sweeter when tasted in red light than when tasted in blue or white light.

Similarly, in red light the perceived fruitiness was highest. The overall assessment („Which wine tasted best?“) was once again not influenced by the light color.

Ambient lighting influences how wine tastes, even when it has no effect on the color of the wine in the glass. Our results show that the context has a stronger influence on the taste perception than formerly believed. These findings can be relevant for the architectural designing of restaurants and wine shops.

How can the effects of ambient color be explained?

The simple hypothesis that whenever a certain light color makes a person feel comfortable he or she likes the wine better could not be affirmed. The emotions elicited by a certain light color do not seem to be the cause of the effects.
An alternative explanation could be an influence of color on cognition, for example by making us more accessible and responsive for a certain taste. Likewise, associations could play a role, e.g. green = immature“.

An answer to these questions will have to be found in future experiments!

Media coverage of our results

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