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Myth Buster

Does Weather Affect the Taste of Wine?

Some winemakers claim that barometric pressure changes impact their wines. We investigated

Roger Morris By February 3, 2022
people outside in the rain drinking wine
Many winemakers believe that the weather influences taste. Illustrations by Mushakesa & Chuenmanuse/Shutterstock.

The winemaker visits his cellar for an in-progress sampling of wines as they are slowly developing in the barrels. He is ecstatic. Such aromas! Such flavors! But when he returns the following day, the winemaker finds the wine has overnight lost its charm and become dull and boring. On his return the third day, he discovers the beautiful flavors and smells have somehow revisited the barrels. How could that be?

“On truly bad days, where a cold front system of storms is blowing through, the wine will just stubbornly resist opening until the weather settles back down,” says the East Coast winemaker, convinced that falling barometric pressure and high humidity can adversely affect how his wine tastes, either from barrels in the cellar or just out of the bottle. 

This is especially the case, he believes, when tasting reductive wines purposefully constructed with minimum previous exposure to oxygen. But he asks that his name isn’t used, “because not everyone agrees with this.”

Except that he is not a lone wolf in his weather-affects-the-wine belief. 

Convalescent wine

The idea is also gospel among many small, traditional producers in Europe. Renowned wine critic Allen Meadows, better known as the publisher of Burghound, says when he visits winemakers in Burgundy, vintners often apologize that their wine is temporarily ill. 

“It’s happened any number of times in terms of producers remarking that they wished the appointment had occurred on a more propitious day,” he says, although Meadows himself doesn’t buy the idea.

To be clear, these traditional winemakers are not talking about the astrological calendars which some biodynamic producers employ, with their almanacs of when to taste; these days bear such designations as root, flower, leaf, and fruit. Rather, to these vintners, it’s all about the weather; they believe falling barometers and days with very high humidity affect the way the wines taste.

Given the importance of taste, it’s easy to imagine there are a lot of scientific studies backing up this relationship between weather and taste, if not weather and wine specifically, right? Well, not exactly. In fact, there appears to be no major scientific studies pro or con on the subject at all.

But there are experts who can shed light on the matter.

What the scientists say

Atmospheric scientist Craig F. Bohren, distinguished professor emeritus of meteorology at Penn State University and a specialist in aromas, is dubious, shooting holes in the winemakers’ weather balloons. He fails to see a scientific connection between dropping air pressure and moody wines. “I think that they are confused about the subjectivity of perception,” he says. “When the weather is good, we are in a good mood, and hence more likely to find a given wine tastier.”

Nor is he sold on the high humidity claims. In addition to his meteorological experience, Bohren trains hunting dogs who live by their noses. He explains he will lay a test track of smells for them to follow one evening and then unleashes his hounds the following morning. “Even if it rained during the night,” he says, “I am amazed at how the high humidity has no obvious effect on their ability to follow a track.”

Wine chemist Andrew Waterhouse, a professor of viticulture and enology at the University of California, Davis, also has his doubts that barometric pressure could affect wine aromas and flavors. While he grants that there theoretically may be minute changes, “I would be very surprised if they would be perceptible to a person. Scientifically, the rate of change would probably be less than one percent.”

Andrew Waterhouse headshot

Dr. Andrew Waterhouse, professor of viticulture and enology, University of California, Davis. Photo courtesy of Dr Waterhouse.

What about humidity? “Remember, there are no data or scientific studies that I’m aware of,” Waterhouse qualifies, “but I think the amount of humidity might affect wine taste.” He says that is because changes in humidity can be huge and thus more rationally a factor. “If you have three times as much water in the air, I would think that could change the transfer of aromas from the wine,” he concludes.

But here’s the question: If humidity might affect how a wine smells and thus tastes, is it because of changes taking place within the wine, or is it because our ability to detect the fragrances or odors will have changed? Dr. Rakesh Chandra is a professor of otolaryngology at Vanderbilt University and chief of rhinology at the university’s medical center in Nashville. The ability to detect smells has been especially on his mind these days, Dr. Chandra says, because he has been very involved with helping patients who temporarily lost their sense of smell because of a Covid-19 infection regain that ability.

Dr. Rakesh Chandra photo

Dr. Rakesh Chandra, professor of otolaryngology, Vanderbilt University. Photo courtesy of Dr Chandra.

“When we smell, very simple odor molecules connect with what are called olfactory binding proteins which connect with receptors in the mucus,” in the nose lining, Dr. Chandra says, “and humidity will affect that.” The mucus can become thicker and more gelatinous, he explains, as it might when people get head colds, and that might well affect smell, even though people may not feel the mucosal change. “Additionally,” he says, “that may change the perceptions of what we smell.”

Confirmation bias in action? 

Others point out there are more receptors in the brain than the nose. As meteorologist Bohren suggests, the changes in people’s perceptions of a wine during foul weather or fair weather could be all in their heads — that is to say, their brains. Unlike the paucity of studies on the effects of weather on wine, if any, there are many studies that show judgments can be swayed not by what people are tasting, but what they think they are tasting.

A famous study published in 2008 by a research team led by Antonio Rangel at the California Institute of Technology used functional magnetic resonance imaging to study how brain responses changed when volunteers were given false information about the wines they were judging.

The study found changes in the perceived price and provenance of wines being tasted not only influenced their judgment of the wine, but also increased activity in the regions of the brain that register pleasure. In short, the brain was apparently telling the volunteers to feel great not because of the taste, but because of what they thought they were tasting.

So, it’s fair to ask, could winemakers be rewarding themselves with brain flashes by tasting what they expect to taste according to the state of the weather?

Does the truth lay somewhere within the mucous layer of people’s noses, the way a winemaker works to expose wine to, or shields it from, oxygen, or might it be a matter of what meteorologist Bohren says sounds to him like “an old winemaker’s tale?” 

In the court of public opinion, the current lack of scientific evidence may make it impossible for either side to get a unanimous verdict.