Monday, September 26, 2016

Finding inexpensive wines

It is a well-known truism that most people can't consistently tell an expensive wine from a cheap one, when they are compared head to head, blind. It is also reported that in the USA 97% of wine is sold for less than $10 per bottle, which is fairly inexpensive. However, as Blake Gray has noted (Cheap wine is boring: Why that matters):
Today, thanks to new technologies, the general level of quality has significantly improved. I rarely have to pour a bottle down the drain, and most cheap wine is properly made. But there is, too often, nothing distinctive about it.
So, the more money you spend the more likely you are to get an interesting wine, and the less you spend the more likely you are to get an uninteresting wine.

Unfortunately, there are something like 120,000 different wines produced every year, worldwide. Moreover, there are also thousands of stores with liquor licenses, each of which stocks only a very small fraction of these wines. Faced with such wide choice, most drinkers don’t know where to start.

How do we locate the good but inexpensive wines? Clearly, we need to check the weekly press and the internet specials; but for most people, buying good wine is like a lottery.

As a partial answer, there are plenty of magazine-style web sites out there that occasionally tell us about the "Top 12 wines under $20" or "Six of the best wines for under £6". Unfortunately, these are of temporary usefulness only, and by the time you or I actually read the list then the recommended wines are likely to have sold out.

There are also large competitions of "best wines", from which one can extract the subset of least expensive wines. For example, Vinitaly is the largest annual exhibition of Italian wines. Associated with this event, Gazza Golosa produces #PopWine, an annual listing of the 50 best Italian wines under €15 (see the 2016 results here: #Popwine 2016: il migliore è il Sangiovese caciara di enio ottaviani).

In a similar vein, Gambero Rosso releases an annual rating of more than 20,000 Italian wines. One can go through this list looking for inexpensive wines with the highest ranking. This has been done, for example, at the Dall'Uva site for the 2012 listing (2012 Picks: *51* top Italian wines for under $20).

The basic limitation of this sort of approach is the infrequency with which these lists are produced (usually once per year). Wine tends to appear from vineyards annually, but wine prices usually vary in space and often over short periods of time, as specials come and go. An annual list cannot reflect this variation.

An equally important problem is that the wine producers immediately raise their prices when their wines make it onto one of these lists, and certain exporters snap up as much of the supply as possible. So, the wines do not remain cheap for long, and nor are they necessarily widely available.

These issues may or may not affect the residents of the biggest wine-producing countries, such as France, Italy and Spain. Here, there are hundreds of small producers, located in dozens of regions (and listed in books such as Le Guide Hachette des Vins de France). They can almost all be visited, and their wines bought directly. One can therefore probably adopt the attitude expressed by Brian Palmer (Why you should be drinking cheap wine):
You don’t need recommendations. Reviews and recommendations are great for cars or televisions or overpriced wines, because bad decisions are expensive. If you hate your cheap bottle of wine, just uncork another.
However, if you live elsewhere, for example in a wine-consuming but not wine-producing location, you may feel the need for some up-to-date advice as to what is currently available in the bottle shops, whether they be specialist stores or supermarkets. Unfortunately, most reviewers write about wines costing more than $20; and any books that get published (eg. Parker’s Wine Bargains, 2009; The Wine Trials, 2010, 2011) quickly go out of date.

Unsurprisingly, then, in both Australia and the USA there are also web sites that specialize in providing such information at the inexpensive end of the market. These sites offer you daily or weekly advice on the best quality cheap wines currently available to you, usually defined in both countries as being less than $20.


** Cheap Wine Ratings

Founded by Tim Lemke in 2007, who was joined by David Germano in 2010.

A free site, mainly consisting of wine reviews, often fairly detailed, of value-for-money wines, usually less than US$20. The reviews are grouped via style, variety or region. There have also been blog-like articles on travel, recipes, etc. These days, reviews appear only a few times per month.

** Reverse Wine Snob

Founded by Jon Thorsen in 2011.

A free site, mainly with wine reviews, rather brief, of inexpensive wines, almost always less than US$20 (and most often from Costco and Trader Joe's). The reviews are grouped by variety or region. There are purchase links to the Wine-Searcher website. There are also occasional articles; and sometimes there are special deals from affiliates. There is an associated book: Reverse Wine Snob: How to Buy and Drink Great Wine Without Breaking the Bank (2015).

** The Wine Curmudgeon

A site run by Jeff Siegel since 2006.

The focus of this free blog is on cheap wine, in all of its aspects. Among the blog posts, about any topic related to wine (trends, rants, news, advice), there are frequent reviews, usually fairly detailed, of wines available for less than US$10. The reviews are roughly categorized, and there is an annual "$10 Hall of Fame". The site's title accurately indicates the writing tone of most of the blog posts, so be warned. There is an associated book: The Wine Curmudgeon’s Guide to Cheap Wine (2013).


** Best Wines Under $20

This site was started by Kim Brebach in 2013, although he had already started providing advice at his previous blog (In the Picture) in 2011.

This is a pay subscription site, with wine reviews, weekly emails about current best buys, monthly lists of best wines in various price categories (AU$10, $15, $20, $25), and direct links to those retailers with the best current prices (online buying is encouraged). Sometimes there are special deals for subscribers. There is also Kim's blog (freely accessible), full of acerbic but very informative comments on the foibles and follies of the Australian wine industry.


As far as I can tell, there is no equivalent site in the United Kingdom. This is somewhat mystifying. Given the wide range of wine-selling chains (in the suburbs) and independent wine shops (in the high streets), not to mention nine large supermarket chains with their own wine brands, there is a plethora of wines that come and go erratically on special. Indeed, in order to legally qualify for advertisement as "50% off" wines need to appear for sale at their "recommended" price for at least some of the time, so it is not always clear when wines are good value for money and when not. Why is there no-one providing insight into this complex situation for the poor befuddled British buyers?

There has been Oz Clarke's Wine Buying Guide, of which I have well-thumbed copies from 2003 and 2005. This was a printed companion to each edition of Oz's Pocket Wine Book, listing his "Top 250 wines", arranged in various price categories, along with an indication of where to get them for the least money. This suffered the limitation of annuality, of course; but more importantly, this sort of information needs to be online these days.

Someone needs to get on to this.


I have not specifically covered sites in languages other than English. However, here in Sweden there is:

** Billigt vin

This site was started by Ingvar Johansson and Jörgen Andersson in 2007. Postings have slowed down recently, but there are still usually a couple of cheap wines reviewed per month.

Monday, September 19, 2016

A century of Barolo vintages — Fontanafredda

In the northern Italian vineyard region of Piemonte, two well-known Barolo producers have provided publicly available comments on 100 years of the wine vintages. Finding these online is not easy, and so I will be covering them in this blog.

Here, I have listed the chart from Fontanafredda (formally: Casa di E.Mirafiore & Fontanafredda S.r.l). You can read all about the estate and winery at the Fontanafredda web site (in both English and Italian).

I obtained this listing from a colorful printed poster on the wine-cellar wall at Wenngarns slott, in Sweden. There seems to be no other online version available. I have provided an analysis of the data at the end of the post.

A Century of Barolo 1906-2005

The 100 vintages are scored on an increasing scale:
    Poor, Normal, Good, Great, Excellent, Outstanding.
Comments on the vintage are provided only for the latter two categories.

Year Harvest
1906  Good 
1907  Excellent  Top quality Barolos with magnificently balanced component parts. 
1908  Great 
1909  Normal 
1910  Great 
1911  Good 
1912  Excellent  Rich Barolos with great structure and an amply scented range of invitingly complex fragrance. 
1913  Good 
1914  Good 
1915  Poor 
1916  Normal 
1917  Great 
1918  Normal 
1919  Excellent  Barolo of wonderful finesse and elegance, with excellent structure and long lasting flavour. 
1920  Good 
1921  Normal 
1922  Outstanding  A superb Barolo throughout, full-bodied and well-balanced with great development potential. 
1923  Normal 
1924  Good 
1925  Normal 
1926  Normal 
1927  Excellent  A Barolo brimming with character, structure and elegance in its bouquet. 
1928  Normal 
1929  Excellent  Harmony, intensity and great concentration were the qualities featured in a vintage decimated by spring frosts and hailstorms during the summer. 
1930  Normal 
1931  Outstanding  Generally exquisite sensations, from its intense, rounded nose, to its full, harmonious flavour and great balance on the palate. 
1932  Normal 
1933  Poor 
1934  Great 
1935  Normal 
1936  Normal 
1937  Good 
1938  Normal 
1939  Poor 
1940  Normal 
1941  Poor 
1942  Normal 
1943  Normal 
1944  Poor 
1945  Good 
1946  Poor 
1947  Outstanding  This is rightly considered to be one of the greatest vintages of the century, and this Barolo expressed all the power of its colour, bouquet and taste to the full. 
1948  Poor 
1949  Normal 
1950  Normal 
1951  Good 
1952  Normal 
1953  Poor 
1954  Normal 
1955  Good 
1956  Normal 
1957  Great 
1958  Excellent  Well structured, crisp Barolo with a bouquet that developed a lovely ethereal complexity over time. 
1959  Normal 
1960  Poor 
1961  Excellent  A classy Barolo, with body, warmth, structure, and a very ample, intense nose. 
1962  Normal 
1963  Poor 
1964  Outstanding  Absolutely superb Barolo of incredible grandeur. The depth of the bouquet and fullness of its flavour came together with the well-ripened tannins that softened over a period of just a few years to give the wine a genuinely special balance and harmony. 
1965  Normal 
1966  Poor 
1967  Excellent  A Barolo packed with intense, ample fragrances and good structure. 
1968  Normal 
1969  Normal 
1970  Great 
1971  Outstanding  Featuring magnificent balance, structure and depth of bouquet, this Barolo stands out for its elegance, very fine nose and ageing capacity. 
1972     [Such a poor year for the nebiolo grapes that it was voluntarily declassified by all Barolo and Barbaresco producers.] 
1973  Normal 
1974  Excellent  A Barolo with a delicate, inviting nose and smooth, lingering taste. 
1975  Good 
1976  Normal 
1977  Poor 
1978  Outstanding  A dry, hot summer and autumn allowed a small crop to produce a Barolo of great structure and power, and complex aroma and taste. 
1979  Great 
1980  Good 
1981  Normal 
1982  Excellent  One of the biggest Barolos of all time in terms of body and character, with rich tannins and firm acidity guaranteeing a slow evolution of the wine over the years. 
1983  Normal 
1984  Poor 
1985  Excellent  A Barolo distinguished by balance and harmony in its components, resulting from a hot, dry summer and autumn. Intense expansive bouquet. 
1986  Good 
1987  Poor 
1988  Good 
1989  Outstanding  Wine with a very intense bouquet and big, full taste. Imposing and demanding, it owes its long life to its concentration. 
1990  Outstanding  A majestic, thoroughbred Barolo. Exhilarating and complex, with great structure, balance and substance, an expansive nose, luscious, warm, full-bodied flavour, and soft, thick tannins. 
1991  Normal 
1992  Poor 
1993  Good 
1994  Poor 
1995  Great 
1996  Outstanding  A Barolo of days gone by, with good structure and a lingering taste. A harvest delayed by an intensely cold spring and summer produced a wine with explosive tannic structure and a crisp  
1997  Outstanding  Hot weather and early ripening resulted in a Barolo with a surprising harmony that highlighted the fullness and softness of its flavour. A wine of great balance, with astonishingly expressive power accompanying an extremely gentle nature. 
1998  Excellent  Aromas of great freshness and finesse combine with a perfect sensation of equilibrium on the palate, produced by soft, ripe tannins matched by the warmth of the alcohol and nicely balanced acidity. 
1999  Outstanding  A Barolo of great personality and structure, resulting from perfect ripening conditions for nebbiolo grapes. Complex on the nose and full-bodied in the mouth, with rich, ripe tannins providing breadth and depth. 
2000  Outstanding  To close (or open?) the century, a Barolo with plenty of structure, a soft, full taste, and very intense fruit on the nose. A warm vintage and an early harvest for an elegant, round Barolo of exceptional balance and great personality. 
2001  Outstanding  The vintage was distinguished by a wet, yet warm spring, followed by a very normal summer and autumn, with temperatures never getting too high. These conditions led to a harvest that started at the beginning of October, when the grapes were perfectly ripe (in terms of polyphenols too). A very concentrated wine, with powerful, soft tannins that fill the mouth. Red fruit and balsamic aromas prevail on the nose. 
2002  Normal 
2003  Good 
2004  Outstanding  An extraordinary Barolo, open and radiant, with ripe tannins that are soft and smooth. A wine that stands out for its great balance. Fascinating, expansive, multi-coloured bouquet, and warm and savoury on the mouth. An "easy" Barolo to approach and appreciate: this is its greatness. 
2005  Excellent  Mid-harvest rains left their mark, defining styles and selections. Focus on elegance, with plenty of acidity and dry tannins, but good concentration of fruit giving depth and volume. 

Analysis of the data

Summary of the harvest-quality data for the 100 vintages:
Outstanding   14
Excellent 13
Great 8
Good 16
Normal 32
Poor 16
Declassified   1

The declassified vintage in 1972 is very unusual. Angelo Gaja’s notes on Langhe vintages include this comment:
The vintage was a disaster. It rained for 15 days during harvest. I believe that a bad decision was made. At that time, more than 80 percent of the harvest was sold to négociants (mediatori in Italian). Less than 20% was vinified by the growers themselves. The négociants didn’t want to pay for the grapes because the quality wasn’t there, and so they pushed the chamber of commerce to declassify the vintage. And it was declassified after the harvest. And so it was not possible to take advantage of what good fruit there was. It was a bad choice and it has never been repeated. The price collapsed and the grape growers were not able to cover their costs. They were the ones who suffered the most. Wineries can recoup their costs from other vintages. This decision was only made once and in my opinion it was a mistake.

Fontanafredda vintage quality scores 1906-2005

I have shown the harvest-quality data as a time series in the graph, with quality converted to the scores 0-6. Each data point represents a vintage, and the pink line is a running average (it shows the average value across groups of 9 consecutive years, thus smoothing out the long-term trends).

The graph is generally centered on a score of 3 (= Good), with a distinct dip of poor vintages during the period 1935-1946. Indeed, 1947 was the only noteworthy vintage between 1931 and 1958 (a string of 26 vintages). By contrast, there has been a string of above-average vintages since 1994.

This recent improvement in quality compares very well to that discussed in Two centuries of Bordeaux vintages. This trend has occurred throughout the vineyard areas of Europe, and is usually attributed to the much warmer summers experienced since 1990, which has allowed the grapes to ripen more reliably (see the data in the post on Bordeaux).

In contrast with Barolo, the Bordeaux vintages also showed a general upward trend in harvest quality throughout the 1900s, rather than having the beginning and end of the century being similar (as shown above). In this sense, the two regions have been quite different. Bordeaux did also have poor vintages from 1930-1935, as in Barolo, but it had good vintages in 1945-1950, unlike Barolo.

Monday, September 12, 2016

When wine juries disagree

There is a large body of literature showing that evaluating wines is a tricky business, especially if you are going to assign a score to each of the wines tasted. In particular, consistency is a hard thing to achieve, both between wines and between times.

I have presented one previous example, in which I showed that two people evaluating the same wines can come to completely independent conclusions (When critics disagree). One supposed means of addressing this issue is to have groups of people doing the assessing, instead of single individuals. Here, I show an example where this does not quite work out, either.

On 9 June 2002, under the auspices of the VieVinum wine exhibition in Vienna, there was a tasting of Grüner Veltliner wines, now acknowledged to be Austria's premier white grape variety. The intention was to showcase these wines by comparing them to a set of world-class Chardonnays (as had also been done 4 years earlier). It was organized by fine wine dealer Jan-Erik Paulson, a Swede living in Germany, who reported on the tasting on his web site: Grüner Veltliner - the worlds greatest white wines?

The jury apparently consisted of 39 experienced tasters from 13 different countries. As Paulson noted: "The sensation of the tasting was how excellent the Grüner Veltliner showed and how badly some of the burgundies did."

Jancis Robinson also reported on this tasting event on her own web site, reposting Paulson's blog post as: Chardonnay v Grüner Veltliner, a knockout contest. She also noted: "The results are fascinating, and so surprising that I feel the need to participate in a similar taste-off in which I get to choose the Chardonnays." Well, this is exactly what happened.

This second tasting occurred 5 months after the first, on 30 October 2002, at the Groucho Club, in London. It was also organized by Jan-Erik Paulson, but this time was hosted by Jancis Robinson and Tim Atkin. The jury consisted of 18 wine journalists, importers and sommeliers. The results are presented in the blog post: Grüner Veltliner - distinctly groovy grape.

There was some overlap between the wines chosen for these two tastings, and so we can directly compare the resulting scores. In the first tasting there were 36 wines: 7 Grüner Veltliner, 6 Burgundies, and 23 other Chardonnays from around the world. In the second tasting there were 35 wines: 11 Grüner Veltliner, 6 Burgundies, and 18 other Chardonnays. There were 16 wines that the same in both tastings, plus a few more that differed only in vintage. The scores for the identical wines are shown in the first graph.

In this graph the average scores for the first tasting are on the horizontal axis, using the 100-point scale, while the average results of the second tasting are shown vertically, using the 20-point scale. Each point represents one wine, located according to its two scores.

If the two juries had judged each wine perfectly consistently, then the points would lie exactly on the dashed line — only two of the wines do this. If we allow a half-point leeway for the scores, since it is inconceivable that they would all be identical, in practice, then the points would lie between the two dotted lines.

Based on this criterion, there are four of the 16 wines that were scored differently by the two juries. One wine in particular, at the middle-left of the graph, was scored very differently. This was the 1997 Hamilton Russel Chardonnay, from South Africa. The Vienna jury rated it 85 / 100 (= Above average) while the London jury rated it much higher at 16.5 / 20 (= A cut above superior) — this is a difference of two quality categories.

Nevertheless, the two tastings did produce the same general result — the Grüner Veltliner wines excelled and the Burgundies did very poorly. This is shown in the second graph, where the Vienna scores have been converted to the same 20-point scale as used in London.

In this graph, the 71 bottles of wine are ranked in decreasing order of their score, with the three categories of wine distinguished by color. Note that most of the Grüner Veltliner wines are at the top of the graph while most of the Burgundies are at the tail end.

It is thus not at all clear why these Burgundies usually cost so much money — they are clearly not very good value for money.

Monday, September 5, 2016

World wine production: 1889 versus 2012

As I discussed for the USA in a recent blog post (United States wine production: 1880 versus 2015), world wine production has increased over the past century and a half. There was a set-back in production and consumption during the years of Prohibition in countries like the USA and Canada; and several countries were wine producers when they were European colonies but are not now, notably Algeria. Nevertheless, there has also been a dramatic increase since 1970 in many countries, such as Argentina, Australia, Chile, South Africa and the USA. It therefore could be of interest to make some sort of quantitative comparison of "then" versus now.

The data that I have used are for the years 1889 and 2012, and come from these two sources:
In both sources, annual wine production data are provided in hectolitres for each country for which there was significant wine volume at the time, and hectares for the total vineyard area.

The vineyard data are shown in the first graph (click to enlarge). In the scatterplot, each point represents a single country, located according to its vineyard area during 1889 (horizontally) and 2012 (vertically). Note that the Austro-Hungarian empire still existed in 1889, so I have pooled the following modern countries together, for the 2012 comparison: Austria, Hungary, Czech Republic, Slovakia, Slovenia, Croatia, and Bosnia & Herzegovina.

World vineyard area in 1889 and 2012

If the countries still had the same vineyard area today as they did in the late 1880s, then the points would lie on or near the pink line. Countries to the right and below the line had more vineyard area in 1889 then they do now, and those above and to the left of the line have more now than they did back then.

Clearly, both France and Italy have dramatically reduced their vineyard area, to about 40% of what it was in 1889; and for the Austria-Hungary group it is down to 30% (about 50% of the current area is in Austria and Hungary). The biggest increases in area are for Turkey and the USA. Clearly, in Turkey's case the grapes are used for eating rather than for wine-making; as would also be true for China, which is not in the graph (due to lack of data from 1889).

World wine production in 1889 and 2012

So, we can move on to actual wine production, which is shown in the second graph. The scatterplot is interpreted in the same way.

The only obvious reduction in wine production since 1889 is for the Austria-Hungary group, where wine production is down to 65%. However, although small, wine production in Algeria is down to 20% of the 1889 level, and in Turkey it is down to 36%. In both countries there is little local consumption of wine, for religious reasons.

Anyway, the reductions in vineyard area in France and Italy over the past 120 years have apparently not been associated with a reduction in wine production. This combined pattern can be seen more clearly if we look at wine production per area of vineyard (ie. hectolitres of wine produced per hectare of vineyard). This is shown in the third graph.

World wine production per hectare in 1889 and 2012

This shows that in 1889 there was not all that much difference among the countries in wine production per vineyard area (all of them with <0.03 hectolitres per hectare), but this has changed a lot since then. There are 11 countries that have dramatically increased their production per hectare, 7 that have increased their wine production but less dramatically, and 3 that have decreased their production.

Among the decreasers, Mexico hardly had any vineyard area in 1889, since the climate is not really very suitable for grape growing, so its apparent decrease is due to a larger increase in vineyard area than in wine production. Turkey has increased its vineyard area while simultaneously reducing wine production, and now uses the vineyards mostly for eating grapes. The spectacular rise and fall of Algerian wine production is discussed by Giulia Meloni and Johan Swinnen (2014. The rise and fall of the world’s largest wine exporter — and its institutional legacy. Journal of Wine Economics 9, 3-33) — there are also several popular versions of this paper around the web.

For France and Italy, wine production per hectare has increased while their vineyard area has decreased, so that their total wine production has increased. Presumably this reflects more efficient vineyard and wine-making practices. Spain, the world's other big wine producer, has apparently not changed its wine industry to anywhere near the same extent.

It is trivially obvious that the so-called "new world" wine producers, notably Argentina, Australia, Chile, South Africa and the USA, have all greatly increased wine production from their vineyard areas at some time during the past 5 decades, and most of these are also continuing to increase their vineyard area, as well.

It is probably less well known that some old-world producers have also changed their wine-making practices. Russia has more than halved its vineyard area since 1889, but it has simultaneously increased wine production per hectare more than anyone else. Germany has reduced its vineyard area to 90% of its 1889 level, but has more than doubled overall wine production. Serbia has halved its vineyard area while still maintaining its overall wine production at its previous level.

Globally, based on the countries included in the dataset, the "old world" countries have reduced their vineyard area to 55% of the 1889 level, while simultaneously increasing their wine production to 150%. In the meantime, the "new world" wine producers have increased their vineyard area to 150% and their wine production to 400% of the old levels.