Monday, 19 December 2016

The Rheingau — the grand-daddy of all vintage charts

Most of us probably think that vintage charts, which give a quality score for each vintage in a particular wine region, are a fairly modern thing, along with the idea of giving a quality score to each producer's wines.

Nevertheless, I have previously discussed long-term continuous records of vintage quality for several vineyard regions, including century-long recording for Bordeaux, in southern France (Two centuries of Bordeaux vintages — Tastet & Lawton) and Piemonte, in northern Italy (A century of Barolo vintages — Fontanafredda; More than a century of Barolo vintages — Marchesi di Barolo).

Intriguingly, the oldest known continuous vintage-quality record is for the Rheingau region in southern Germany, covering the years 1682-1884 CE, which thus includes scores for 203 consecutive vintages.

The oldest known vintage chart

The Rheingau

The Rhine River generally flow north from the Alps to the North Sea. However, at one point it turns west, having encountered the southern part of the Taunus plateau. After 20 km or so it breaks northwards again, between the Taunus and Hunsrück plateaus, forming the best known part of the river, the Romantic Rhine so beloved of tourists, with the old castles on the tops of the river gorge, and even in the river itself.

The east-west part of the river is the Rheingau, with most of the vineyards on the gently sloping south-facing slopes next to the river itself.

As Stuart Pigott recently noted about the period covered by the vintage chart:
The Rheingau may be much older than the Medoc in Bordeaux, for example, but the most decisive period of its history came in the 18th century, beginning with the world’s first varietal plantings of the Riesling grape, the introduction of late harvesting, and the selective harvesting of bunches. All of this happened at the same property: Schloss Johannisberg, in 1720-21, 1775 and 1787, respectively. [Down the road, Schloss Vollrads is the oldest operating commercial winery in the world, with its first documented release of wine in 1211 CE.]

For a century following the breakthrough vintage of 1811, Rheingau Rieslings were the most sought-after and expensive wines in the world. By the 1850s, the Rheingau was on a roll. The majority of the region’s wines were dry, but those that wrote the headlines were sweet wines made from nobly rotten grapes. Then, at the end of the 19th century, it was overtaken by the Mosel.
Vintage chart

The vintage chart in question appears as Table V of a book called Karte und Statistik des Weinbaues im Rheingau, compiled in 1885 by Heinrich Wilhelm Dahlen. This book is available online at the Landesbibliothekszentrum Rheinland-Pfalz.

The chart itself is entitled Uebersicht von Menge und Güte der Wein-Erträge in dem vormaligen Herzogthume Nassau in den Jahren 1682 bis 1884 (Overview of the quantity and quality of the wine-income in the former duchy of Nassau in the years 1682 to 1884). A direct link to the chart is available here.

The chart uses a color code to indicate the wine quality for each vintage, along with a written indication of the quantity of the harvest. The quantity is indicated by words in the first three columns of the chart, but there are actual volumes (in hectoliters) in the final column; the length of the colored bars in the final column also indicates the quantity. The 4-point quality color code is:
Vorzüglich
Gut
Mittelmäßig
Gering und schlecht
excellent
good
mediocre (or fair)
poor and bad
red
light green
brown
dark green

In the rest of this post, I provide a transcription of this vintage chart, along with some analysis of the data. Thanks to the Hogshead blog (Buy 1684, avoid 1687: an historic German vintage chart) for drawing my attention to this extraordinary historical record.

Analysis

Here is a summary of the harvest-quality data for the 203 vintages:
Excellent  26
Good/excellent  1
Good 50
Mediocre/good  14
Mediocre 45
Poor/mediocre 9
Poor  63

Here are the same data presented as a frequency histogram of increasing quality. For random data his would follow what is known as a binomial probability distribution. It approximately does so, but for a perfect fit there are actually a few too many vintages of the "poor and bad" sort relative to the "mediocre" sort.


In the next graph I have shown the harvest-quality data as a time series, with the quality codes converted to the scores 1-4. 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). [Technical note: the data are of ordinal type but not necessarily interval type, and so calculating an average may not actually be valid. I have simply assumed that it is appropriate, given the relatively close fit to the binomial probability distribution.]

Rheingau vintage quality scores 1682-1884

Using the scale 1-4, the average vintage score is 2.2, whereas it would be 2.5 for random data, so that the average harvest across the 203 years was slightly below expectation (as also noted above for the frequency distribution). There is no general long-term trend in vintage quality across these two centuries, which cover the second half of the global cold period known as the Little Ice Age (1300-1850 CE).

There are, however, remarkably regular peaks in quality every 25-30 years (as shown by the peaks and valleys of the pink line). The cause of this is not immediately obvious, although it is presumably related to cyclical weather patterns. The first two of the quality peaks actually run together (ie. there is no intermediate dip in quality), so that the vintages were generally good from 1700-1730.

Rheingau vintage quality and quantity 1830-1884

The second graph shows the relationship between vintage quality (vertically) and vintage quantity (horizontally), with each point representing a vintage from 1830-1884. There is a general positive association between quality and quantity (correlation r=0.59), so that, for example, small numbers of grapes are never associated with the best quality score. Mark Matthews, in Terroir and Other Myths of Winegrowing (University of California Press, 2016) points out that this is often true of wine making.

Interestingly, this vintage chart is not the only presentation of the Rheingau wine quality from this time period. Karl Storchmann (2005. English weather and Rhine wine quality: an ordered probit model. Journal of Wine Research 16:105-120) has transcribed a set of verbal descriptions of vintages into a set of quality scores. His data are for a single vineyard, Schloss Johannisberg (mentioned above), covering the period 1700-2000 CE. I have not yet obtained a copy of these data, to make a direct comparison with the data shown above.


Transcription


Notes: The following is a transcription of the original Gothic script into modern German. I have translated the quality color codes using the 1-4 scores. For some of the years the score is shown as being a mixture of two different codes (eg. 1/2), as explained in the Remarks (Bemerkungen) below. The first part of the chart has only abbreviated comments about the harvest quantity (Menge = amount). The middle part of the chart also provides a score for the amount (xx). The final part of the chart provides the estimated harvest quantity, in hectoliters. If you are interested, Google Translate does a reasonable job of translating the German text.


Übersicht von Menge und Güte der Wein-Erträge in dem vormaligen Herzogthume Nassau in den Jahren 1682 bis 1884.


 Bemerkungen.

Wenn allgemeine Angaben über die Menge bis zum Jahre 1829 in den benüßten Chroniken*  nicht vorhanden waren, wurden dieselben weggelassen und folche nur für die Jahre eingefeßt, über welche entsprechende Mittheilungen sich vorsanden. Stimmten die diesbezüglichen Auszeichnungen nucht überein, so sind die sich widersprechenden Angaben einander gegenübergestellt.

Die Menge für die Jahre 1830 bis 1884 ist nach den officiellen Erhebungen für das Gebiet des vormaligen Herzogthumes Nassau in hektolitern angegeben und deren Berschiedenheit graphisch dargestellt. Bis 1868 wurden die Angaben benüßt, welche Bolizeirath Höhn in Weisbaden bereits in einer für die Wiener Weltausstellung 1873 zusammengestellten Tabelle ausgesührt hatte.

Die Güte ist entsprehend der Qualität der Rheingauer Weine im Allgemeinen durch die nachstehend ernähnten Farben ausgedrükt. Da die Darstellung den Charakter der Weine im Allgemeinen ausbrüken soll, so ist natürlich nicht ausgeschlossen, baß in speciellen Jällen d. h. engeren Bezirken in den betressenden Jahren auch bessere oder geringere Qualitäten erzielt wurden, als es den gewählten Farben entspricht.

Haben bis zum Jahre 1829 für denselben Jahrgang zwei Farben Berwendung gesunden, so stimmten die Angaben der Chroniken nicht überein, sondern wichen in der Weise von einander ab, wie die betressenden Farben veranschaulichen.

Die Güte für die Jahre 1830 bis 1884 wird wie oben durch Farben veranschaulicht und ist die Darstellung aus Grund der diesbezüglichen Mittheilungen eines der hervorragensten Rheingauer Weinkenner, dessen Ersahrungen bis zu dem zweiten Decenium dieses Jahrhunderts hinausreichen, ersolgt. Sind in besagtem Zeitraum für einen Jahrgang zwei Farben benußt, so bemegt sich die Güte innerhalb des hierdurch angedeuteten Werthes.

Die Qualität ist durch solgende Farben ausgedrüßt.

* Es wurden hierbei solgende Quellen benüßt:
1. Rheingauer Geschichts- und Wein-chronik. Von Dr. Rob. Haas. Weisbaden 1854.
2. Der Weinbau in Nassau. Von O. Sartorius. Weisbden 1871.
3. Der Weinbau der leßten hundert Jahre im Rheingau. Von T. B. Weinbau und Weinhandel 1885, S. 51.
4. Über das Schäßen der Weinernten. Von W. Rasch. Ebdenda S. 60.


Jahr Score  Menge
1682   1 wenig
1683 2 wenig
1684 4 voller herbst
1685 1 viel
1686 3
1687 1 viel
1688 1 viel
1689 3
1690 2
1691 2 sehr wenig
1692 1 sehr wenig
1693 1 wenig
1694 3
1695 1 wenig
1696 1
1697 2
1698 1 wenig
1699 3 viel
1700 4
1701 3
1702 2
1703 2
1704 4
1705 1 wenig
1706 4 voller herbst
1707 3
1708 2
1709 1 starker winterfrost
1710 3
1711 3
1712 4 sehr viel
1713 1
1714 2
1715 3
1716 1
1717 2
1718 4
1719 4
1720 2
1721 1
1722 1/2
1723 4 viel
1724 3
1725 1 sehr wenig
1726 4 voller herbst
1727 3 sehr viel
1728 3
1729 3 viel
1730 1
1731 2
1732 1
1733 2
1734 2
1735 1
1736 3
1737 3
1738 4
1739 2 viel
1740 1 frühsr. viels. nicht gel
1741 2/3 wenig
1742 1 wenig
1743 3
1744 3
1745 2/3 wenig
1746 4 sehr wenig
1747 4
1748 4
1749 4 wenig
1750 4 viel
1751 1 wenig
1752 1 viel
1753 3 gehr viel
1754 2/3
1755 3 wenig
1756 1 mittelertrag
1757 2 halber herbst
1758 1 viel
1759 3 viel
1760 3 viel
1761 3 viel
1762 3/4 gehr viel
1763 1 vielfach nicht gelesen
1764 2 wenig
1765 1 sehr wenig
1766 3 viel
1767 1 sehr wenig
1768 2 wenig
1769 1 viel
1770 2 wenig
1771 1/2 viel
1772 2 viel
1773 2
1774 3 viel
1775 3 viel
1776 1 wenig
1777 1 mittelertrag
1778 2/3 wenig
1779 3 viel
1780 3 viel
1781 4 sehr viel
1782 1 biemlich viel, fruhfr.
1783 4 hauptjahr
1784 3 sehr wenig (18)
1785 1 biemlich viel (12)
1786 1 wenig (14)
1787 1 viel (12)
1788 3 viel (0)
1789 2 wenig, spätfrost (18)
1790 2 wenig (18)
1791 1/3 frühfrost, 12 herbst
1792 1/3 feblj. & spätfr. (18)
1793 1 sehr wenig (18)
1794 3 mittelertrag (48)
1795 1/2 wenig (18)
1796 1/3 wenig (18)
1797 1 wenig (18)
1798 3 viel (12)
1799 1 sr. hagelbeichädg. (18)
1800 3 sehr wenig (13)
1801 3 wenig bis viel (12)
1802 3 sehr wenig bis ziemt. viel (18)
1803 2 (28)
1804 3 sehr viel (11)
1805 1 sehr wenig (0), frühfr.
1806 4 biemlich viel (13)
1807 3 biemlich viel (13)
1808 2 viel (11)
1809 1 wenig (18)
1810 2 wenig (12)
1811 4 sehr viel (13)
1812 2 nicht viel (23)
1813 1 sehr wenig (18)
1814 2 sehr wenig (18)
1815 3 wenig (13)
1816 1 vielfach nicht gel. (0)
1817 1 wenig (18)
1818 3 mittelertrag (11)
1819 3 viel bis sehr viel (11)
1820 1 rein (12), herbst (1/3)
1821 1 unbedeutend (13)
1822 4 voller herbst (13)
1823 1 halber herbst (13)
1824 1 wenig (14)
1825 3 viel (12)
1826 3 voller herbst (11)
1827 3 sehr wenig (14)
1828 2 voller herbst (11)
1829 1 sehr wenig (16), herbst (13)
1830 1 2,700
1831 3 32,412
1832 1/3 33,840
1833 2/3 95,472
1834 4 106,368
1835 3 87,120
1836 2/3 42,768
1837 1 31,236
1838 2 21,768
1839 1/3 43,644
1840 1/2 39,660
1841 2/3 28,572
1842 2/3 67,728
1843 1 34,486
1844 1/2 34,392
1845 1 34,548
1846 4 117,000
1847 1/2 102,804
1848 3 63,264
1849 1 44,916
1850 1/2 51,216
1851 1 51,300
1852 2 53,232
1853 2 53,256
1854 1/2 9,516
1855 3 43,968
1856 1 27,888
1857 4 109,968
1858 3 97,104
1859 3 71,040
1860 1 64,800
1861 3 24,624
1862 4 96,480
1863 1 54,960
1864 1 33,612
1865 4 89,220
1866 1 99,000
1867 1/2 77,676
1868 4 129,485
1869 2 57,552
1870 2 62,616
1871 1 25,874
1872 1 11,612
1873 2 27,839
1874 2/3 84,284
1875 2/3 131,088
1876 2/3 75,070
1877 1 61,827
1878 2 37,416
1879 1 13,928
1880 2/3 14,452
1881 2/3  67,691
1882 1 38,392
1883 2/3 74,220
1884 3 76,820

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