We are commonly told that most wines are drunk within a very few days of purchase. On the other hand, it is a commonly held belief among connoisseurs that many wines are likely to improve with a bit of bottle age, especially red wines. Counter-balancing the latter idea, it is the easy to demonstrate that the perception of wine quality depends on the people concerned and the circumstances under which the wines are tasted.
Therefore, I thought that it might be interesting to look at some repeated tastings of the same wines under circumstances where they are formally evaluated under roughly the same conditions. Do these wines get the same quality scores at the different tastings?
To look at this, I will use some of the data from the tastings of the Vintners Club, based in San Francisco. The results of the early club tastings are reported in the book Vintners Club: Fourteen Years of Wine Tastings 1973-1987 (edited by Mary-Ellen McNeil-Draper. 1988); and I have used this valuable resource in several previous blog posts (eg. Should we assess wines by quality points or rank order of preference?).
For each wine tasted, the book provides the average of the UCDavis points (out of 20) assigned by the group of tasters present at that meeting. The Vintners Club has "always kept to the Davis point system" for its tastings and, therefore, averaging these scores is mathematically valid, as is comparing them across tastings. Many of the wines were tasted at more than one meeting, although each meeting had its own theme. For out purposes here, the largest dataset is provided by the tastings involving California cabernet wines, which I will therefore use for my exploration.
In the book, there were 170 different California cabernets that the Club tasted more than once, sometimes up to five years apart. Most of these were tasted only twice, but some were tasted up to four times over four years. Of these 170 wines, only eight wines produced the same average score on their first two tasting occasions. Of the rest, 63 wines (37%) produced a lower score on the second occasion, and 99 (58%) produced a higher average score. Perhaps we might tentatively conclude that California cabernet wines do tend to increase in quality with a bit of time in bottle?
However, it is instructive to look at those 137 wines that were re-tasted within one year of their first tasting. This will give us some idea of the repeatability of wine quality scores, as we should not really be expecting California cabernet wines to change too much within their first year in the bottle. Any differences in scores are therefore likely to reflect the tasting group rather than the wine itself (unless there is much bottle variation, or the wines mature very rapidly).
The data are shown in the first graph, with the difference between the two tasting dates shown horizontally, and the difference between the two average UCDavis scores shown vertically (ie. second tasting score minus first tasting score). Each point represents one wine, tasted twice within a year.
Clearly, there is considerable variability in the quality scores between tastings (the scores are spread out vertically over several quality points). Moreover, there is not much pattern to this variability — even after only a few days the scores can differ by more than 1 point; and even after a year they can still be identical. Most of the wines (70%) produced scores within +/– 1 point at the two tastings.
Notably, however, there were more decreases in score than there were increases between the two tastings. Only eight wines produced an increase in score of more than 1 point, while 33 wines (24%) produced a decrease in score of more than 1 point, and four of these actually decreased by more than 2 points. (NB: some of the points on the graph sit on top of each other.) I was not expecting to see such a strong pattern.
A so-called Difference/Average plot can sometimes be informative, and this is shown in the next graph. This shows the same data as above, but this time the horizontal axis represents the average of the two quality scores for each wine (rather than representing time).
This graph does not reveal much in the way of tell-tale patterns, which is unusual. However, we might anticipate that high-scoring wines will get more consistent quality scores, and this appears to be so for those few wines scoring >16 points. Furthermore, wines scoring <14 points do not do well at their second tasting.
Finally, we can look at those six California cabernets that were each tasted on four separate occasions. The final graph shows the time-course( horizontally) of their score (vertically), with each wine represented by a single line (as labeled).
Note that only one wine (from Stag's Leap) consistently increased in assessed quality over the years, while two other wines (from Beaulieu, and Robert Mondavi) consistently decreased. The remaining three wines had more erratic patterns. These differences may simply reflect random variation, and so we shouldn't read too much into this small sample size. Nevertheless, we do not see the hoped-for general increase in assessed quality of California cabernets over their first few years in bottle.
So, do California cabernets get the same quality scores at different tastings? In general, yes. However, a large number of them end up with notably lower scores if there is a second tasting within a year.