Monday, May 27, 2024

Score data show that wine vintages have generally improved in quality recently

There are many people and organizations that report on wine quality. Sometimes there is a simple 3-star system for each wine, where increasing stars indicate increasing quality. Other times there is a numerical system, notably either 10, 20 or 100 points (although the latter actually covers only 50 points, since the lowest score is 50 points).

One thing we might be interested in, though, is whether those scores have changed in any repeatable way through time, between vintages. Obviously, we could not look at all of the scores, because there are hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of them. What we need is some way of simplifying things.

One way to do this is, instead of being concerned with scores for each vintage of individual wines, we use a single score for a whole wine-making region for each vintage. That is, there would be one number summarizing the vintage quality on average across a specified wine-making region, which is a much more manageable set of numbers.

Wine Enthusiast title

The best known of these regional systems is the one provided by Wine Enthusiast: The Official 2024 Wine Vintage Chart. They note:
Wine Enthusiast reviewers update the vintage chart annually to reflect [environmental] factors and indicate the average quality and drinkability of vintage-dated wines to help you know which to buy and when to enjoy them. The ratings are broad indications, however, so be aware that many wineries make excellent wines in lower–rated years.
The score interpretations are listed as:
  • 98—100   Classic
  • 94—97    Superb
  • 90—93    Excellent
  • 87—89    Very Good
  • 83—86    Good
  • 80—82    Acceptable
Wine Enthusiast uses some of the previously defined official geographical regions within each wine–producing country, and a single quality score is provided for each region each year. However, to simplify things for my purposes here, I have averaged the scores across six broad combinations of these regions:
  • France
  • Italy
  • Rest of Europe (Spain, Portugal, Germany, Austria)
  • California
  • Rest of USA (Oregon, Washington, New York)
  • Southern hemisphere (Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, Chile, Argentina).
Data are currently provided by Wine Enthusiast for the 26 years 1997—2022, inclusive. I have plotted my yearly averages of these data in the graphs below.

France average quality scores

Note that for France the scores for the years 1997—2008 are low, for 2009—2017 they are erratic, and for 2015—2022 they are high.

Italy average quality scores

For Italy the data generally vary within a narrow range, but that several poor years were also present.

Rest of Europe average quality scores

For the Rest of Europe average scores generally seem to increase.

California average quality scores

For California, the scores are erratic for the years 1997—2011, and are then higher for 2012—2022.

Rest of USA average quality scores

For the Rest of the USA_graph, the scores follow roughly this same pattern as for California. That is, it is a general pattern for North America.

Southern hemisphere average quality scores

For the Southern Hemisphere graph, the scores for 1997—2004 are low, for 2005—2017 they are erratic, and for 2018—2022 the scores are relatively high.

Returning now to my original question, about possible consistent patterns through time, one interesting question is about whether there is actually an increase in average quality score through time, in any of these graphs. Mathematically, for a linear increase this is measured by the Coefficient of Determination, as a percentage (0—100%). The numbers for our graphs are:
  • France                        67%
  • Italy                             1%
  • Rest of Europe            51%
  • California                   36%
  • Rest of USA                 39%
  • Southern hemisphere  39%
Note that France is apparently very linear (two-thirds percentage), while the linearity of the increase for the Rest of Europe was referred to above (half percentage). Three of the other regions are also notably linear (one-third percentage).

As a visualization, for France I have added the line of best fit to this next copy of the scores graph, to illustrate the increase. Apparently, French wine has continued to get better over the past 2.5 decades. This cannot continue indefinitely, of course, although the line on the graph forecasts that an average quality score of 100 will be achieved in c. 2040 (16 vintages from now)!

France linear trend in average quality scores

My analysis here is mainly theoretical, of course. First, there is the matter of how much practical value there is to a single quality score for a whole region. Clearly, vintages vary in response to the weather, and so we do recognize differences in quality, and we can clearly put a number to this, as provided by Wine Enthusiast. Second, there is the matter of whether we can average these regional scores across larger areas, as I have done here. Numbers can always be averaged, and this is basically what Wine Enthusiast does for the regions anyway, by averaging the wines themselves; and so I am simply extending that concept. Third, the linear trends clearly evident in two of the graphs, and to a lesser extent in three others, is noteworthy; but it is unclear that there is any simple interpretation of this.

Monday, May 20, 2024

There is much medical evidence that wine consumption is good for your health

In a recent post (The curious saga of health and drinking wine continues) I commented, with regard to the increasingly vociferous anti-alcohol messages emerging from the World Health Organization and their allies, that: “there is at least as much data refuting their position as there is supporting it.”

In this post I look at some of the recent data supporting the suggestion of health benefits, quoting the best bits from the original publications.

Health benfit of wine

Let’s get one thing out of the way first, though. There is definitely a limit above which alcohol intake is seriously harmful to human health, irrespective of the alcohol source (beer, wine, spirits, etc). This is often known as “binge drinking”.

If we look at this topic briefly (Understanding binge drinking):
The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA) defines binge drinking as a pattern of drinking alcohol that brings blood alcohol concentration (BAC) to 0.08% — or 0.08 grams of alcohol per deciliter — or more. This typically happens if a woman has four or more drinks, or a man has five or more drinks, within about 2 hours.
The main issue is the frequency with which this binge drinking happens. Repeated episodes are seriously problematic (eg. 10 standard glasses or more per week). A recent useful discussion of this topic is: Binge drinking is a growing public health crisis. A more formal consideration is this publication: Excessive alcohol use and alcohol use disorders: a policy brief of the American College of Physicians.

This is a topic that should not be ignored, of course. In this regard, it has recently been reported: Which country is home to Europe's heaviest drinkers? In general, there has been a gradual decrease in alcohol consumption in the European Union and the WHO’s European Region, although it does (on average) still have the highest level of alcohol consumption per person in the world. But not usually binge drinking.

Stethoscope and wine glass.

Turning now to more moderate issues, such as a glass of wine with dinner. There are two ways to approach this topic, of course: (i) questioning the claims of a negative effect of moderate alcohol consumption, and (ii) looking at claims of non-negative or even positive effects. Here, I will focus on the latter. The trend in the former (attacks) has recently been put in no uncertain words by Tom Wark (The 8 changes coming to wine in the U.S.):
You can only get punched in the nose by bullshit artists so often before you decide to punch back, and this is exactly what is going to happen in response to irresponsible claims such as “there is no safe level of alcohol consumption”. These claims are akin to “there is no safe amount of auto travel”.
However, let us move on from that. One basic issue regarding health is that wine is usually consumed with food, and therefore it is part of a larger diet. The best-known of these is the Mediterranean Diet, which frequently includes wine. It also includes many other foods that contain acetaldehyde, which is the break-down product of what we call “drinking” alcohol or ethanol (see my post: The curious saga of health and drinking wine continues).

Here, I will focus on things that I have not already covered in previous posts.

Mediterranean diet (with wine).

The basic issue was summarized some time ago by this scientific article: Wine and health — new evidence, which I quote here:
Health benefits of moderate wine consumption have been studied during the past decades, first in observational studies and more recently, in experimental settings and randomized controlled studies. Suggested biological pathways include antioxidant, lipid regulating, and anti-inflammatory effects. Both the alcoholic and polyphenolic components of wine are believed to contribute to these beneficial effects. Although several of these studies demonstrated protective associations between moderate drinking and cardiovascular disease, atherosclerosis, hypertension, certain types of cancer, type 2 diabetes, neurological disorders, and the metabolic syndrome, no conclusive recommendations exist regarding moderate wine consumption.
Discussing one of the pathways that they listed, one interesting extremely positive recent publication is: Research validates anti-inflammatory properties of wine using urinary tartaric acid as biomarker. This experiment was done in conjunction with a Mediterranean diet:
The study successfully establishes urinary tartaric acid as a credible biomarker for wine consumption, providing clear evidence that moderate wine intake, particularly red wine rich in polyphenols, is associated with significant reductions in key inflammatory markers. These findings not only reinforce the potential health benefits of moderate wine consumption in reducing cardiovascular risk, but also highlight the importance of including such bioactive compounds in the diet for their anti-inflammatory properties.
That is very clearly positive. Indeed, one useful publication is a review summarizing other medical publications: Moderate wine consumption and health: a narrative review. It concludes:
Although it is clearly established that the abuse of alcohol is seriously harmful to health, much epidemiological and clinical evidence seem to underline the protective role of moderate quantities of alcohol and in particular of wine on health ... Twenty-four studies were selected for the evaluation of moderate alcohol/wine consumption and health effects ... The analysis clearly indicates that wine differs from other alcoholic beverages, and its moderate consumption not only does not increase the risk of chronic degenerative diseases but is also associated with health benefits, particularly when included in a Mediterranean diet model.
So, wine is the best source of alcohol, health-wise. Another such review, but more restricted in scope, is: The history, science, and art of wine and the case for health benefits: perspectives of an oenophilic cardiovascular pathologist.

Red wine and heartbeat.

One of the issues in this general topic is thus the different types of alcohol being consumed. I have focused on wine here, but even then different types of wine seem to offer different health benefits and risks (What are some of the healthiest wines?), which does not make for easy study. Indeed, it seems that red wine might have more health benefits than white wine (Wine: a glass a day keeps the doctor away?). For a scientific review, see: Red wine consumption and cardiovascular health.

One wine-producer response to reducing wine consumption is, of course, the idea of non-alcoholic wine. This topic has been looked at recently in:
  — The war on wine
  — Making non-alcoholic wine will never be easy — can momentum carry it forward?
  — How non-alcoholic wine and perfume are similar — Giesen winemaker explains
  — The idea of dealcoholised wine is appalling.

There is also the matter of labeling, when the wine bottle does contain alcohol. Ireland is moving ahead with warning labels (see: The bad science at the heart of anti-alcohol labelling in Ireland). On the other hand, Ontario has decided that sales of beer, wine, cider, and ready-to-drink cocktails will be allowed in convenience stores and all grocery stores by 2026, which has engendered its own reaction (Health groups ask Ontario to develop alcohol strategy ahead of looser prohibition).

Louis Pasteur experiments.

As I have noted before (Why we are never going to know whether wine is good for us, or not), part of the problem is the nature of medical experiments. You can imagine that the study of medical causes and their effects is not straightforward, especially if the studies are to remain ethical.[1] This topic is explored further in:
  — The fight over moderate drinking: why studies on effects are unlikely to happen
  — Causal inference about the effects of interventions from observational studies in medical journals.

Nevertheless, people have been drinking wine for thousands of years, and the benefits of doing so have been well documented throughout that time, both medically and anecdotally. Let’s leave it that way — after all, wine drinkers apparently account for 35% of the entire U.S. legal drinking age population (2024 BMO Wine Market Report), and in 2023 the USA was the world’s largest wine consumer (The wine trade in 2023 in six graphs).

1. This is a completely separate issue from so-called junk science; see Flood of fake science forces multiple journal closures; and also “Inoculation” to resist misinformation.

Monday, May 13, 2024

Bordeaux reds were clearly preferred to California cabernets at the turn of this century

In last week’s post, I used some data from a wine-tasting conducted by Bob Henry (What happens when you score wines at comparative tastings?). I looked at the odd effect in wine tastings, where the preferences for wines within a single flight of similar wines does not necessarily match the preferences produced when two flights are combined into a single group. Wine tasters are people, after all, and we reserve the right to do things our own way!

Bordeaux vs Napa

This week, I will take a retrospective look at three more of Bob’s tastings, from the end of the 1990s, in which his tasters compared red Bordeaux wines and California cabernets at the same session. Each tasting covered a different vintage, but only a few of the wineries were repeated across the vintages.

There were 15 participants at the Winter 1998 tasting of the 1985 vintage (wines 13 years old), with 8 Bordeaux wines and 8 California wines. There were 15 participants at the Summer 1997 tasting of the 1986 vintage (wines 11 years old), with 6 Bordeaux wines and 7 California wines. There were 16 participants at the Autumn 1997 tasting of the 1990 vintage (wines 7 years old), with 7 Bordeaux wines and 7 California wines.

The wines were tasted blind (ie. the bottle in a paper bag, although the order of wines was not random). Each person was asked to rank-order their three preferred wines from the total wines tasted for each vintage, which were then assigned points: 3 points for 1st preference, 2 points for 2nd preference, and 1 point for 3rd preference (yielding a total of 90, 90 and 96 points for the three tastings, respectively).

It is important to note that these results are relative only to each other, and there is thus no assessment of the wines on any absolute scale (eg. a score out of 100). Bob Henry made it clear in his comment on the previous post: “At my wine-tasting luncheons I never asked participants to assign a rating / score to any wine ... I knew each participant had her or his own interpretation of some undefined rating system ... I did believe that rank ordering (1st, 2nd, 3rd) would fairly elicit the degree of preference each participant found in the wines.” These results are from wine tasters, not wine critics.

The results of each of the tastings are summarized in these three tables. The wines are listed in decreasing score order within each tasting, with the California wines shown in bold-face.

Table of the wine rankings from the tastings.

There is usually one clearly preferred wine in each tasting (with a higher preference score than the others). The other wine preferences then drop off quickly, with quite a few wines at the bottom of each table that did not make it into anyone’s top-3 list.

In this regard, it is worth noting that Château Cheval Blanc (from the Saint-Émilion region of Bordeaux) makes it into into the Top-3 at all three tastings, while Château Margaux (Médoc First Growth) is in mid-table in all three cases. [1] Being a Bordeaux First Growth is not necessarily beneficial, apparently, although Château Mouton Rothschild (the other First Growth tasted) is at the top of the second table. Not all wines are always in form, apparently, especially when they are not at stage-managed events (Some wines are beyond criticism).

It is thus also interesting to note that what is clearly the top wine in the first tasting, Château Lynch–Bages, is actually a Médoc Fifth Growth of Bordeaux (the only one among the three tastings). The Médoc Second Growths tend to be down the lists a bit, while the Saint-Émilion wines tend to do quite well, in the top third of the lists. The Saint-Émilion wines are principally a Merlot blend, of course, rather than the Cabernet sauvignon  of the Médoc. Château La Conseillante, a Merlot-based wine from Pomerol, also does well (in the first and third tastings).

Sadly, in all three tastings, the French wines were generally preferred to the U.S. Cabernet wines. The wines tasted cover many of the most famous names, mostly from the Napa Valley (Cabernet sauvignon is still Napa Valley’s top varietal; see: Napa County up 35% in crop value with record in wine grape production). Indeed, only the Caymus “Special Selection” (in the second and third tastings, but not the first tasting) and the Beringer “Reserve” (in the first tasting) got any sort of respectable placing. The Spottswoode did poorly in all three tastings, along with the Montelena in the second and third tastings, although the Dominus did better in the third tasting than it did in the first.

Cabernet versus Merlot.

It is perhaps also of interest to compare these results to the current online review-site comments. Wine Searcher makes the current comments about the three vintages tasted:
1985 Vintage
    Bordeaux: Excellent
    California was the only major wine region outside of Europe to give a star performance.
1986 vintage
   Bordeaux: Good
    In the New World, both California and Australia enjoyed fantastic years.
1990 Vintage
   Bordeaux: Legendary
   In the New World, both California and Australia produced some fantastic wines.

These days, of course, the tendency is to note that the Bordeaux vintages are “Modern classic” wines (Bordeaux 2023: vintage overview), unlike the old-style vintages tasted here from the end of last century. Things have changed considerably for the Napa Valley in the ensuing quarter-century, as well, as they now give the Bordeaux wines a much clearer run for their money. However, there are recent comments that are clearly not in favour of California reds, compared to those from Europe (Dan Berger on wine: The reddish europhile).

Indeed, it is perhaps worth noting that most of the vineyards are composed of plants that are French vines grafted onto American rootstocks. This is due to the phylloxera outbreak in Europe, arising from transporting American vines to Europe (Did Darwin save wine?). Very few places in Europe avoided phylloxera (eg.  Colares: wines by the waves). The US vines are also usually grafted, since the original French cultivars could not survive in the phylloxera-infested USA.

There are, of course, many many published comparisons of Napa wines with those of Bordeaux. One particularly relevant one here is that in Wine Spectator Sept. 15 1996, pp. 32—48.

[1] Bob Henry comments: “The 1990 Cheval Blanc is among the five best red wines I have ever tasted in my life. And has been every time I have tasted it. Simply sublime.”

Monday, May 6, 2024

What happens when you score wines at comparative tastings?

I rarely write about specific wines in this blog. However, I first learned about wine by doing comparative tastings in the early 1980s. My local “bottle shop” (or “liquor store” or “off-licence”, etc) in Australia would have a few bottles open on Thursday evening (late-night shopping night), which had been left as samples by distributors, in the hopes of getting the owner to stock them. We customers would comment.

Eventually, the proprietor realized that there were enough of us doing this that he could organize special comparative tastings on weekends, for which we would pay. I would often bring along a special old bottle in lieu of paying cash. I now do comparative tastings of my own, nearly 40 years later, to which I invite my vinous friends. *

Bordeaux vineyard.

It is therefore worth looking at the results of these sorts of comparisons, to see what we can learn. Bob Henry, who was introduced a couple of weeks ago (in the post: Some new notes on Rudy Kurniawan and his activities), has conducted many such tastings while “moonlighting” on weekends on the sales staff of leading wine stores around Los Angeles, and as an organizer of wine cellars for private parties in Los Angeles. I will look at a few tastings that he conducted in the mid—late 1990s. In particular, I will look at tastings that compared two distinct groups of wines on the same tasting occasion.

As a starter, there was a tasting of seven Bordeaux chateau wines from both the 1989 and 1990 vintages, tasted in the winter of 1994:
  • Château L’Angélus
  • Château Pichon Longueville Baron
  • Château La Mission Haut-Brion
  • Château Palmer
  • Château La Conseillante
  • Château Montrose
  • Château Léoville-Las Cases.
There were 16 participants, who tasted each of the 14 wines blind (ie. the bottle in a paper bag, although the order of wines was not random). Each person was asked to rank-order their three preferred wines from the seven for each vintage, which were then assigned points: 3 points for 1st preference, 2 points for 2nd preference, and 1 point for 3rd preference (yielding a total of 96 points).

It is important to note that these results are relative only to each other, and there is thus no assessment of the wines on any absolute scale (eg. a score out of 100). The results are summarized in this first graph.

Flight scores for the two vintages.

Clearly, the “best” (La Conseillante) and “worst” (La Mission Haut-Brion) wines were consistent across the two vintages; but otherwise there are some notable issues here. For example, three of the wines got the same score for the 1990 wine (13 points) but differed greatly from each other for the 1989 wine: 7 (Pichon-Baron), 11 (Léoville-Las Cases), and 24 (L’Angélus) points. Vinous things were apparently not consistent for these chateaux in those days.

This tells us nothing about how the two vintages compared, of course. So, at the end the participants were also asked to rank all 14 wines simultaneously, with points once again for their first, second and third preference — only then were the wine identities revealed. These results are summarized in this next graph, where the score from graph 1 is plotted horizontal and the overall score is vertical. The 1989 wines are in blue and the 1990 wines in pink.

Overall score compared to flight score.

Clearly, the 1989 wines were preferred to the 1990 wines, at this particular tasting, when the wines were still fairly young. Subsequent assessments usually place 1990 slightly ahead of 1989 (eg. Bordeaux vintage chart 1959 to today), although both vintages were streets ahead of the half-dozen Bordeaux vintages before and after them. [Bob has noted that the 1989 La Conseillante remains one of his all-time favorite wines in the world; and he has consistently declared that the 1989 red Bordeaux vintage ranks among the very best in half a century.]

However, the interesting thing is the apparent inconsistency that arises — wines do always get an overall score that matches their score within their own vintage flight. ** For example, three wines all scored 13 in the 1990 flight and yet got different overall scores (0, 1, 4). Even worse, several of the wines did better when compared overall (across the two vintages) than they did within their own vintage flight.

These results are quite illogical. This appears to be the answer to the question posed in the post’s title!

* “Baby Boomers prefer the luxury and educational experience of wine” (Millennials and Gen X want a wine vacation, not an education).

** What’s a wine flight and why is it called that?