Six of one, or half a dozen of the other?

Most wine criticism implicitly suggests that a judgment based on a tasting of one bottle can be applied to every bottle of the same wine. A tasting organized by François mauss of the grand jury Européen challenged that assumption -with fascinating results

by Wilfred van Gorp

Every serious wine enthusiast knows the phrase, "There are no great wines, only great bottles." This maxim was put to the test on September 9, 2010, by the creative François Mauss, president of the Grand Jury Européen (GJE). At a session held at restaurant Laurent in Paris, 14 GJE members-all experienced wine tasters, many of whom hold prestigious positions in the world of wine evaluation and trade-were asked to evaluate blind the six red wines before them and to record their notes and scores (on a 100-point scale) for each of the wines. The tasters were told nothing about the wines, their origin, vintage, or pedigree, but all bottles had been opened at the same time, and all were served at the same temperature.

Reactions varied considerably- from wine to wine, and from taster to taster. Wine number one (which, it turns out, was sourced from Germany) was described by one taster as "heavy [and] smoky [with] a touch of alcohol on the palate but a good food wine," while wine number two (the first of two bottles sourced direct from the château) was described by the same taster as "racy [...] good structure [...] a lot of class." The same critic described wine number three (purchased in New York) as "a wine of restraint, like the previous one [i.e., number two], but the tannin is less refined than the previous one" and said that wine number four (sourced from Switzerland) "does not seem to have the energy of the above." These comments mirror the variability described by others at the tasting.

Same wine, different story

Do these descriptors sound like the same wine? They don't, but the wine in each of the glasses was indeed the same: the 2001 Léoville Poyferré, secured at roughly the same time from different parts of the world except for two bottles that came directly from the château. Indeed, the top-ranking wine (91 points) was purchased in Hong Kong, while the lowest-ranking wine came from Switzerland. The two wines from the château were collectively rated 89 and 88 points, respectively, but one wine-purchased in the USA-was between them in the rankings of the 14 tasters, thereby establishing some difference by the group. Nobody ventured that the wines represented the same wine across the glasses.

Points varied, too. The taster who described wine number four as lacking in energy rated it 85-87 points but gave wine number two 91 points. Another reviewer gave wine number six (with descriptors such as "very inviting and lush") 92 points, while wine number three received only 88 points ("a nice food wine"). As a group, the scores ranged from 87 to 91 points. When the truth was revealed, a stunned expression could be seen on the faces of many tasters, but there was a knowing, wry smile on the visage of Mr Mauss.

The Rationale

Why go to the cost and effort to perform such an experiment in the first place? "Wine is a living product, and even in the same vintage, every single bottle may have a different evolution," said Mauss. He arranged the session to prove "that we must always be highly suspicious when we read comments about a ten-year-old wine, since obviously the point of view of the taster, whoever he or she is, is strongly linked to the evolution of that specific bottle."

Michel Bettane, GJE member and columnist for The World of Fine Wine, echoed this sentiment: "The only wise comment is a comment on one bottle, on this day, and in this place. We only presume that other bottles will be roughly similar." These startling results challenge the notion that somehow each wine inherently possesses its own score, akin to its own DN A profile, and that the score can be applied to all bottles of the same wines as they age. This is one reason that real-time Web-based community tasting notes, like those on www.CellarTracker.com, are gaining in popularity, since scores for bottles (from all kinds of tasters) can be compared as they are written over time, as the wine ages.

Opinions differ as to why these wines might be experienced so differently by world-class evaluators. Didier Cuvelier, owner and manager of Léoville Poyferré, points first to the bottling process at the ch??teau. Before 2004, this task took place over many days, with lengthy periods for rest at lunchtime, resulting-as Cuvelier notes-in greater variability across bottles. In 2004, the bottling was outsourced, resulting in faster bottling and no breaks for lunch. "The bottling can really make a difference," notes Dirk van der Niepoort, wine producer in Portugal, in an emailed response to my query on this phenomenon. "The best way really is to only have one wine -that is, one tank-and bottle it all as quickly as possible."

The cork is also frequently implicated as a culprit resulting in bottle variability. "Each bottle has its own love story with its cork," says Cuvelier. Van der Niepoort believes that this will be magnified even further if a property has two or three different cork suppliers, adding that he has seen one producer who can reliably identify the cork supplier in blind tastings. "Cork seems the only variable imaginable," agrees Bettane.

Age, history, and psychology

Age and bottle history are, of course, other factors raised in accounting for these results. John Ragan, wine director at New York's venerable Eleven Madison Park restaurant and winner of the James Beard Foundation's Best Wine Service award (which some have called the Oscars of food and wine), comments that "apart from the obvious (cork condition, TCA, cellar conditions), factors like ex-château versus importer or the conditions under which the wine was transported when imported and also how much 'mileage' the wine has on it once it reaches you" are important.

It's a point shared by van der Niepoort, who says that "2001 is already nine years old, so storage may make a big difference. When talking about storage, shipping conditions are also absolutely crucial. (Temperature-controlled containers are very important.)" Thus, factors associated with the mileage on a bottle (to borrow Ragan's term) will result in various bottles of the same wine showing differently in a blind tasting and may well account for many of the findings. Of course, the differing responses to the two bottles obtained simultaneously from the château cannot be explained by these mileage factors so may instead point back to the bottling process and issues related to cork.

Finally, psychological factors are relevant. Van der Niepoort says that "sometimes we drink with our eyes," noting the influence of the label or a pre-existing expectation based on a rating, which is why Mauss insisted that all the bottles be evaluated blind. The probable expectation of the tasters that the wines in the glasses would be different may have led them to "find" differences that, objectively, were minimal. "The idea is that if you are given this flight, they must all be different wines," notes Ragan.

Finally, Ragan notes that, just because the same wine from different bottles is rated differently by different tasters, it doesn't mean the differences are significant in terms of the pleasure offered by each. That two bottles of the "same" wine can go in slightly different directions may be insignificant in the grand scheme of things. Still, this test seems to prove that there are no great "wines"-some might say no immutable ratings-just great bottles, reflective of the wine's bottling, cork, and mileage, as well as the taster's expectations.