Tasting #10: The Lenox Wine Club
by Elliott Morss, Morss Global Finance
The first 9 blind tastings of the Lenox Wine Club lead me to the following observations:
- As the economic literature on blind tastings has documented, there appears to be no correlation between wine prices and what people like. Our findings: a 3 liter box wine costing just over $4 (per .75 liter bottle equivalent) has been rated the Club’s favorite six times, 2nd twice and 3rd once. And this is against wines costing as much as $85.
- By using a modified version of the Hodgson test, we learned all we wanted to about our tasting abilities.
- Rankings and scores can differ: There are legitimate arguments for rating wines by scores or rankings. But who cares if the ratings are the same whichever method you choose? But they are not. In our 9th tasting, it mattered.
- As has been the case at the major tastings with “experienced tasters”, there has been very little agreement among Club members on what wines taste best. This is probably because nearly all wines today are “pretty good”, so how people rate wines in blind tastings probably depends on individual taste preferences.
This tenth tasting generated more thoughts set forth in the concluding section “What Does All This Mean?” Before presenting our latest tasting results, we telescope into the wines we tasted from a global perspective.
Global Wine Production and Exports
According to data from the Wine Research Center at the University of Adelaide updated by projections made by the International Organization of Vine and Wine (OIV), France and Italy compete as the largest wine producer (Table 1), while Australia and Chile export the largest share of the wine they produce.
As Table 2 indicates, Italy is the leading global wine exporter. The table also provides information on bulk shipments and the average price for wine exports. Spain receives a very low price for its wine in part because it exports such a large portion in bulk. The US ships a lot of bulk because the vintners get a tax break for exports. They then turn around and import what they need for the US market in bulk.
Consider next the leading global varietals. Italy offers a larger, more diverse array of wine styles than almost any other country – 390 indigenous grape varieties out of the 1,271 grown globally. Table 3 gives a listing of the most prevalent varietals grown in the world as measured by hectares under cultivation. Many of the varietals listed e.g., Airen, are not familiar because they are mostly used as “blending” grapes.
Table 3. – Leading Varietals: Global Acreage Shares
Source: Wine Research Center
Table 4 gives the same information for the leading varietals grown in Italy. It shows both their share of Italian and global production. It is notable that 10 of the varietals listed are only produced in Italy.
Table 4. – Leading Italian Varietals
Source: Wine Research Center
The following map provides information on the dominant varietals grown in the different regions of Italy.
85% of all global Barbera acreage is in Italy. Italy’s share of and Dolcetto and Nebbiolo acreage globally are 92% and 97% respectively. And in Italy, most of the Dolcetto and Nebbiolo acreage is in Piedmont.
Wine Production in Piedmont
In Piedmont, the greatest acreage for grape growing/wine production is for Barbera, Muscat, Dolcetto, and Nebbiolo (Table 5).
Table 5. – Wine Acreage in Piedmont
Source: Wine Research Center
The 10th Wine Tasting: Our Selections – Which Wines and Why?
In earlier tastings, the Club’s objectives were:
- Taste wines similar enough to make comparisons meaningful;
- See if price matters, and
- Have a good time.
At the 10th tasting, the goals were slightly different: instead of “similar enough”, we were exploring differences between Piedmont wines. Specifically, we wanted to see if tasters could distinguish between the very heavy and very tannic Barbaresco and Barolos as against the lighter Dolcetto, Barbera, and Nebbiolos.
Nebbiolo is the grape of both Barolos and Barbarescos, but they are supposedly quite different from the wines branded “Nebbiolos”. The former are grown in their own regions while “Nebbiolos” can be produced wherever Nebbiolo grapes are grown. Of the three, it is commonly believed that Barolos are the heaviest and most acidic, followed by Barbarescos. The Nebbiolos are thought to be less “extreme” than the other two.
The Piedmontese reserve serious wines like Barolo and Barbaresco for special occasions. Their table wines for every day drinking are the Dolcettos, Barberas, and Nebbiolos. Of the three, Dolcetto is the lightest-bodied and is usually the first red wine served in a Piedmontese meal.
1. Giacomo Grimaldi Dolcetto s’Alba 2011
This wine comes from a highly regarded vintner. Wine Spectator’s (WS) comment on this wine: “A broad, spicy style, with cherry and plum flavors at the center. The tannins are firm, but this shows balance and freshness overall.” WS gave it an 87 (very good). The Club paid $12.85 for it.
2. Pico Maccario Barbera d’Asti Lavignone, 2011
WS comment: “This shows fine depth and balance, revealing black cherry and blackberry notes on a supple texture. Hints of citrus and bitter almond appear on the lingering finish.”
WS gave it a 90 (outstanding). The Club paid $14.83 for it.
3. Giacomo Grimaldi Nebbiolo d’Alba Valmaggiore, 2008
This Nebbiolo is also from Giacomo Grimaldi. The WS comment: “There is a tight structure to this, keeping its cherry, licorice and spice flavors focused. This shows depth and intensity, staying long and persistent on the finish.” WS gave it an 89 rating (very good). The Club paid $23.50 for it.
4. Pio Cesare Barbaresco, 2009
Pio Cesare is a highly regarded and well-known vintner worldwide. The WS comment: “The sweet cherry fruit is amplified by vanilla and toasty oak notes, accompanied by tobacco and eucalyptus flavors. Elegant and firm, with a slightly dry finish.”
A strange and perhaps misleading description for what is supposed to be a highly acidic/tannic wine. WS gave it an 89 rating. It cost the Club $48.17.
This price might seem high. But keep in mind that Barbarescos and Barolos are expensive. For example, WS gives an 89+ rating to 382 Barbarescos. Their average price is $74. Nevertheless, there are highly rated, less expensive Barbarescos. WS lists 16 costing less than $35 with the lowest being a 2008 Stefano Farina at $30. But living in MA, we must buy from MA-licensed wholesalers and none had the cheaper Barbarescos.
5. Villadoria Barolo, 2007
The WS comment on this wine: “Fresh and plump, with juicy flavors of cherry, raspberry, licorice, menthol and oak spice. The oak doesn’t intrude, and this ends with an aftertaste of black cherry, tar and mineral notes.” WS gave it a 92 (outstanding) rating. Our price is only $26.40. To give you some idea of what a bargain this is, the WS estimated to average price for the Barolos they give a 92 rating to is $81.35.
Consider first the overall scores. The Villadoria came in first with the Dolcetto and Barbaresco tying for second place. The Nebbiolo came in last by a considerable margin.
Table 6. – Piedmont Wine Scores
We thought that with all we knew about the “acidic” and “highly-tannic” Barbarescos and Barolos, it would be easy to distinguish them from the other “table wines”. Not so. When asked to guess which two wines were the Barbaresco and Barolo, nine people chose the Barbera while only five and three tasters chose the Barbaresco and Barolo, respectively. More people chose the Dolcetto (four) than the Barolo!
Rankings and Scores
Table 7 compares rankings with scores. The only difference is that if ranks are used, Dolcetto comes in second rather than tying with Barbaresco. But most notable is how close the rank scores are to one another.
Table 7. – Rankings and Scores
* Reverse rankings are used meaning a higher rank means a higher rating.
As one can imagine with such small spreads, the results should not be taken seriously. The Kendall Tau, perhaps the best measure of taster agreement, is only .0672. That means virtually no taster agreement.
What Does All This Mean?
I conclude that wines are today good enough that the results of all tastings will be dominated by either:
- The individual preferences of tasters and/or
- The inability of tasters to discriminate between the wines they are drinking.
And in light of this, what does one do next? Two thoughts:
- Blindfold tasters and see if they can even distinguish between red and white wines. Get them to taste two “heavy” reds and whites and two “light” reds and whites. My guess? The will able to distinguish between “heavy” and “light” but not color.
- Most wines are good. But “good” is boring. Look at the “tails”. The most interesting wines probably got the highest and lowest scores. For example, if you look at our tasting, scores of 90 or more were spread pretty evenly: Nebbiolo (1), Barbaresco (2), Barolo (2), Barbera (3), and Dolcetto (4). That would suggest the Dolcetto most interesting. Yes, but the scores pretty lackluster – only a couple of 95s and they were for different wines.
From our 10 tastings, what wine(s) stand out as very special? Only one – the Maximin Grunhaus 2011 Abtsberg Spätlese. It got the following high scores: 100, 95, 95, and 90. I thought it was great!