Can You Use Science to Assess Wine Quality?

What do you think about when you’re trying to determine the quality of an Italian wine? We bet that most of you don’t look any further than how the wine tastes, or how it makes you feel. You know what you like from your drinks, so wines fall into a “good” or “bad” category based on your personal preferences.

Others may give preferential treatment to a certain brand or label, whereas there are still those who think that the higher the price of a wine, the better its quality.

The point is that it’s an inexact science. Something that a sommelier tells you is wonderful may not appeal to your palate. In fact, we bet that more than a few of you have recommend a wine or vintage to a friend, only to have them turn their noses up at your recommendation.

Despite this, there have been efforts to apply a scientific method to the wine industry. Some experts believe that measuring a few key metrics can give you an objective viewpoint of the quality of a wine, which disregards your personal tastes. In essence, it will tell you if the wine’s considered “good”, regardless of what you might think about it personally.

The Most Famous Method

Back in 1990, an economist from Princeton came up with a formula that he believed could be used to determine the quality of any particular vintage of wine. Professor Orley Ashenfelter believed that some fairly simple mathematics offered the answer.

His formula told people they just needed to work out how much rain fell during the harvest and winter periods in the region in question. You take this number, in millimetres, and add the average heat in degrees Celsius to the number.

So, if you have 100mm of rainfall and an average heat of 30 degrees Celsius, you get 130.

Now, subtract 12.145 from the number.

The higher number, the greater the quality of the wine.

With this formula, Ashenfelter argued that the weather is the key factor when determining the quality of the wine, rather than the nose or the human element. He also noted that such a formula removed much of the uncertainty that surrounds the wine industry, particularly when buying wines that take several decades to mature. Instead of taking a gamble and buying a wine early, only to learn decades later if it is of the desired quality, somebody could use this formula to work out whether the wine is worthy of any attention at all before even smelling or drinking it.

It sounds simple. However, the backlash that came from this formula was immense.

The Human Element

The global and Italian wine industries have always had an element of the romantic to them. When somebody attempts to apply science to the industry in this fashion, it was natural that some segments of the industry would react negatively.

That’s exactly what happened in the wake of Ashenfelter’s theory. It was deemed ludicrous and absurd by one prominent wine critic of the time, with another noting that the simple formula has sparked such outrage in certain segments of the wine community that it would never possibly be taken seriously.

Such people argued that such a simple formula could never take into account the many extra factors that go into determining the quality of a bottle of wine. For example, each producer has its own production methods, and the terroir has such a marked effect on wine that organisations like the Italian DOC make it their business to ensure any wines that carry their label come from the correct region.

In creating this formula, Ashenfelter sparked a discussion that apparently concluded that such a formula could never truly measure the quality of a wine. The human element plays such a huge role in so many ways. The production techniques that different producers use offer such variation that seasonal conditions can’t possibly be the only metric for measuring a quality of wine. Of course, you also have to take personal tastes into account, and the fact that sommeliers pride themselves on being able to use their noses and tongues to determine quality, rather than relying on a formula.

Though clever, Ashenfelter’s formula only takes the weather into account. While this is certainly an important factor in Italian wine production, as we have seen in recent years as the effects of climate change make growing seasons and weather less certain than many producers would prefer, it’s not the only factor. A great producer can still make beautiful wine, even during years were the seasons have been less favourable. In fact, the formula takes away so much of the importance of production methods, terroir, and the people who make wines as to be almost insulting to the industry as a whole.

The Final Word

So where does that leave us? It should come as no surprise that there have been few attempts to determine the quality of wine scientifically since Ashenfelter experienced the full force of an industry in the wake of his own calculations. While it’s certainly unfair to levy criticism at him for coming up with an idea, one that he was able to bear out with numbers and statistics, it’s likely that nobody in the industry would willingly accept such a formula as accurate.

That’s not to say that science doesn’t have its place in the wine industry. There are entire schools dedicated to the creation of wine, and the production methods that winemakers use involve a great deal of science. This is especially true in an age where organic and biodynamic wines have such prominence.

But when it comes to the quality of an Italian wine, there are just too many factors to consider to create an accurate scientific equation. Ashenfelder’s equation shows this as it only takes weather into account, completely disregarding the importance of production techniques and the land from which the wine originates.

Perhaps the best way to determine the quality of a wine is the same as it has always been. Smell, taste, and experience.


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