Bottle, and magnum, variation


20 October 2016 Questions of bottle variation and resulting score variability are, not surprisingly, a perennial topic on this site and more generally in the world of wine. As a companion piece to today’s report of a vertical tasting of Pol Roger’s Cuvée Winston Churchill, including some wines tasted twice from different formats, we are republishing this highly pertinent article on bottle, and magnum, variation. 

14 March 2016 I know that many members of Purple Pages are frustrated by the fact that our scores for individual wines can vary considerably – not just between tasters, but the same taster (usually me) may taste a wine on multiple occasions and give very different scores each time. When asked to explain this I always cite bottle variation – how different bottles from the same lot can vary considerably, probably mainly because of variation in cork quality but also possibly because of where they were stored (one or two in more of a draught than the others, perhaps) and perhaps came from different bottling lots. This defence was based on my experience of trying different bottles from the same case on different occasions. sometimes months or even years apart. 

On Friday night, for the first time ever, I had a chance to try multiple examples of the same wine from the same source at the same time. Nick and I attended the annual Room to Read wine gala in Sydney, where a truly magnificent and record-breaking AU$3.35 million was raised for improving literacy in low-income countries. We were particularly inspired by the testimony of Room to Read student, now teacher of children like those shown here, Tay Thi Nguyen of Vietnam – and the need to keep up with the Hong Kong gala the previous week that had raised US$3.2 million.

We had some stunning wines, all 100% donated by their generous producers – Dom Pérignon 2006, Grosset Springvale Riesling 2015, Penfolds Yattarna 2008, De Bortoli Phi Pinot Noir 2013, Shaw + Smith Shiraz 2014, Henschke Euphonium Shiraz 2012, Cullen Diana Madeline 2010, Campbells Classic Rutherglen Muscat and Campbells Muscat of the Century 1986. Just before the 400 guests were about to arrive at the Sydney Hilton, I suddenly wondered whether anyone had checked each bottle, the way the Watsons crew had done in Hong Kong the week before (particularly necessary for a wine like Ch Palmer 1989). 

It turned out no one had but that the only wine under cork was the Cullen, so I threw a Room to Read T-shirt over my cream dress and went behind the scenes to check out the Cullen wine that Vanya C had so kindly donated in magnum. So far about 26 magnums had been opened, some had already been decanted, and I poured myself a small tasting sample to check the nose of each. I couldn't believe how varied they were. Some were stridently powerful on the nose, some particularly Cabernet-dominated and some much more reticent. I tasted the few where I had an iota of doubt as to their cleanliness and ended up rejecting two of the magnums. And even they varied considerably, from one that definitely had some but not screaming TCA to another that was just under par.

Here was definitive proof of bottle variation – and I'm sure the experience had nothing to do with Cullen specifically (they have since adopted screwcaps on all their wines, from their certified biodynamic vineyards). I'm also sure that anyone who regularly checks multiple bottles of the same wine before they are served can testify to the same phenomenon. 

Alas I had not time to perform the same exercise on multiple bottles of screwcapped wine but look forward to doing so another time. (See the Post script to Wine in Thailand for my findings there.)