Tuesday, April 29, 2008

What's in a Vintage?

Hail damage, source: Chateau Masburel

Pros will endlessly debate the relative merits of a given vintage, but how is the beginner or everyday wine consumer supposed to use the limited, and often contradictory, information on vintages. I have been thinking about this a lot since my (mostly) blinded "mini-vertical" tastings earlier this year (more to come).

Of course vintages matter. Wine is an agricultural product. If vintage did not matter then your oranges from Florida or Spain and your grapes from California or Chile would taste the same year after year. But they don't. But do they matter enough in the context of wine for you to give it any thought? Here are some simple rules on vintages I like to follow when buying wine:

#1: Forget knowing the good vintages, know the really bad vintages.

Many of you may know a wine know-it-all who can rhyme off the great Bordeaux vintages, but is that useful? Most wine regions have been in production for decades, centuries, so the winemakers can even out modest vintage variations, and if they don't the wine quality suffers little. But really difficult conditions may be insurmountable - tread carefully, as shops, winemakers and restaurants are quite likely to have a big stock of these off-vintage wines and the prices for a lesser vintage may not be discounted (the shortage of good grapes lowers the incentive to discount). Don't avoid them, you just need to exercise more caution and use the next rules. Knowing the critically acclaimed vintages can only lead to wallet pain, and some highly-rated vintages at release may lose their lustre in the longer run, resulting in a highly devalued futures order...(some vintage charts: 123)

#2: Trust your favourite winemaker.

A "bad" vintage is a statistical number, simply meaning that "the majority" of winemakers had difficulty in a given year, but not all. Most wine regions are vast, spanning thousands of square kilometres/hectares/acres/miles - vineyard-to-vineyard and village-to-village variability is high. What was bad for the Medoc may have been a good year in Pomerol, for example. Winemakers may also work to keep a house style, cutting production and selling lesser grapes in those off-vintages to preserve the quality of the brand. One example I like to use is the 2002 Fonterutoli Chianti Classico - in 2002 the house decided not to make its top bottling (the Castello di Fonterutoli), leaving the top grapes for the regular Chianti Classico, resulting in a wine that was equal to or better than some greater vintages.

#3: Warmer climes are different.

Germany, Alsace, Burgundy, and Canada, to name a few, are cooler climates, operating at the very fringe of vinifera tolerance (perhaps to be negated by global warming). Thus vintage-to-vintage variation is more difficult to manage than for wineries in South Africa, California and Australia, for example. An obsession with vintage is probably not necessary for some regions, critical for others. Follow the points #1 and #2 above and #4 and #5 below for the higher variability regions.

#4: The vintage may be less important than the food.

Most wine is paired with a meal. Off-vintages provide different flavour profiles than celebrated vintages, often lighter-bodied with better acidity. You can use this to your advantage, pairing these wines with foods that better fit that flavour profile. While celebrated vintages may produce spectacular wines these wines may overpower your meals - it has been said that top chefs only allow off-vintage wines on their lists so that the wine does not overpower their cuisine.

#5: Listen to your shopkeep or sommelier.

Store employees and sommeliers have the opportunity to taste so many wines - they will be the first to find the good stuff in off-vintages and they will find inexpensive gems from celebrated years.

David, a wine consultant in the Philly area, warned me not to fall into the vintage chart trap, but I really just focus on the bad ones - a humble statistician trying to put the odds on my side. Trust your own taste, or those of someone you trust.

Off to pick up my 2005 futures now...cheers!


Edward said...


Very sensible advice, I just wish I had the discipline to follow it. I still tend to be a sucker for vintages, buying with my ears pinned back when things are good, and decamping to other regions when the weather is less kind.

The fortuitous thing about wine is there will always be multiple vintages on sale at any one time, allowing you to pick and choose what is best to drink. . .

Joe said...

Hi Ed - I confess I get intrigued when another "vintage of the century" comes along, but I am now disciplined, just using those great vintages to build out a few verticals. I am wary of the really bad vintages, but the middling vintages have great values. If there is one truism, there will always be another vintage - hard to resist, but with my cellar bursting at the seams I have been able to (mostly) hold myself back.

Edward said...


Those 'vintage of the century' that come along every decade are a real problem.

I have a glut of 1998 South Aussie reds because it was one of those so called years. Likewise 2002 South Aussie riesling. Wish I could say I had a similar problem with 2005 Burgundy. . .

Joe said...

Hi Ed - I thought "vintage of the century" was more like two or three times a decade ;)

I would love to help you deal with your "glut", but I have a similar problem. For the most part I am replacing everything I drink with '05 Burgs...