This week, the topic is the term ‘vintage’, and what it does — and doesn’t mean – when it comes to buying wine. More specifically – how important is the vintage when it comes to quality?
The idea to write about the vintage, while seasonally appropriate (with the 2012 grape harvest well under way in most western wine regions), was actually brought on by three independent events. The first was the latest Bordeaux release (yet another ‘vintage of the century’ according to some pundits and winemakers). The second reason was recent coverage of BC’s current grape harvest which, interestingly, some are calling ‘the best ever’. And the third was personally drinking yet another value-priced wine from the 2010 vintage in the south of France, in this case a Minervois from the Languedoc that was amazing for less than $15!
So where to start…well, how about from a logical perspective?
Since the quality of every vintage is mostly determined by the weather and, by its very nature, weather is variable (temperature, rain, frost, etc), it makes sense that vintages would vary in quality from year to year in most areas. Even in warmer regions like California and Australia you get weather differences.
But how great are the impacts of these variations? And how much can they be generalized across all wines in a certain year?
The first one is the easier question to answer. After a colder, rainier year, for example, almost anyone can taste a lack of ripeness in the wines that are made, particularly the red wines. Green, tart flavours (like biting into an under-ripe apple or green pepper), an excess of woodiness (from oak barrels overpowering the unripe fruit), and even an overall impression of the wine being light or diluted (like frozen juice made with too much water).
At the other end of the spectrum, you can also usually tell a “good year” from the ripeness of the wines. Again, biting into a sweet, ripe cherry or berry is something we are all familiar with. And that experience can translate into wine as well when the weather conditions have been excellent.
But even if we agree that there are noticeable impacts in so called “good and bad” vintages, can you generalize them across all the wines made that year? Are all wines from a poor year thin and diluted? And are all the ones from a good year ripe and worth buying?
My view is, in most cases, “no”. Both winemaking, and style, also play a major role in the quality of a wine regardless of the vintage. I have tasted many examples of wines from a good year that I don’t enjoy, sometimes because of the style, but also sometimes because they just weren’t very well made. The same happens in poor years, although it can be a lot harder to find good wines if the weather was very bad.
The other factor to consider is price, especially in the so-called good year. Unfortunately, many wineries tend to jack up their prices if the vintage is supposed to be an excellent one. When that happens, you have to also consider the whole concept of value, regardless of how good the wine may taste. Is, for example, a wine that normally sells for $15 now worth $20 just because it is from a good year?
The other side of the argument is even more difficult, because very rarely do wineries drop their prices in a bad year. So does that mean their wines are still worth buying even if the quality is lower?
I’m not sure what the “lesson” is here. But what I do is, in so-called good years, is try more of the cheaper wines. If the vintage is really that much better, that is where you should be able to experience it the easiest (and cheapest). And in poor years, I tend to stick to those wines I have enjoyed for many years. The rationale there is that if they generally have good winemaking, that gives them the best chance to make at least a decent wine even in a poor year.