In Praise of Vintage Difference

Wine is perhaps the only product we consume regularly that has obvious vintage differences. It makes wine fascinating to study, to craft, to drink.

Wine is perhaps the only product we consume regularly that has obvious vintage differences. It makes wine fascinating to study, to craft, to drink. Vintage difference matters. It may be vexing to winemakers and a matter of indifference to casual wine drinkers, but I find it exciting. And I am going to explain why.

I’ve attended barrel tastings of the Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Cabernet Franc from the 2009 vintage in Bordeaux. Apart from the fact of its great quality, what intrigued me was how different it was from the 2008 vintage and the less than glamorous 2007. Experts made instant comparisons with other top vintages. It’s like 2000, said some; no, more like 1989, 1990 or 1982, said those with longer memories; but most agreed that 2009 is very different from the equally good, maybe better 2005.

From Bordeaux, I moved on to Burgundy. Again there were the vintage differences. There is rich Pinot Noir in the 2009 and surprisingly
fresh Chardonnay considering the heat of the year. By contrast, 2008 was much crisper in both colors; 2007 was much better in
white than red. And so on.

Let’s take one other example, from California, just to prove this is not a Franco-centric column. In our March issue my colleague, Steve Heimoff, wrote an impressive article praising the superb 2007 Pinot Noir vintage. He compared it with 2005, and also pointed out the “lesser quality” of the 2008. Vintage difference again.

Wine is one of the few—perhaps the only—product that we consume regularly that has such obvious and fascinating vintage differences. We don’t write or talk about vintage difference in the bread we buy or the tomatoes we eat, even though both come from plants that change their quality year by year.

Winemakers and their marketers shouldn’t be ashamed of a vintage difference; they should applaud it. It takes us back to the origins of the wine we drink—the vineyard and the weather in the vineyard. Apart from the fact it makes great conversation among wine lovers, it offers an ever-changing perspective on the vines from a particular vineyard.

It is not at all different from historic weather wherever you live: record drought in Texas in September 2000, record highs in Seattle, Washington in October 1987, the western drought and wildfires just last year. All were events that affected a vintage.

At harvest time, the future wine’s quality depends on how healthy the grapes are, how ripe. Each year, I help harvest at a friend’s tiny vineyard in Bordeaux. In 2004, the first time I helped out, the ripe Merlot harvest took place in brilliant sunshine; the green, underripe Cabernet harvest took place two weeks later in pouring, cold rain. In 2009, both harvests of ripe fruit took place after weeks of warm days and cool nights. In the years between, there has been every weather variation.

Would it be better if these vintage differences didn’t happen? If a particular wine tasted the same each year? That, after all, is what big brands often aim to achieve. By manipulating the blend, a winemaker will get as close as possible to the same style each year. A Champagne producer, proud of his nonvintage Champagne, will work to maintain a “house” style.

Yes, ironing out those vintage differences works well with certain wines. It works for brands that sell in millions of bottles. But certainly not for every wine. You don’t need to go very high up the price ladder either. The wines that make us go anywhere from “wow” down to “yes, I really like that” are the wines that express a vintage. These are the wines that bring us wine experiences, whether good or not-so-good.

That’s true whether the wine comes from Chile, Oregon or Tuscany and even in regions where the weather is relatively reliable. I don’t subscribe to the belief that some parts of the wine world don’t have vintage variation. Are you seriously telling me that each summer is exactly the same, day after day? That the grapes are picked on the same day each year? Not true.

Vintage difference also brings us the excitement of seeing a wine develop over a few years. Yes, we tend to buy wine and drink it that very day. But if I bought a 2005 Rioja I would know that it would give me greater pleasure, and probably age better, than the 2007 of the same wine, because, as Wine Enthusiast’s Vintage Chart tells me, the years were very different in quality. It would be like going to the beach on a cloudless day and going to the same beach, same date, when it’s raining. Same beach, same sand—very different experience.
Vintage says exactly what happened in a year. It is part of what makes wine so endlessly enjoyable and fascinating. It is a salutary reminder, now that a majority of us live in cities, that wine is an agricultural product. It is the history of the year in four figures.

Note: Wine Enthusiast produces a comprehensive Vintage Chart as a guide to the quality and drinkability of the world’s wines. To
access the chart, go to WineMag. com and click on the Vintage Chart tile.

Published on July 6, 2010
Topics: Vintage