A Year in the Life of Wine or Why Vintage Matters
Anthony Gismondi’s Final Blend
As the 2014 harvest winds down across the northern hemisphere I wanted to take a moment to speak to the notion of vintage. The harvest is the culmination of a year’s work for any winery, or to be more specific, the viticultural team that is responsible for growing the grapes. For all the tastings, all the notes and all the scores there is really only one number (four digits) that relates directly to an individual wine and that’s its vintage.
You can think of it as a birthday of sorts but unlike the yearly marker that defines us, a wine’s vintage defines its life in the vineyard and can tell you a lot about the rest of its life in bottle. If you didn’t know by now, I’m a bit of a vintage fiend, especially when I’m spending more than $15 or $20 on a bottle of wine.
I mention this because there is a certain malaise in the wine industry to dismiss vintage. I suspect it’s because it takes time, energy and money to keep track of it throughout a wine’s life. Many large retailers and wineries seem to be conspiring to quietly remove the concept of vintage from their daily life by promoting every wine from every year as being equal. As mentioned, there is a cost to keeping track of the vintage, in the literature and marketing bumpf, on the label (imagine the savings of printing a decade of labels with no vintage listed), changing UPC codes, catalogues et al, but we say, so what? The provenance of a wine includes its vintage and any attempt to obfuscate vintage only reveals a lack of commitment to the soul of wine.
No matter the bother of tracking vintage, we look at it as part of the job. It’s a matter of respect; something fundamental to buying, selling or drinking wine. If a company is too lazy to correctly identify a wine by its vintage it should probably be in another business.
When I first started tasting wine some 35 years ago there was only one harvest of note in the wine world, and that was in Bordeaux. The Bordelais were the masters of vintage, seldom commenting about any harvest until the wines were fermented and sitting in the cellar. Often they would say nothing until the next spring, when their en primeur or advance sale of the recently finished vintage took place for the trade.
In those days, knowledge of growing conditions were confined to a handful of folks; given the difficulty of communicating that knowledge worldwide in a short period of time, it didn’t really affect sales all that much. Vintages were usually graded good, better or best and the price went up regardless.
You could say the laissez-faire attitude surrounding vintages changed after 1982 with arrival of Robert Parker and his yearly proclamations on the health, quality and aging potential of Bordeaux wine. In fact, it was Parker who gave collectors the buy signal for 1982 Bordeaux, when many others critics were panning the vintage. One naysayer included noted American reviewer Robert Finnegan, who after telling consumers to avoid the harvest, was never a serious player in the review business again.
The notion of ‘vintage’ was long suppressed in the New World because back in the day we learned that every year was a good year in California, Chile, South Africa and Australia. It was always warm and sunny, hence no need to ask if it was a good year. It seemed a clear advantage over the wet springs and falls that could plague Western European vineyards. We now know better.
“Warm and sunny” comes in degrees, if you’ll pardon the pun. Even in benign climes we have come to learn that some years are better than others, especially as temperatures rise in many winegrowing regions chosen, shall we say less judiciously, in the ‘60s, ‘70s and ‘80s.
Today we have come to admire the quality of grapes and wine that are grown on cooler, more marginal sites. That said, the truly poor vintage has all but been eliminated by science and viticultural techniques that were not available to winegrowers as little as two decades ago.
For many wineries, harvest reports (including live video via vineyard cams) are more about public relations than any real pronouncement regarding the quality of the grapes picked. Interviews with the owner or winemaker and daily updates from the vineyard have taken the legs out from under the old good-versus-bad vintage assessments once only issued by tight-lipped wine buyers and a few respected tasters, deep from within the vineyards.
Without doubt, growing fruit inside an appellation ideally suited to the grapes helps reduce the failure rate, as do better clones, better farming practices, low yields, and a host of tools available to the modern grape grower. It even appears possible to smooth out the rough edges of the vintage just by being diligent or, even better, passionate about what you are doing.
Some would argue the result of all this work is better wine year after year and less variation in quality, so why should consumers worry about the vintage? We agree today’s harvest is much less of a mystery than it used to be, and much less risky to buy, but vintage goes to the soul of every wine and noting those four digits on every bottle, sales sheet, shelf sticker and wine list adds perspective and respect to a year’s worth of work.
Even so, just when you think you have a handle on it all, global warming is turning parts of Europe and Canada into the likes of the Napa or Barossa Valley. Modern-day harvest reports speak about the lack of rainfall and rising temperatures throughout the growing season. Seasons that are too dry and too warm are challenging everything we know about growing grapes each new vintage.
As the calendar winds down in 2014 two vintages will come to an end. The first finished up six months ago in the southern hemisphere, the second will be completed next month across the northern latitudes. All of which leads us to the story of those four digits.
I like knowing that all things being equal, the 2012 and 2013 Okanagan vintages were superior to the 2010 and 2011. I take pride in knowing the balance from day one of the 1982 Bordeaux, placed it at the same level as the great 1961, 1959 and 1945s, considered by some the finest Bordeaux vintages ever. Why would you buy a 2004 Burgundy off a wine list if there was 2005 listed alongside it?
The best thing about vintages are you live through them. You can remember them, collect them, cellar them and drink them. They are a part of the mystery and complexity of wine. Why anyone would want to strip all that flavour from a wine is beyond us.
Surely in a digital world that seems to know everything there is to know about us 24/7 we could manage to keep track of four little digits as they pertain to a wine’s life. Think of it as commitment to your job, a sign of respect to the customer, the grower and most of all the wine.
Photos courtesy of Treve Ring