wa2.gif (4241 bytes)

abut9.gif (3095 bytes)

abut12.gif (3207 bytes)
abut10.gif (3636 bytes)

abut11.gif (4039 bytes)


All about...

As I write, September has begun, and for most of the wine regions in the Northern hemisphere, this month will see the beginning of the vintage. All eyes will be on the weather forecasts over the next few weeks, as the climatic conditions from now till harvest will largely determine the quality of the 2002 vintage.   

Check the current five day forecasts for weather stations near France's key regions

The importance of vintages is one of the key factors that reminds us that wine is primarily an agricultural product, made in the vineyard. To the ‘branders’ this is a major inconvenience: they would like wine to resemble other drinks, such as beer, vodka and whisky, where the agricultural product is just a rather anonymous starting point in the manufacturing process. For branded wines, vintage variation is a major hassle, affecting continuity of supply and product consistency. To the wine nut, vintages are instead a source of variation that adds a delightful complexity to the process of wine appreciation: after all, with each new vintage everything is shaken up again, and we have yet more to learn.

It can all be a bit bewildering to the novice. There are already enough elements of wine appreciation that a budding wine nut has to get their head around—regions, grape varieties and producers—and now we have vintage variation as well. It’s tempting to embrace the short cut of vintage charts, which rank vintages in each region by marks out of 10, but this spawns the widespread phenomenon of ‘vintageism’. This sort of abstraction just won’t do for the serious student of wine. Why? Because each vintage, within each region, some producers will have done better than others. There are few universally brilliant vintages, just as there are few fully dire ones. Besides, look at a particular producer’s performance over a decade, and you may decide you actually prefer their efforts in some of the less favoured years. Thinking rigidly in terms of good and bad vintages is too simplistic: the reality is more complex than this.

This said, there’s no doubting that some vintages, are on average, more successful than others across whole regions. But this is evidently a generalization. Because most people are lazy and prefer to shop by the generalizations of vintages, people prepared to do their homework and suss out the producers who performed well in ‘poor’ vintages will be able to drink well for far less. If you can free yourself from the tyranny of vintage charts, then you may well find some pleasant surprises in ‘off’ vintages. Be prepared for some disappointments along the route, though. And in the absence of no further information, vintage charts are probably a helpful guide, particularly in the sorts of restaurants where the wine lists are littered with off-vintages of famous names. What am I trying to say? Well, you have permission to use them, but bear their limitations in mind.

So what makes a good vintage? One that produces an average yield of healthy, ripe grapes, with good balance between sugar and acid levels. As I’ve already alluded too, the weather at harvest time and during the preceding couple of weeks is pretty critical for this. The grapes need to finish the ripening process, both in terms of sugar levels and physiological (or phenolic) ripeness; as harvest approaches the potential alcohol will typically rise by a degree each week. In addition, rain is a real problem at this stage, because this will cause the grapes to bloat, risking dilution of the wine, and encourage fungal diseases (you can’t spray just before picking). This is why choosing when to pick is such an important decision for producers: if rain is forecast, do you harvest a little early to be on the safe side, or will you risk waiting? It’s easy to see how some producers could do better than others in dodgy-looking vintages. The other critical times are at the start of the growing season, when there is a risk of frost in many regions, and during flowering—the potential size of the crop is chiefly determined at this time. The middle bit, roughly July and August, does matter, but not in the same critical fashion.

No doubt we’ll soon begin hearing reports from the key regions about how the harvest is going. There’s always a sense of anticipation at this time of year. After a couple of difficult years, will it be Burgundy’s turn for a great vintage? Will Bordeaux match the celebrated 2000 vintage? Will the Northern Rhône continue with its lucky streak? And what of Alsace and the Loire, where vintage variation is quite pronounced? Then there’s the multitude of regions in Italy, Spain, Portugal, Germany and Austria… Vintages may add to the complexity of wine, but they certainly add to the fun.

Back to top