Wine: What’s in a vintage?

Beware the hyped vintages, seek out neighbouring vintages and learn what you need to know about how weather affects the grapes and the wines
April 23, 2014

Do vintages still matter, or is it reasonable to suppose that modern techniques of wine-making, in the field and in the cellar, will smooth out the difficulties of each season? Large-scale industrial wineries try to achieve a constant flavour for each bottle, often to please supermarkets who aim to provide a consistent product. But handmade wines of quality continue to show differences from year to year.

Vintages lock in the characteristics of weather in a given season. The carefully-documented records of harvests going back to the medieval period in Burgundy provide a wonderful resource for those studying climate change. The vines have seen it all. They store up their secrets and release their bounty, in different measure, year after year.

It’s hard to generalise about any given vintage, though. Individual producers from the same region will handle the vagaries of the weather differently. Nevertheless, there are some key factors that mark out a vintage as being lean, or ripe, or even extreme.

The 2003 vintage in France, for instance, was highly unusual. That was the year when temperatures soared to 40 degrees in Paris and stayed there for weeks on end. The exposed grapes were often burned by the sun, and although there was ripeness, there was a marked decrease in acidity. The need to harvest the grapes quickly caused panic in France as all regions needed pickers at the same time, in contrast to the usual pattern where casual workers begin in the south and work their way north. Producers in Burgundy were seen hiring refrigerated icecream trucks to transport the freshly picked grapes safely from the vineyards to the wineries.

Results were mixed. Some fared well, while others failed to guard any freshness in their wines. Several critics declared it an outstanding vintage in Bordeaux, but only time will tell if these wines will develop well with age. What we can say with certainty is that any bottle from the 2003 vintage will differ markedly from other vintages.

Fears of dramatic climate change after 2003 had growers talking about moving their production to cooler climes. Rumours abounded that Champagne houses were looking to buy land in Sussex, where the chalky soil was ideal for making sparkling wines and it was one degree cooler than Champagne. Nothing has come of it so far, and the last few years have seen challenging vintages for French vineyards where the lack of sun and constant rain have threatened ripeness and concentration in the red grapes.

Another vintage declared as perfect in Burgundy and Bordeaux, 2009, produced atypical, plump wines, bursting with fruit that were, as a consequence, high in alcohol. Investors rushed to buy them, driving up the prices. But the vintages either side of an “outstanding” year are often worth a look, too. The cooler years before a hot, ripe vintage are good for white wines, preserving crispness and acidity. These are the classic vintages for balanced white Burgundy and you would do well to snap them up. Choose those before 2008 if you want clean, dry, complex wines that combine richness with finesse. After an over-ripe vintage, the vines are often stressed and can produce some of their best fruit in small quanties, leading to refined and elegant wines.

The moral is: beware the hyped vintages, seek out neighbouring vintages and learn what you need to know about how weather affects the grapes and the wines. If you can, take a punt on a 2003, but know that you may never taste its like for some time to come.