Are vintages still valid?


Speaking to The Times , distinguished UK Wine Writer, Hugh Johnson, recently remarked that innovations created by wine growers to protect their crops from the elements have reduced vintage variations, making any year a good year for wine aficionados. Johnson also noted that vintage-specific demand & wine snobbery were intrinsically linked, sparking a debate within the wine world – are vintages still valid?

In some parts of the world, especially the Southern Hemisphere, it is clearly the case that vintage variation is less pronounced than in the more marginal climates of Northern Europe. Moreover, in the top appellations of Bordeaux and Burgundy, years of success have spawned a scale of investment in technology which has effectively eliminated the incidence of the truly terrible vintages of the past. The days when every decade brought three very good vintages, three shockers and four of average quality seem well past.

Nevertheless I believe that there remain enough variations between vintages, particularly amongst European wines, to ensure that comparison remains a valid and enlightening study. 2003 by Bollinger, encased in packaging which displays the vines under snow (left), is a great example of how vintage variations can produce very different styles from year to year.

I agree with Hugh Johnson that at the very pinnacle of quality, the First Growths of Bordeaux for example, the wines from what are considered the greatest vintages acquire a reputation and value which comes in part from their perception as “trophy wines”, and demand for them spirals as a result.

Slightly lower down the scale, however, I still find it fascinating to discern the different characteristics of vintages which might all be deemed “good” but which are borne out of widely differing climatic conditions. 2003 and 2004 in Bordeaux, for example, present a very interesting comparison, as do 2000 and 2001 in Burgundy, or 2005 and 2006 in the Rhone.

Furthermore, away from the top domaines, where investment in technology is less affordable, one still sees starkly the effect of differing weather conditions on vintages; in everyday Burgundy , for example, the heat of 2003 yielded wines with roasted characteristics, further pushed out of balance by clumsy acidification, followed by the green, herbaceous style of the slightly less ripe 2004’s.

If the current global warming trend is permanent, which is far from certain, we may see greater regularity in vintages in European vineyards, but, for now at least, let’s continue to celebrate diversity.