Jason Millar: making sense of "vintage"

on 19 May, 2017

In my first wine shop job I was astonished by a colleague’s ability to remember the personality of particular regions’ vintages and to casually observe, while stacking shelves, that the labels of a given wine had moved on from one vintage to another. Never blessed with a prodigious memory, this seemed to me as breathtaking as a circus trapeze act.

What stayed with me was this: if that’s how I felt as a young professional in the industry, how bewildering must it be for a customer to come up against a wall of wine labels with foreign words and a smattering of meaningless years?

Many people don’t even know what the word vintage means. We tell them it simply means that the grapes have come from the harvest of the year on the label. Ah. So why does that matter? Well, it’s not always the same and it’s one of the delightful complexities of wine that the vintage changes with the prevailing growing conditions of the year. Then the inevitable: is this a good vintage? 

With, say, a bottle of 2014 Cabernet Franc from the Loire, one can just say yes” and move on. But when staring down, for example, a 2013 claret, things are more tricky. So we explain that, although the vintage overall was a scoundrel (rainy, damp, beset by mould and mildew), this particular bottle of wine is actually exceptionally good, drawing a comically sceptical reaction. 

Often, vintages are neither rotten nor great, but differ in ways that elude numerical definition. It’s a subtlety that many wine enthusiasts enjoy but at least as many find frustrating. The truth is that vintages matter enormously for producers but much less so for the majority of drinkers. As industry insiders we’re all acutely aware, following recent frosts in the Loire and Bordeaux, how central vintages are and how the annual variations in seasonal harvests separate wine from beer and spirits. There’s no denying that a run of tough years can devastate producers’ livelihoods, but the reality is that most drinkers want to know about flavour, style and food matching – and even a detailed meteorological knowledge doesn’t help much on that front. 

In a cosmopolitan wine market such as the UK, drinkers are unlikely to remember the character of all the major producing countries’ vintages each year. Even if they did, would welcome rains after a prolonged drought mean a Madiran should be paired with confit duck or garlic sausage? 

That’s why a snapshot harvest report on a back label, followed by some useful tasting notes and specific food matches, would be enormously helpful for many drinkers. A few wineries, including Ridge of California, already do this, but it is surprisingly rare.

That extra snippet of context could rescue drinkers from having to brush up on vintage reports and their elegant euphemisms: those with the strictest selections triumphed”, a winemaker’s vintage”, a vintage in which the patient were rewarded”, and so on. Instead we can focus on vintages as keeping ones or drinking ones, light and less extracted or dense and age-worthy, fresher and more red-fruited in a cool year or chunkier and fleshier in a warm one. 

It would help bring home the influence of a vintage on a wine-by-wine basis in a way that a mark out of 10 cannot, offering a tangible way for consumers to unlock one of wine’s annual mysteries which, for all its frustrations and complexities, we would be poorer without.

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