The dating game
How important is a wine's vintage?
Uncorked by Thor Iverson
I was cleaning out my wallet the other day and found the tattered remains of a
yellow card. "What's this?" I wondered, squinting at the faded lettering. As it
turned out, it was a vintage chart from Wine for Dummies. I remembered
clutching it on my early trips to
wine shops, afraid that in my
naïveté I'd screw up and buy something horrible. I also remembered
the surreptitious way I used to slip it out of my pocket at restaurants as I
nervously scanned the
I smiled, chuckled at myself, and threw it in the trash.
Wine lovers are obsessed by many things, but they get really nuts when it
comes to vintage. Vintage -- nothing more than the year in which the grapes
were grown and harvested -- has become an oenological shibboleth, separating
the vinous nobility from the untouchables. Otherwise-reasonable people will
turn up their noses at reliably great wines because they're from "a bad year."
They don't know what they're missing.
The wine press doesn't help, either. All the major wine publications regularly
print rundowns of good, bad, and indifferent years for different countries and
wine regions. I remember carrying three of them with me on a trip to France:
the Dummies card, a similar tri-fold card from the Wine
Spectator, and a photocopy of Robert Parker's comprehensive chart from the
Wine Advocate. I didn't know all that much about wine, but by God I had
So did all that data help me? Not too much. I was able to make pretty good use
of a limited budget on that trip, and the vintage charts probably saved me some
But I unquestionably make better wine choices now than I did then, and I
consult vintage charts no more than once every two months.
"Sure," you might be saying, "that's because you've memorized the charts."
Well, no, I haven't, though I do remember a very few things about a few wine
regions. Most people I've met who have memorized vintage charts aren't really
wine lovers at all; they're collectors who care primarily about wine's prestige
value. Instead, I've learned to make vintage work for me as
a wine drinker.
So what is a good vintage? Usually, it's a year where everything works in the
winemaker's favor; the grapes are flawlessly ripe at harvest; there's no
unwelcome rain or rot; and
acidity are in perfect
bad vintage is often the result of bad weather or freakish calamities (like
disease or insect invasions) during the early spring or at the harvest. And in
between the great years and the disastrous years there's a vast middle
The combination of weather and location also plays a role. Dream-climate
regions like California, Chile, and southern France rarely have to worry about
vintage. Sure, some years are better than others, but disaster rarely strikes
(even in the age of El Niño). Borderline-climate regions -- most of the
rest of the winemaking world -- are much more vintage-sensitive.
But in both kinds of climate, agricultural and winemaking skill can make or
break a wine. Winemakers in cool climates have to coax and cajole their grapes
to ripeness, battle dire fall weather to complete the harvest, and carefully
nurse the grape juice through a tricky series of manipulations to produce good
wine in less-than-good seasons. Poor winemakers from these regions (Germany,
Burgundy, and Oregon are classic examples) tend to produce plonk in such
Those in trouble-free areas have the opposite problem: happy vines make lousy
wine (to produce high-quality grapes, vines must struggle). The effects of the
too-pleasant climate must therefore be counteracted at every step. Vintage
isn't so important when buying wine from these areas, but the producer's
In both cases, however, it's clear that the skill of the producer is more important
than the vintage. The greatest and most famous wineries of the world ensured
their reputations by making good to excellent wine in years when their
neighbors struggled. A reliable producer is money in the bank, vintage charts
be damned. As many a wise wine lover has noted, "there are no great vintages,
only great wines."
It's also important to remember that different vintages have different uses.
Take Bordeaux: the greatest vintages of the last two decades are '96, '95, '90,
'89, '88, '86, and '82. When you go to a restaurant with a good selection of
Bordeaux, it's these years you're likely to see (at suitably outrageous
prices). And you'll see a lot of big spenders ordering them.
But you can enjoy a good snicker at their foolishness, because few of the
wines from those spectacular vintages (with the exception of some '82s) are
even close to ready to drink, and anyone who buys one is getting a pale shadow
of what the wine will become at maturity. The savvy wine lover will select
something from a so-called off-vintage -- perhaps an '87 or an '81, or even
something from allegedly lousy vintages like '91, '92, and '93 -- from a
reliable producer. These wines will be cheaper, they'll be mature (or close to
it), and they'll be a much more pleasant match for good food, good times, and
Just a few nights ago, for example, I enjoyed a 1987 Guigal
Côte-Rôtie Côtes Brune et Blonde ($35), an incredibly
balanced bundle of black olives, herbs, earth, and berries that still has many
years left in it -- and 1987 is considered only a mediocre year for this
The night before, I drank a 1991 Selig Muscat d'Alsace
Shoenenbourg Grand Cru ($15), a mineral and petrol version of this usually
floral wine, and perfectly mature from a terrible vintage in
Alsace. And I
didn't expect much from the 1993 Domaine Pélaquié Lirac
($5.99) -- '93 was a miserable year in the Rhône Valley, Lirac is a very
and the price seemed to indicate that someone was
dumping a dog. Nevertheless, it was a shocker: fully mature, spicy, and earthy,
with black cherries, mushrooms, and a good
acidic structure. I
bought a case.
Save the date: Tuesday, November 17th. Yup, it's time for our fall Uncorked
wine tasting. We had such a great time at the last one that we had to do it again.
Details are still being worked out, but the venue is all set: Cosmopolitan, located
at 54 Canal Street in Boston. Join us, taste some wine, meet some people, go bungee
jumping . . .
Thor Iverson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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