By Joe Gilmour
To be truly considered a wine sage, the ability to shake your head dolefully and muse; “No, 1971, woeful vintage, particularly in Pauillac – although Pétrus was just about palatable,” is indispensable. Such a comment might mark you out as a true, old-school connoisseur, although most well-adjusted individuals will probably just consider you a bit of an arse.
For a salesroom example of the power of vintages, consider the example of Jaboulet’s Hermitage ‘La Chapelle’ from the great 1961 vintage. Recently a pristine original wooden case of this iconic wine sold for £125,000 when the next vintage would struggle to realize £8,000. This is an extreme example but one that is illustrative of the notion that to truly understand wine you must have an idea on vintages to buy and avoid. So what exactly account for these differences? What changes from year to year give grounds to these discrepancies?
As any amateur gardener will tell you as they look skyward at the darkening clouds, the main factor affecting the quality of any crop is the weather, and the more marginal the climate for grape growing, the more pronounced this tendency, which is one of the reasons that one see’s more vintage variation in the old world then the new.
The key elements to a successful harvest of ripe grapes are summer sunshine, the absence of frost after grape formation, sufficient yet not excessive rainfall and lack of disease in the vineyards. Years like 1947, 1976, 1990 and 2003 will be remembered for their hot summers and great wines, years like 1965, 1972, 1991 and 1987 were lost to excessive rain and rot in the vineyards. As the grapes ripen, the sugar level and potential alcohol level rises as the acidity falls, making the decision about when to pick crucial. In a cold and wet year, leaving the grapes out for another week can make the difference between a saved vintage and a disaster. The temptation is therefore to hang on, hoping for a resurgence of sunshine to bring that extra bit of ripeness, but leave it too late and if there is no-let up in the weather you face having to virtually write off the crop. You need foresight and a lot of luck to be successful.
Which brings us to the human element, the other side of the vintage coin. There are some great years which have not been fully exploited by man, with examples including Mouton-Rothschild’s 1990, a wine that should have been better given the terroir and the weather conditions. Conversely, the next vintage, much poorer in terms of climate, was a relative triumph by the winemaking team. In some, truly special years, nature takes over the role of man and seems determined to smile on wine-drinkers. In 1945, with the vineyards in a bad way after the Second World War, the frost in June effectively did all the pruning that the workers didn’t manage to do and conspired to make wine of legendary status over most of France. The earth’s celebration of the end of the war, to romantic souls.
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