Vintage, in relation to wine, has more than one meaning. To the group of Japanese tourists over from Les Crayères, who I accompanied with Raphael Bérèche around his cellars, it meant (albeit erroneously in this case) the pinnacle of achievement and prestige – Vintage Champagne, Vintage Port, Vintage Madeira. To signed-up wine lovers, experts and neophytes alike, it poses a much more complex problem. Which vintages are the best, which are the ones to buy, or which to drink now?
Vintage! – I want to own some of these (at Bérèche)
There lies the problem. It’s all too easy to obsess about vintages. That’s not to dismiss their importance. We all hope we have some 1982, or if not, 1990, 2000 etc in our cellars and wine fridges, or something from our birth year to drink when we’re fifty. Or do we? One of the first misconceptions about vintage is that a great Bordeaux vintage will yield similarly wonderful wines everywhere else, so that “2000 was a good year, wasn’t it?” becomes generic for all wines, from Mornington Peninsula to Okanagan.
Swedish Champagne writer Richard Juhlin has an article in the current edition of Decanter magazine which highlights what for me is the major issue with our readiness to praise one vintage and forget another – drinkability, or when to drink it. His article focusses on two Champagne vintages which many wine lovers will have in their cellars, 2000 and 2002. In Champagne it’s generally agreed that the latter is a fine vintage, whereas the former has been labelled as decent enough, but not in the same league. Yet Juhlin’s scoring, based on how the wines he tasted performed now, rather than looking at future potential, showed little difference between the two.
To an experienced Champagne collector this should be reasonably obvious. Juhlin’s results show that 2000 is, on the whole and from respectable sources, a vintage of nice wines, many of which can be enjoyed now. As Juhlin says, and as many commentators have echoed, in the Champagne region 2000 is an earlier maturing vintage. Many of the 2002s from the same sources, however, are a good five years at least from being ready to try, and indeed most will go much, much further before we see signs of maturity.
Old vintages sleeping – sadly not my cellar
This goes for any wine region, of course. I’m sure we’ve all opened wines way too soon. Sometimes we just can’t wait to try it, fine if we have a case, but how many of us can buy top wines in that traditional quantity these days? Sometimes our enthusiasm just gets the better of us at the end of a convivial dinner with friends, accompanied by a good few bottles already, when something fine but obviously too young to one’s more sober self is just too dangerously close to hand. “Hey, shall I open some…”. No one will be capable of bringing reason to the table.
I was recently at a lovely dinner, a small group of wine obsessives round at a friend’s in London. We started off with a bottle from our generous host, Dom Pérignon 2002. Of course, it’s nothing less than a treat and a privilege to drink a bottle like this at any age, but it was obviously tight and very young. The complex layers which will develop over another decade or so were not really in evidence, just hints which the more experienced could sense. We followed the Dom with a lesser wine, but one which I thought would contrast with it in both style and drinkability, Jacquesson 2002. Certainly this was closer to maturity, but still it was very chiselled and linear. Also too young, though it will be ready sooner than the DP.
The 2000 vintage in Champagne is nothing to feel embarrassed about opening, yet I do know some wine collectors who’d turn their nose up at it. Woe betide that I should take a 2003, or (shock!) a 2001 to a tasting lunch. Yet there are always wines from so-called poor or lesser vintages worth buying. It has often been said that Isole e Olena in Chianti is adept at producing good wines in a “bad” year. In Champagne, another of my favourite producers has such a reputation – Vilmart. I certainly didn’t shy away from buying a few 2003s from Laurent, and I even went out of my way to get a couple of their top Coeur de Cuvée 2001. This fine wine is made from vines over fifty years old (usually around 80% Chardonnay/20% Pinot Noir) which is aged for around 10 months in 228 litre oak, bottled without malolactic. In any vintage, the care taken over this wine is extraordinary. The 2001 isn’t the finest Coeur you will drink, for sure, but it is one of the finest 2001s from Champagne.
Why is it worth spending good money on a wine like this? After all, a 2002 won’t cost you a whole lot more. Well, first of all, you can drink it now. Indeed, many might say you should already have done so. But say you did buy the 2002 instead, and you’ve never bought this wine before? You might try it in five to seven years from now and taste it during its early stages of readiness. Or you might decide to keep it another fifteen years or more from now, if you want to discover the majesty of Coeur de Cuvée. Having an earlier maturing vintage to plug that gap seems a good idea.
Stained glass – Vilmart
As well as individual producers with a reputation in “off vintages”, we sometimes see a whole vintage unfairly maligned in one region. For me, the perfect example of this is Red Burgundy from 2007. Hardly lauded on release and immediately after, for the past couple of years my friends and I have been deriving extraordinary drinking pleasure from 2007s from the whole length of the Côte d’Or. I bought few on release, but such was the vintage’s reputation, it was not difficult to purchase more when they hit the shelves, though I think most people soon woke up to how good, relatively speaking, these wines could be. Lieu-dits and Premier Crus seem especially good value.
1973 Rioja – originally rated a lowly “good” by the official classification, some bottles are now superb
The moral of this post is this. Whether you are new to wine and building a cellar (or wine rack) from scratch, or whether you already have a decent collection (one which others close to you might already be calling “too much wine”), don’t ignore so-called lesser vintages. They can provide you with some of your best drinking pleasure, like the bottles of 1978 Chateau Talbot I picked up by chance in the early 1990s. 1978 wasn’t hailed as a great Bordeaux vintage, certainly not after 1982 came along (though nor was it labelled a 1980 or a ’77). Yet those Talbots, and a subsequent bottle I drank at a wine dinner a few years ago, have given me as much pleasure as many a bigger name.
Vin Jaune – drink these too soon and frankly you’ve wasted €50
The key to getting pleasure from these vintages is the old wine cliché of producer, producer, producer. A really good domaine will always produce the best wine they can in any vintage. They limit their crop to gain extra ripeness, they sort grapes thoroughly at harvest (often in the vineyard and again at the winery), and they pursue strict quality control at bottling – anything less than extremely good doesn’t make the cut.
After that, it’s down to the drinker. We have to find out the best time to drink the wine of each year according to its vintage characteristics. That does mean a bit of research. Magazine tastings, Cellartracker and online wine forums (I swear by the infinite knowledge dispensed with friendly civility on Tom Cannavan’s wine-pages.com forum) all offer help, as do tastings (such as the Winepages Offlines). But there’s no doubt that keeping an open mind about vintages will enrich your enjoyment and appreciation. All vintages bring different flavours, structures and profiles, and it’s rare, especially these days, to fail to find enjoyment in a glass from a favourite source. For me, it’s ultimately about about what’s in the glass as opposed to what isn’t.