What is a Vintage?
The term ‘vintage’ simply refers to the year the wine was made. Harvests vary year by year, to wavering degrees, and therefore the vintage can have huge effects on the end result. This can be both a good and bad thing, but what I really want to discuss is not the particular intricacies of different vintages, but more the wider discussion of whether the vintage is important.
On the face of it I would say yes. When spending upwards of £10 a bottle, I do believe that the vintage will start to play a role. Certainly when I spend upwards of £20, I do have in the back of my mind what the vintage was like and what influence that might have. This is particularly important when it comes to the wines of Bordeaux and Burgundy. Due to their location, the vintages vary hugely and good vintages can truly present some exceptional wines. For them, wine is about the importance and expression of place and time which is all wrapped up in its vintage.
However, what about Champagne? This appears to be an exception to the rule for many people. Customers are quite happy to spend upwards of £30 on a bottle, much of which is non-vintage. These fresh, citrus-based Champagnes, with slight toasty characters, have become synonymous with quality. It’s not widely recognised, however, that the house style of Champagne is made up of a blend of 3 or 4 years of reserve wines. These wines are kept back each year and then blended to make a consistent house style. Personally, I have always accepted this as a fact of 'wine life’ and never really wondered why this would be an issue; I just want the contents of the glass to taste good!
Climate Change: The Rise of Non-Vintage?
Without a doubt there is global concern in the wine industry regarding the impact of climate change and this could have a very real effect on the levels of vintage specific wines on the market. I have seen droughts in Australia, South Africa and Portugal in the last few years and this is to name but a few. Vines have started to shut down, grapes are becoming riper, with more sugars, and in some cases vines have become burnt. Other impacts are devastating levels of hail, which again has reduced yields. In 2017, Mendoza had such severe hail that up to 70% of the region’s yields were destroyed; some growers lost their entire stock. This presents us with an opportunity to diversify the styles of wine that is available. Instead of solely having vintage specific wines, which is proving to cause issues for some producers, maybe introducing more non-vintage wines is the way to go?
With Change Comes Opportunity.
I was presented with the idea of non-vintage premium wines when I met Karim from Altocedro, on a recent visit to Mendoza. During his portfolio tasting this question of the vintage came up as we did a vertical tasting of his Paradoux Blend. This particular wine is a blend of Malbec, Cabernet Sauvignon, Petit Verdot and Merlot, of which he produces only 4,000 bottles. Based on some of the issues that I have outlined above, he makes a small parcel of this wine from three vintages and the results are just amazing. A smoothly balanced wine with a firm and refined finish. Without a doubt this wine is stunning, yet there is no reference to the vintage, it simply states on the label Red Blend NV. Should this make a difference?
One problem could be when to drink the wine? With no year on the label we do not know how old the wine is and when it should be drunk. Note to winemaker: please put a bottling date on the label...
Proof is in the Bottle?
So in conclusion, if we are not worried about Champagne stating the year on the label, why should we be worried about other wines? Really the proof should be in the bottle and the simple question, do you like the wine? I don’t think in the near future producers in Burgundy and Bordeaux will take this approach; to them their wines are all about vintage expression. In the new world however, and to the modern winemakers that produce wines in these areas, new and alternative approaches to winemaking can be rather exciting. Who knows, maybe we will be seeing terms like ‘Super Mendoza’ being coined in the not so distant future.