Do vintages matter?

The wine world is awash with talk of the quality of vintages. It’s true, winemakers are at the mercy of the elements, but does Mother Nature really have a big impact on the finished wine?

Do vintages matter?

Well, do vintages matter? The short answer is yes, of course they do. One of the greatest joys of wine is that not all are created equal, and none of them live forever. Vintage variation is one of the biggest factors in this range of quality – and truly great vintages go down in history. But as winemaking and vineyard management techniques advance at a giddying pace, will we still have ‘bad’ vintages? Will it begin to matter less? I sat down with our Director of Wine, Pierre Mansour, and Fine Wine Manager Shaun Kiernan to discover more.

‘Wine is fundamentally an agricultural product,’ Pierre notes. ‘And vintages are a reminder of that. Every year produces different results, challenges and opportunities. It’s why people love wine: there is always a new vintage to be excited and curious about. But in the past 20 years, there has been so much consistency from vintage to vintage. Growers have become so much better at understanding their vineyards and managing them very well – even in some challenging areas that are seeing climate change.

Vintage variation

‘If I go to back to when I first started working in wine – the 1980s and 1990s – at least half of those years would be considered pretty poor quality. You’d just write them off. But then from the 2000s onwards, quality has been more consistent. Now, what you look out for from vintage to vintage are stylistic nuances. For example, 2022 was very dry and hot, producing very forward, delicious wines. But 2021 was cooler, wetter, but produced much fresher wines.’

It’s not just the wines themselves that are changing – vintage variation severely affects the yields, the amount of grapes harvested during a vintage. ‘It’s by far the biggest impact from the climate,’ says Pierre. ‘2021 and 2020 saw very small yields in the classic areas of Europe. Whether it’s frost coming much later than normal or extreme weather events like drought, hail, rain or the increasing pressure of rot – there is a significant impact from climate change. In Bordeaux, they’re currently experimenting with touriga nacional that thrives better in the rising temperatures.’

You can read more about Bordeaux's new climate-change busting varieties in Tim Sykes' article on the subject.

Saint-Aubin in Burgundy is now proving its worth against the region’s more celebrated appellations such as Pommard
Saint-Aubin in Burgundy is now proving its worth against the region’s more celebrated appellations such as Pommard

It seems that the changing climate is redrawing the notion of terroir itself. What we’ve come to expect from different appellations, it seems, is shifting. too. ‘Some Burgundy appellations that were previously regarded as inferior are now producing really lovely wines. Places such as Saint-Aubin and Santenay, when you line them up against the likes of Nuits-Saint-Georges and Pommard, they’re exceptional.’

But what about outside classic European regions? Do vintages matter in the southern hemisphere, too? ‘With places like Chile, Argentina and Australia, you don’t get so much marked vintage variation, but it’s difficult to generalise.’

Use wine vintage charts

Are there any quick fixes to identify a wine worth drinking? ‘If you’re in a restaurant and need to quickly suss out if a vintage is a good one, a vintage chart can be really helpful,’ says Shaun. ‘You can obviously see the best vintages, but look at the more underrated vintages, too. Now, because of vintage consistency, some vintages that were overlooked and weren’t considered good quality now represent great value. You can pick up some real bargains in 2017 claret, for example, which are so much more forward stylistically than people expected them to be.’

So, do vintages matter? Well, it seems that despite mounting challenges posed by climate change, winemakers can be increasingly relied on to produce something exceptional – even from difficult vintages. But, if you have any questions on specific wines from different vintages, don’t hesitate to get in touch with our wine adviser team.

Hannah Crosbie

Content writer

Hannah Crosbie

Hannah has written about wine for a variety of retailers, magazines and national newspapers. She occasionally works as a content writer for The Society.

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