Explaining vintages: we mean what we say

Pierre Mansour explains why you can trust the language that we use at The Wine Society

Pierre Mansour and Tim Sykes

The Wine Society’s main En Primeur campaigns - Bordeaux, Burgundy and Rhône - contain rich information on the vintage. The quality of the wines, the style, the successes and the challenges. Each buyer travels extensively and regularly, often returning multiple times, to gauge the vintage. We do this by tasting and talking with growers and winemakers, asking the right questions, so we can be confident in the way we describe a vintage.

One thing that marks The Wine Society is that we choose our words carefully and we will always be transparent in our assessment. This year’s campaigns are a case in point. 2021 had its challenges in France, due to tricky weather conditions. From the Burgundy 2021 offer, Toby Morrhall describes the wines as ‘pretty, medium-bodied wines with light structures of ripe palates and soft tannins.’ He goes on to say ‘as ever, in the most challenging years, the best growers, and older vines, have performed well above the average level.’ No hyperbole here. Yet a quick google search and it’s easy to find the same vintage being described as ‘exceptional’ by one renowned wine merchant.

I mention this because it is a pertinent example of how The Wine Society, with no external shareholders to please and therefore able to operate without the commercial pressures of other organisations, will always be truthful and authentic in our quality assessments. We do not need to chase sales, rather we believe in building trust with members.

Tim describes ‘what does a good year mean in wine’ and this is timely given his enthusiasm for the 2022 Bordeaux wines. There is no doubt in his mind (and mine, after joining him for a few days to taste through several hundred samples) that 2022 is a truly great vintage and one we can wholeheartedly recommend.

A good year

What does a good vintage really mean? And how does it contribute to the taste of the wine in our glasses? Tim Sykes answers these questions, and more, to explore what we mean by ‘a good year’.

Tim Sykes

Does a good year mean the wine tastes better?

Absolutely! A good year, or vintage, is one in which the wines achieve their full potential.

Does it relate to the weather conditions?

Essentially, yes. Vines rely on kindly weather conditions throughout the growing season to ensure the grapes reach optimal ripeness by harvest time. In the best vintages flowering takes place quickly and evenly in spring, the sun shines throughout the summer months, with warm to hot days and cool nights, rain falls occasionally and sparingly, and eventually harvest takes place in warm, dry conditions. That’s not to say that if one of these elements is not fully realised the vintage will be poor, but there is no doubt that wines from the very best vintages are the product of the perfect combination of the majority of the above ‘ideal’ conditions.

Do different regions need different weather conditions to produce their best wines?

Yes, very much so. To produce the best quality sparkling wines, for example, you need a much cooler climate than if you’re producing full-bodied red wines. The grapes that produce the finest Champagnes are picked before they achieve full ripeness, as a high level of acidity in the grapes is the key to making the most elegant, age-worthy wines. On the other hand, if you’re producing a Châteauneuf-du-Pape from varieties such as grenache noir or mourvèdre, you need plenty of heat and sunshine for the grapes to ripen fully. Pinot noir only reveals its most beguiling nuances of perfume and flavour if grown in relatively cool climate vineyards - too hot and the complexity of flavour is lost. 

What does a good year mean in terms of flavours? Does it mean something different for different grapes and regions?

Different grape varieties have different characteristics that are enhanced in a good year. For example, Beaujolais, which is made from the gamay grape, doesn’t like conditions that are too hot as overripe grapes produce jammy wines that lack the freshness and perfume of Beaujolais from cooler vintages. As a general rule, aromatic white grapes like sauvignon blanc and riesling prefer cool climates to achieve their finest expression, as do the lighter-weight red varieties such as pinot noir and gamay. Richer red varieties like syrah, grenache and cabernet sauvignon need plenty of sun and heat to ripen fully. If they fail to reach full ripeness the resulting wines can taste green, thin and tannic.

Do the winemakers do different things in a good or bad year?

Yes. Vineyard managers and winemakers need to be sensitive to the prevailing weather conditions and adapt their techniques and practices accordingly. For example, if the grapes are struggling to ripen in a cooler year, vineyard workers will train their vines (usually on wires) so that they achieve maximum sun exposure, thus encouraging photosynthesis. They might also reduce the number of bunches on their vines by doing a ‘green harvest’ (snipping off green bunches). This ensures that the remaining bunches ripen fully.

Does a good year mean you can keep a wine for longer?

In general, yes, particularly for reds. Wines from the best vintages achieve the perfect balance between fruit, acidity, alcohol and (for reds) tannin. The better the balance, the better the ageing potential. Note however that some wines are best enjoyed young, so holding on to the wines for years would be counter-productive.

Should I only buy wines from good years?

You can, but you’d miss out on many attractive, authentic wines with abundant character. Much of the pleasure of wine is the diversity of styles from one year to the next. Take 2007 Bordeaux, a vintage that was panned by some of the wine writers when the wines were released. But if you try clarets from 2007 now, many are delicious, with soft tannins, fresh, elegant fruit and relatively restrained alcohol levels. Clarets from 2005, considered a vastly superior vintage in Bordeaux, are generally still very closed and provide less pleasure at the moment than their counterparts from 2007.

Remember also that good winemakers make good wines in tricky vintages, so often some of the best bargains can be found from well respected estates and châteaux in less good vintages.

Is it only important for more expensive wines?

No, some really good vintages, like the 2022 Bordeaux vintage, produce excellent wines at all price levels. Our main Bordeaux En Primeur offer features wines at £10 per bottle which are delicious, and have the capacity to age for many years.

Pierre Mansour & Tim Sykes
Pierre Mansour & Tim Sykes

Pierre Mansour, Director of wine and buyer for Spain
Pierre Mansour joined the buying team in 2003 and was promoted to the position of Head of Buying in 2017 and then Director of Wine in 2019. He is responsible for Spain and Lebanon.

Tim Sykes, Society buyer
Tim Sykes joined The Society in March 2012. Tim is responsible for the purchasing of Bordeaux, Beaujolais and Sherry.

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