Understanding Vintages 101

Wade Through the Hype

If you research “vintage wine guides,” you’ll find a dozen or more available to download. There’s Robert Parker’s vintage chart for Bordeaux, another writer’s for Australia and The Wine Spectator’s and Wine Enthusiast’s all-encompassing guides, to cite just a few.

One can only assume they are so readily available because some, perhaps many, wine drinkers need something to assist them in their wine buying decisions and in deciding when to drink certain wines.

Although most vintage guides downplay themselves as mere generalizations about a region’s overall performance, they still suggest we need experts to advise us because wine is too complicated for mere mortals.

The Wine Spectator’s 2016 vintage chart unknowingly undermines that argument as it rates the last ten vintages from every wine region and only one is rated below 85 out of 100.

And by the way, 85 is a “very good” vintage. So it’s all good, right?  Or, good enough.

Not quite. Hyping a vintage is one thing that several online wine merchants painfully overdo. One of the tricks is to trot out an average quality wine and then hype it by focusing on the vintage’s star quality as if that carries over into every wine made that year. It does not.

It is even more devious when the vintage rating is based on the 100-point system. The site will rave about the 95 points somebody gave the vintage and then imply the wine for sale falls within that score by some sort of magic.  It does not.

Critics who seem to enjoy ranting on about different vintages are living in the past holding to the flawed concept that ageability is the primary component of a great wine or vintage.

Now before you delete your favorite vintage chart or tear up the printed version you carry with you at all times, hold on. Some information about vintage conditions can be extremely useful when you shop around for wines.

The conditions that made the 2010 vintage in the Medoc, St. Emilion and Pomerol merit a 98 or 99 rating are weather-related. That means the rains came when needed, and the sun shone evenly most of the time and everything was hunky-dory during the harvest days. But those conditions were present everywhere in the Bordeaux region, not only over Chateau Lafite in Pauillac or Petrus in Pomerol.

Similarly, it was just as nice in the Rioja region in 2010 as it was in Priorat. And Gigondas shares the same weather conditions as its neighbor, Chateauneuf-du-Pape.

Our conclusion: in highly rated vintages, look for great values and bargains from lesser known producers.