One of mankind's foibles is the inclination to generalize and categorize just about everything. In the wine world, the tendency to pigeonhole vintages -- creating convenient quality classifications of "great" or "good" or "bad" years -- can be as harmful to the consumer as it is helpful. In short, we have all become entirely too vintage-conscious.
Perhaps the first rule a wine consumer should learn is that in every so-called great vintage, there are poor wines made, whereas many a good wine has come from a vintage that was described by the experts as "poor" or "unworthy of consumer interest."
This can be an unsettling fact for many wine collectors. If not all the wine from a vintage labeled as "great" is in fact great, then how can one have any faith in vintage charts?
No doubt consumers will continue to exhibit blind faith and devotion to vintage charts. Certainly, the buyer can argue that the odds are stacked in his favor if he restricts his purchases to great vintages. Yet it is these wines that can often disappoint the consumer who fails to understand what to expect from such a vintage.
The criteria for measuring vintage quality are related to two simple factors -- how rich, ripe and concentrated the grapes are, and how tannic the wine is. To be considered a great vintage, the wine must be both very concentrated with ripe, intense fruit, and possess plentiful tannin so that it ages gracefully. These two characteristics must balance, and the wine must have adequate acidity to preserve its inherent freshness and fruitiness for at least a decade or more.
Unfortunately, wines with a lot of ripe fruit, tannin and acidity are produced infrequently. While demand for a great vintage is high, many consumers fail to consider the lengthy period of time these wines need to shed their tannin and to develop harmonious, savory flavors. For example, a good wine from a great vintage in Bordeaux, such as 1975, may need 20 years of cellaring to lose its tough, astringent, aggressive character. People who buy wine for drinking a decade or two hence will find this is an excellent vintage.
But what about the right bordeaux for tonight's meal or next week's dinner party? This is precisely the problem created by most vintage charts. When they appear on your wine merchant's shelf, these great vintages are almost always very young, and are really quite unsuitable for consuming in the near future. If you want a wine suitable for drinking now, you are better off buying a 1976 or 1974 bordeaux, or the soon-to-be-released 1980 bordeaux. All of these vintages will never be considered great ones; but the best of these vintages are more enjoyable for drinking today than the wines from such heralded bordeaux vintages as 1975, 1978 and 1979.
While there is nothing wrong with the criteria used for measuring a great vintage of wine, such standards mislead consumers by creating the impression that lesser vintages are unworthy; yet it is these wines that mature quickly and afford more pleasure than some tannic and astringent wines from a great vintage. These lesser vintages are especially useful for restaurants, whose clients would seemingly desire a soft and mature fruity wine, rather than a bitter and acidic wine which is best not drunk for another 10 or 20 years.
And vintage charts are rarely detailed enough to reflect the various micro-climates within an important viticultural region -- a factor that can lead to considerable variation in the quality of wine in a given year. For example, most vintage charts give one general quality rating to "California cabernet sauvignon or chardonnay." While California is famous for its splendid weather, the climate in the Napa Valley is quite different from that of Mendocino County to the north and Monterey County to the south. Consequently, it is unlikely that great vintages will come from all three regions.
Vintage chartsfor Bordeaux are even more misleading. In spite of the fact that the region has three distinct micro-climates and each has different grape varieties planted, virtually all vintage charts refer to Bordeaux as one region. The Medoc, Pomerol/St. Emilion and Sauternes/Barsac all experience different weather patterns. If you check any vintage chart, you will certainly notice that a year such as 1961 is listed as the vintage of the century for Bordeaux. Few people would disagree with such an evaluation for the red wines of Bordeaux. However, the sweet wines of Sauternes and Barsac were only mediocre that year due to different harvesting times and climatic conditions. On the other hand, how many vintage charts have you seen which rate the wines of Bordeaux great in 1962, 1967, 1971 and 1980? Well, such vintages, while offering mediocre to good wines for Bordeaux's red-wine-producing regions, were superb years for the sweet wines of the Sauternes and Barsac regions.
Certainly, vintage charts suffer from numerous shortcomings. A general overall quality impression -- while offering important information to the wine consumer -- should rarely be considered gospel by wine enthusiasts. And vintage charts should never be interpreted to mean that there were no good wines produced in mediocre vintages, or that every wine from a great vintage merits the label.