The Importance of Vintage Variation

POSTED ON 01/12/2009

Imagine receiving your 200 Wine Gang notes a month with an omission: the vintage of every wine we write about. How would you feel? Offended? Frustrated at not knowing which vintage to buy? Short-changed? You're by now beginning to get some sense of how readers of Matt Skinner's The Juice 2010 might have felt when they discovered that the publishers, Mitchell Beazley, had listed a number of New World wines from the 2009 vintage that were not tasted by the author, despite his admission in a statement issued by the publisher that it was 'imperative that I taste all the wines that I recommend'.

The Wine GangThe Wine Gang

The Aussie sommelier and wine critic's justification was that to squeeze them into the deadline in time, 'there are some releases that are consistent from year to year, and as popular, good value and accessible wines I want to include them because I know that my readers will appreciate them'. Let's take just one example: the Nepenthe Adelaide Hills Sauvignon Blanc. The 2008 vintage won a gold medal in this year's Decanter World Wine Awards, but not because it's consistent from year to year. It was exceptional in 2008 because Nepenthe's winemaker at the time, Michael Fogarty, was given the carte blanche to pick the eyes out of a rather ordinary vintage thanks to slow orders.

Instead of holding its hand up and admitting its mistake, Mitchell Beazley's commissioning editor Hilary Lumsden went into denial mode. 'For our first edition, in 2006, the feedback we got was that by the time people went out and bought the book, the wines were already off the shelves, so the book was effectively out of date. We either upset one side or the other. The majority of the wines in The Juice don't rely on vintage variation. A lot of them are going to be consistent each vintage.' School not so much of Hugh Johnson and Jancis Robinson, who Mitchell Beazley has on its books, as Kingsley Amis: 'Vintage - aargh! Most of the crap talked about wine centres on these'.

Mitchell Beazley is not alone in this disingenuous approach. Robert Parker's Great Value Wines published by Dorling Kindersley is a book that promises 'seriously good wine at remarkably good prices', trumpeting 'more than 3000 wines recommended'. There is one small problem in what might otherwise be an indispensable guide in these recessionary times: no vintages. While every wine is described as though it were a wine from a specific vintage, the reader can glean no more than a general impression of the wine and it s value because there is no inkling as to which vintage the note refers. Yet as Parker himself points out in his introduction to the Bordeaux section, 'vintage variations in quality are reflected in dramatically different prices'.

The word vintage comes from the French 'vendange', meaning harvest. Wine is an agricultural product which changes in taste and quality from year to year by virtue of the variation in weather during the growing season, and particularly the harvest. If Bordeaux' wines for instance didn't change radically in character and quality from one year to the next, would we need to bother tasting and assessing them every year? Why not simply increase the price in line with inflation every year to reflect its unchanging nature? Why bother to hold vertical tastings if not to assess t he myriad changes in the same wine from one year to the next that give that wine its special character and value? Bordeaux is not alone. In any region, whether French, European or New World, the weather is the unpredictable, annual x-factor that brings change, novelty and interest to wine.

Some have defended Mitchell Beazley on the grounds that the time lag between tasting and publication makes it difficult if not impossible to include all the wines the publisher and / or critic wants included. But in today's fast-moving world in which tasting notes are readily available via the internet, viz., the inability of publishers to keep up with the latest technology hardly excuses cutting corners. I've also seen it said that 'most people don't give two hoots what is said by wine writers', and maybe we are a bit puffed-up on occasions, but let's get back to the central point: if you're paying for a service, are you not entitled to honest professional advice? To pretend that vintage variation in wine is of little importance is plain wrong. Any attempt to hoodwink the consumer with cynically disingenuous statements can only undermine the credibility of author and publisher.

Our sponsor