What’s Another Year?

I contemplate alcohol levels, laying wine down and vintage variation…

I like people to enjoy their wine, drinking wine is all about pleasure. I also want people to think about what they are drinking and to appreciate what makes their wine enjoyable, so I thought that I would deal with three topics that are frequently raised with me – vintage, laying wine down and alcohol levels.

Alcohol levels in wine:

In my opinion alcohol levels, whether high, low or middling are supremely unimportant. What is important is the balance of the wine – if the alcohol is high, but tastes right and feels right, then all is well. If a wine has alcohol levels that make it taste out of kilter, then that wine is not a success.

No one should equate high alcohol levels with high quality or low alcohol levels with low quality – what matters is balance. Many years ago wines had much lower alcohol than they do now, so alcohol levels were a more important consideration when buying wine. I remember doing some staff training 22 years ago for which I needed a basic French table wine. Sainsburys offered two, one with 10.5% alcohol by volume and one with 12%. I chose the later as that extra 1.5% gave me a better chance of getting a wine with some concentration. I would not have had to worry if the choices were between wines of 13.5% and 14.5% as would often be the case today.

High alcohol should never be a reason to choose one wine over another.

Laying wine down:

My views on this have shifted enormously during my 26 years in the wine business.

Outdated wine language seems quite prevalent at times and ‘laying down’ a wine is widely seen as a really good thing. Why? It is an expensive inconvenience and, in my opinion, is not needed very much at all. It was only done in the past because wine was much harsher and tannic than today and needed a long time in bottle to soften. Happily that is no longer the case, most wine does not need to be laid down, the great majority of the wines that people drink are ready to be enjoyed at release – or nearly anyway. Wines today tend to have much more ripe fruit and softer tannins than even when I joined the wine trade.

In general I would say that only really top wines actually need to be laid down and I suspect that was historically always the case. By top I mean wines from the classic regions of France – Bordeaux, Burgundy and the Rhône – together with great Tuscan reds and Barolos, Barbarescos and the best from Spanish regions like Ribera del Duero and Priorat. There are others, but you will know them by their fame and price tag – they are not everyday drinking wines by any stretch of the imagination. These wines still need a little bottle age to show their true worth and complexity. Even then they can be laid down for a much shorter time than in days gone by.

If a red wine has a fair amount of tannin that makes it feel a little too harsh for you, it could be softened by ageing – but a few hours in a decanter or partnering it with a good meal might be a better bet for most modern wine.

Be warned when ageing wine, although tannins fade, the fruit fades too – so will you still like the wine if some of that sumptuous fruit has fallen away? I certainly like wines younger than I used to, with more vivid fruit and I am not alone in that.

By the way I draw a distinction between laying a wine down in order to age it and just keeping it for a year or three because you haven’t got around to drinking it yet.

Remember, if you open a wine that is past its best it is a much less pleasurable experience than drinking a wine that is a bit young.

Vintage:

The concept of the vintage is pretty important to the wine world, however the term is used in a number of different ways that really confuses things:

The vintage is simply the act of harvesting the grapes – therefore there is a vintage every year. However, vintage is also used as a word for the year, so we talk about the 2005 vintage or such and such a wine being the best of the vintage.

There is a great deal of misuse of the word vintage – I often hear the term ‘vintage year’ in the press, well every year is strictly speaking a vintage year – in that there is an annual vintage or harvest. I assume this stems from the practice of certain regions, Champagne, Port etc., that declare specific and exceptional years to be vintage years.

In addition the word vintage is frequently used, or misused, to imply older and finer examples of wine, such as when someone talks about ‘vintage Burgundy’. This is in wide usage, but is clearly incorrect.

Vintages vary because each growing season is different, but the concept of vintage variation is increasingly unimportant to most wines. By and large I ignore vintage as a consideration when choosing a wine nowadays – who made it is a much more reliable guide. I am quite happy to recommend producers that I believe to be good, irrespective of the vintage and to be confident that the wines people get from them will be good year after year – different, but still good.

If you are buying great Bordeaux or Burgundy, or wines of that ilk, then yes vintage variation is something to take into account, but even then less than in the past. I well remember the press panning 1997 as a poor vintage in Bordeaux. As far as I can tell this meant that the wines will age quickly and be ready to drink sooner than so called better years – surely this is a good thing for most people? All the 1997 clarets that I have tried have been delicious wines when tasted on their own merits – much more pleasurable wines than similarly poorly reviewed vintages of the 1970s.

Improvements in the understanding and application of viticulture and vinification techniques means that vintage variation has never been so unimportant for the sorts of wines that most of us drink everyday and it looms larger in people’s imagination than perhaps it should.

Of course there is always some vintage variation, some climates are less reliable than others and some years are just riper than others, but the general quality of winemaking has never been better and grape growing has never been understood or as controlled as it is now. So today we are able to produce good wine in circumstances that would have had previous generations of winemakers in despair.

By and large vintage only becomes important if you are drinking top end wine, or if you have a choice of year, or when are comparing different vintages.

Remember most of us only drink one wine at a time, so it is the vintage in your glass that is important.

3 thoughts on “What’s Another Year?

  1. Quentin, good thoughts as ever, and I so, almost agree with you! But, here are some other thoughts to ponder:
    ALCOHOL … Yes to everything, but in your final sentence, what is interesting is that for a few people it is now low alcohol rather than high alcohol that is sometimes a reason to choose one wine over another. I find that increasingly I go to look at the random collection in my cellar and choose a wine at 12.5 or 13% over one at 14% or more. But in the end you are right that balance is all (as in everything).
    LAYING DOWN … Yes again, but back down in my cellar, I’ve been finding the odd bottle of 10 year old wine from unexpected places (e.g. Uruguay, Chile …) and really enjoying the flavours that have emerged, so different from young wines – and a lot of good whites can be really great at 5+ years. Weirdly perhaps, as I mature generally I’m enjoying reds younger than ever (as you mentioned too) but certain whites I love more mature.
    VINTAGES … There is definitely another reason to look at the vintage if your shop/stockist is not one that does good stock control (e.g. a British small town corner shop or a countryside French supermarket!) – so many wines, conversely to the above discussion, should be drunk within 2 years of vintage, so at least, in the absence of ‘Best Before dates’, vintages give a guide.

    • Thanks Wink, I agree with all that, all good practical stuff. I admit I was writing purely in response to traditional viewpoints rather than more general practical advice.
      I agree about alcohol, it was the widely held, but misplaced view that bigger is better that I was responding to.
      I agree about laying down, I have all sorts of oddities too, but I didn’t lay them down, I just didn’t drink them when I meant to! And yes they can work, but my general premise remains true – for me anyway.
      Re vintage, I was thinking that as I wrote it – I bought some Verdejo from Waitrose just the other week and they offered 3 different vintages, I bought the freshest under screwcap, but wanted to keep my argument simple and relevant to the traditional view that I was questioning. It can help stock rotation, but I was saving that for another day! I was making the point that most consumers can happily buy wine without worrying about the vintage and I believe that to be the case.

      Thanks for the remarks.

  2. Pingback: Vivid Wine Decanter

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