VINTAGE VARIATION reminds us that wine is really an agricultural product at heart, made in the field. To the owners of wines’ big-volume brands, this natural pulse in quality and quantity is a pain, affecting product consistency and supply continuity, and they avoid the problem as best they can by operating in industrial, hot-climate areas (e.g. California’s San Joaquin Valley), and by leaning heavily on irrigation.
Annual fluctuations in wine quality, and volume produced, become more marked as you move away from less volatile, lower-latitude regions, where every summer is brilliant (e.g. Sicily), to higher-latitude ‘marginal’ areas, places that are only just suitable for viticulture (e.g. the south of England). In these latter spots, growing seasons can veer wildly between Mediterranean- and Ireland-style weather, and the dominant conditions that year will have an impact on the end wine.
What makes a ‘good year’ anyway? Well, the ideal scenario (in wine’s ‘capital’, Europe, anyway) is a vintage characterised by above-average temperatures and sunshine, and dry – though not parched – weather.
More specifically, you want balmy weather at flowering time (May), as the potential crop size is determined at this time – if you get wild weather it can decimate volumes, with knock-on effects on price. High summer (July, August) – is not especially important, although growers in some areas will pray to avoid devastating hail (Burgundy), or work hard to ward off fungal attack if warmer conditions are accompanied by excess humidity. Winemakers wish for an ‘Indian Summer’ then for the month before picking, to aid ripening – potential alcohol will rise by about one percent each week in the run in – and keep disease at bay.
Bad years, unsurprisingly, tend to be cold and wet. Rain before harvest can be disastrous, as the water gets sucked up into the plump, ripe berries, often bloating and splitting them, and allowing fungal attack to take hold. (You can’t even spray fungicides this close to picking!) Even if the grapes don’t rupture the devil-rain dilutes the precious juice.
Old-style shocker vintages are rare these days as, no matter what Mother Nature throws at producers, a technical solution exists. Drought turned your grapes to raisins? Reverse osmosis will rein in the hot alcohol! Windy May cursed you with uneven flowering and ripening? Optical sorter will seek and destroy subpar grapes! But high-tech fixes like these cost money, so in bad years pauper producers flounder while more uptown châteaux have the resources to still make good wine, albeit in smaller quantities.
Vintage is largely irrelevant for mass-market wines, which invariably are blended from across vast regions to maintain consistency, and are anyway ‘corrected’ (aggressively manipulated) in the winery to smooth out any bumps that remain. These wines still bear a year on their label but the rule is always: drink as young as possible.
Vintage charts, or guides, exist for many wine regions and, while indicative and helpful, no one should be a slave to these. Vintages are never uniformly great, average or terrible, even within a small appellation; each year, some producers will have done better, or worse, than others. Good producers make good wine every year.