On the (un)-importance of vintages

The Bordeaux en primeur campaign has come and gone as it does every year, resulting in the usual commentaries, analyses and articles being spawned. What always strikes me is the emphasis placed on the vintage assessment, more so here than in any other part of the world it sometimes seems. In fact, the general public tends to extrapolate the verdict of the 2014 Bordeaux vintage to France, or even the whole world. If it is hot in Bordeaux for three months, chances are that it will be hot in Burgundy or the Loire Valley as well, but large climatic trends only have a limited influence with regards to the complete meteorological impact on a given year’s harvest. Yet people tend to simplify things and pool a range of diverse regions together just to come to some sort of all-encompassing vintage review.

IMG_2349Why can winelovers sometimes be so obsessed with vintages? While there has always been a difference between good and bad harvests, the kickoff of the ‘vintage philosophy’ only concurred with estates bottling wine instead of selling it barrels around the end of the 18th century. Before that, you never were quite sure what you bought in a barrel. Bottles had the advantage of being transportable and more importantly, easily storable. Merchants and Chateaux (this started in Bordeaux actually) realized it was much simpler to sell a client a bottle than a barrel, and thus a new differentiating factor was introduced in their marketing strategy: the vintage.

There is a more philosophical aspect to the vintage obsession though. A vintage is a snapshot of a specific year, a reflection of a winemaker‘s work and the life in a vineyard. Of course, there is a wide range of additives or techniques available, enabling you to create nearly the exact same wine each and every year, but there is little charm to be found here. Vintage wine is something fleeting, an experience that can effectively disappear from this world, or at the very least your cellar. There is no such thing as a perfect growing season, despite what a winemaker will say. Everybody hailed 2009 as the vintage of the century in Bordeaux until 2010 came along and somehow winemakers have found a way to praise every vintage since then, be it because they genuinely made a good wine or because they are looking to justify their prices.

There are some winemakers who do not care for the limitations imposed by just one vintage. Champagne may be the most widely known example, as the style a house is known for can be achieved through vins de reserve and dosage, regardless of the quality of the harvest. Some wine styles like Sherry also pay little attention to the vintage character. There are few winemakers who experiment with creating a ‘vintage-blend’, partially because the vast majority of non-vintage wine on the market today is considered to be inferior, non-descript wine too often sold in BiB or in large bottles. In addition, as there is no legislative framework for a vintage-blend, the wine would have to be declassified to table wine in most countries.

IMG_2307I did manage to track down some examples. At RAW I met Gérald Standley, winemaker at Le Soula in Rousillon. Aside from a more conventional range of wines, he also produces a white and red vintage blend under the Trigone label. The South of Franc has traditionally been a region where different grape varieties are blended, and Standley simply expanded the matrix of possibilities. The final product is therefore a blend of 10 different varieties picked from 3 different vintages elevated in stainless steel or oak, that is a lot of variables to take into account!

The main varieties included in Trigone no. 14 are Macabeu, Vermentino, Marsanne and Rousanne from 2011, 2013, and 2014. Bright on the nose, sunshine fruit, lemon peel, even a hint of candied citrus complemented by fennel or anise. The palate shows the warmer climate with dense but supple fruit but there is enough freshness striking balance, ending on a slightly spicy note. There is a nice complexity to it, and an elegance that I wouldn’t have linked to Rousillon at first.

Up next we have Dominio de la Vega, a producer in the often woefully neglected Spanish region of Utiel-Requena working with an equally neglected variety, Bobal. Now, in Spanish traditional winemaking an estate would often set aside a part of the harvest to blend with different vintages. The most famous example is probably Vega Sicilia’s Reserva Especial, a blend of three vintages with the most recently released version consisting of 1994, 1995 and 2000. Artemayor V is another example (in a more affordable price range) and is a blend of 2002, 2003 and 2004. It is a single vineyard wine sourced from ’La Beata’, planted with 80-year old vines. Open nose with a lot of dark flavours, blackberries, prunes, licorice and a Southern spiciness. Full-bodied in the mouth, tannins that are present but integrated, a hint of alcohol but ending on just enough elegance. The wine does come across as quite youthful and could surely still go for several years.

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