Last week I opened a bottle of 2010 Bordeaux. Nothing fancy – Château La Tour de By, a reliable Cru Bourgeois from the Médoc. Nope; still not ready. It hardly tasted of anything. It’s a ‘great vintage’ in the region, and eventually the wines will be wonderful; but in the meantime, nothing disappoints like a great vintage that’s not ready to drink. They might receive a 10/10 on vintage charts, but all too often I find a solid 8/10 vintage is a safer bet, costs less and ends up delivering far more pleasure.
A great vintage comes along when weather conditions for the year have been ideally suited to the region and grape variety in question. It begins with an unhurried harvest of grapes that are free from rot or degradation, ripe but not overripe, with concentrated flavours and good acidity. For reds, the quality and ripeness of tannins is also a key factor.
Speaking to winemakers, the salient characteristic of a great vintage is balance. Vincent Avril of Clos des Papes in Châteauneuf-du-Pape sums up a great vintage as “perfect weather, which leads to perfect balance in the wine”. He would add some other qualities, including freshness, length and complexity. Helen Masters at Ata Rangi in Martinborough, New Zealand, would add “energy, structure and concentration” to the list.
But a great vintage isn’t simply one that produces a crop of excellent wines; it needs to produce wines that speak of their origins. For Avril, this means “a real expression of the terroir and the domaine”. For Masters, “clear varietal expression” is part of the equation.
Along with balance and typicality, the other key attribute of a great vintage is longevity. It’s only in maturity that a wine can reach its full aromatic and textural potential. “It’s like a work of art,” says Albéric Mazoyer of Domaine Voge in Cornas, “it must be proved over time… it’s a landmark in history, something you talk about generation after generation.” As the years roll on, what wines lose in youthful exuberance, they gain in fascination.
A great wine can last for decades, but it’s a mayfly compared to great works of music or literature. A student of art can view ancient works and Old Masters in books, online, in museums. But if you’re learning to make fine wine, how do you explore the greatest bottles of the past? The farthest back you can look is a generation or two, from a dwindling and ever more dispersed supply of bottles. In the end it’s the great vintages that hold firm and act as batons for future generations, demonstrating what can – or at least has – been achieved before them.
It’s these great vintages – wines that everyone can agree on – that cement the reputation and fortunes of a domaine and a region over time. They prove that the wines are worth following and worth investing in.
The problem, however, is The Hole. Between youthful vibrancy and early maturity many fine wines go through a dumb period sometimes referred to as ‘a hole’. Like a chrysalis phase between writhing larva and beautiful butterfly, the wine closes down, it sheds its aromatics, its flavours become muted, it feels hard and gawky. It’s most common with tannic red wines and can last for many years in powerful vintages. Avril recommends that his wines are drunk within the first year or two of bottling, or after waiting seven to ten years – but not to touch it in between. It’s good advice for any ambitious Rhône wine, not just Clos des Papes.
Serving a wine that’s not showing its best would be an embarrassing error for any sommelier, so in restaurants great vintages are often sidestepped in favour of something more reliably open and enjoyable. Chris Delalonde MS is beverage manager for The Bleeding Heart restaurant group, and says what matters for him is “drinkability: a soft, gentle and precise expression in youth rather than having to wait a decade to soften the structure.” He’s a fan of under-the-radar vintages such as 2007 red Burgundy, 2011 red Bordeaux and 2013 Piemonte.
Laurent Richet MS is head sommelier at Restaurant Sat Bains and agrees that “some good vintages are hidden by what are called ‘Top Vintages’ and most of the time deliver great wines which, lucky for us, may come at a more affordable price.” He reminds us not to be blinded by famous vintages; not all producers or areas within a region will have been equally successful.
A great vintage is that rare year when the weather gives the winemaker all they need to reach their full potential; to make concentrated, structured, balanced wines that express their terroir and act as beacons for their region. When they are ready nothing beats their emotional impact. But this means decades of careful ageing during which they’re prone to extended closed periods when anything that’s ready to drink would bring more pleasure.
“Could you possibly imagine all Claret tasting like 2010?” asks Greg Sherwood MW of Handford Wines, “Or all Burgundy tasting like 2005 or 2015? We would never have anything to drink and the world of wines would certainly be a duller place… Some of the biggest collectors I know treasure off-vintages when you can actually get the allocations of the wines you want, often at cheaper prices. In the end, with a bit of age, they often end up tasting as good if not better sometimes than the great blockbuster vintages.”
That’s why rather than always aiming for the 10/10 vintages on a vintage chart, I often end up buying 8/10s instead; a balanced vintage that favours freshness and drinkability over the structure and concentration that can make a wine overpowering when young then liable to fall into a hole for a decade. Like my 2010 Tour de By.