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  • Richard Hemming MW
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  • Richard Hemming MW
10 Feb 2016

Disclaimer: what follows is an incoherent collection of contradictory statements and vacuous soundbites mostly pilfered from the internet to create an article of absolutely no value whatsoever.

It's an entirely apposite foreword for an article concerning vintage reports, a subject that exemplifies the evasive skulduggery of wine like no other. One of wine's great mysteries is its annual mutability. Weather conditions add a great unknowable variation on top of the myriad other factors that have an impact on a wine.

Yet vintage reports are widely agreed to be so generalised as to be largely useless. Hence their frequent disclaimers. Even so, they have the air of horoscopes, masterpieces of imprecision masquerading as authority.

Despite some uncertain conditions in the first half of the growing season, summer saw the grapes ripen across the region, at different times according to the variety. Local growers believe that quality is very promising, saying that the young wines are fresh, with bright fruit and vibrant colour. As ever, the best producers have achieved outstanding quality.

That's about as instructive as Sagittarius: what at first may appear surprising will soon become clear or Taurus: a conversation with a friend will make you reconsider your opinions. Such goonish inanity is an inevitable result of summarising something unsummarisable.

That they endure is more a reflection of our collective urge for simple explanations of complex problems than it is an endorsement of their utility. With a subject as complicated as wine, nobody can be blamed for wanting basic guidance, no matter how ambiguous.

Furthermore, vintage reports are by no means entirely without merit. Take for example Jancis's recent ranking of Bordeaux vintages. The top four vintages since the new millennium are agreed as 2000, 2005, 2009 and 2010 – though the exact placement of each might be debated. At the bottom end, the years 2007, 2002 and 2011 are unanimously decreed stinkers.

Anyone with a passing acquaintance with red bordeaux would see the logic in these choices, and would almost certainly agree. It is accepted that while some of the best producers may have made good wine in off vintages, they will have certainly done better in the top-rated years. Furthermore, this argument applies across the Bordeaux map, despite the variations in terroir between the Médoc, Libournais and Graves.

Bordeaux_weather-5.png

If vintage reports are too uninformative, then an alternative is the vintage chart, where numbers and symbols take the place of words. There is usually a value assigned to the overall quality of the vintage plus something to indicate how the wines are developing. The result looks suspiciously like a coded message.

91E 98T 96E 78I 95T 94T 94T 96E 91E 95T 91R 92I 95E 96T 78C 88T 85R 94I 90T 94T 95E 90E 93R 94T 94E 84E 75E 90E 90R 90T 92R 76C 86R 85R 87R 80R 92R 90T 85R 70C 92R

Is that really a truthful representation of the last 41 vintages of California North Coast Cabernet Sauvignon, as scored on eRobertParker.com, or is it a covert communiqué revealing such mysteries as how many bottles of Dom Pérignon are made each vintage, or the real production costs of a bottle of Sine Qua Non? One is only slightly less believable than the others. You decide which.

The Wine Society's efforts (below) are more like semaphore, somehow in keeping with their polite Britishness. The secret message below is probably more like wartime propaganda: Chablis Keeps The Empire Healthy or Do Your Bit – Buy In Magnum!

WS_vintage_chart_full-5.png

Analysing the Parker vintage chart more closely reveals something that might further undermine the usefulness of summarising vintage. Over the decades covered, there is a distinct trend detectable. In the 1970s, the average score across all regions and years was 83.4. In the 1980s it was 85.1, then 86.6 in the 1990s and 89.9 in the 2000s. Furthermore, the interval between highest and lowest scores contracts as time goes on.

We're all aware that wine quality is rising on average, partly thanks to an improved understanding of viticulture and vinification but also partly due to climate change. The sort of disastrous vintages that befell the '70s and before are literally a thing of the past. 

Assuming that continues, then knowing about vintage becomes less critical, surely. In this context, losing one aspect of wine's famous complication might not be such a bad thing. Going further, if vintage variation really were to lose significance, then the next step would be a non-vintage model: blending together the product of several different harvests to ensure a consistent high standard every time - as practised for tawny port, sherry and champagne.

After all, wouldn't it be better if you knew every bottle of Ch Lafite NV or Tignanello NV or Grange NV was going to deliver the same high standard of quality every time? Would wild annual fluctuations in quality be tolerated for Scotch whiskies or designer handbags or performance sports cars?

Arguing that unpredictability is somehow advantageous - an intrinsic part of a product's appeal - is exactly the kind of wine-minded argument that makes absolutely no sense to anyone else and makes us all look bonkers. It might sound sacrilegious to say so, but I'd be happy to consign vintages to history.