Vintage Does Matter

Paul Blow

I’ve been thinking about vintage lately. It’s become quite fashionable to say that a wine’s vintage—once a hallmark of classic wine connoisseurship—is largely irrelevant. Writer Hugh Johnson, as noted in the Grinder, said in his new Pocket Wine Book: “The truth is that vintages matter less than they did … when we take a bottle off the shelf we don’t need to worry, most of the time, about the year.” He says that the greatest appeal of vintage is to wine snobs, who will chase after and spend exorbitantly on wines from the best vintages, presumably ignoring the others.

He’s right, to a degree. The hyped vintages tend to be very warm and ripe, so if you’re like me and prefer wines that are more structured and balanced, you should leave the expensive bottles on the shelf. In a sense, what matters is the antivintages, the wines that aren’t hyped to the skies (and don’t command the sky-high prices).

The “off” vintages are named as such because of their proximity to great years. Let the wine lemmings of the world chase the “on” vintages, while you snap up the leftovers. 2000 Bordeaux are extremely expensive. The shelves are full of less pricey 1999 and 2001, both good vintages. I invested in a couple of cases of ’01s, knowing that I’d have to wait for them to be drinkable. But I got them for a song. This will happen again with the unheralded 2004 and the praised-to-the-moon 2005 Bordeaux.

If wine is something you like to taste and explore—not just a trophy item—you’ll get a lot out of sampling the lesser vintages. Sometimes, you’ll even enjoy them more. Burgundian producer Frédéric Mugnier of Domaine Jacques-Frédéric Mugnier said at a recent tasting that the 2005s (considered by some to be a perfect Burgundy vintage) are great, but that they don’t have a lot of personality. “Emotion doesn’t come from perfection,” he said. “Sometimes the most beautiful wines are the ones with a little blemish, something that gives them character.” He’s a fan of 2004—a cooler, less ripe year, but nevertheless smooth, ripe (enough), with gentle tannins and pretty fruit. And his 2004 Nuits-Saint-Georges Premier Cru Clos de la Maréchale is a classic example of the year, with fine tannins and supple texture carrying blackberry, plum, and mineral notes. It’s drinking beautifully now, but will continue to improve for years.

“I don’t try anymore to compensate for the differences in vintages,” Mugnier said. “I’m noninterventionist and make every wine the same way, having come to the conclusion that it’s better to let vintages speak too.” And ultimately that’s why vintage matters: Each one is different.

Jordan Mackay is a San Francisco–based wine and spirits specialist whose work has appeared in publications such as Gourmet, the Los Angeles Times, Food & Wine, and Decanter. Follow him on Twitter. Follow CHOW too, and become a fan on Facebook.