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Once upon a time – and we’re going back 20-odd years – there used to be things called bad vintages. The summer would be cold and wet, or perhaps there’d be torrential rain from one end of harvest to the other, and the grapes would come in slimy with rot; but somehow – for reasons that shall be explained – that doesn’t happen anymore. Today’s wine drinkers have grown up in a world where one good vintage follows another, and the only question is one of style: the structure of one year, or the juicy fruit of another.
So why is there more consistency between vintages? Global warming helps, but clever viticulture is just as important; in particular, the insistence these days on lower yields for good wines – in a difficult year, a vine can ripen a small crop considerably better than a large one.
Alongside the warmer climate, growers also pick more precisely than they did, and select grapes at the winery more carefully, too. All these things combined mean that even difficult years tend to be middling-to-good, rather than poor-to-middling.
This is, obviously, extremely good news for drinkers. Especially since eliminating bad vintages is not the same as making everything taste identical. Yes, cheap brands taste the same year in, year out: that’s what they’re for. But that’s not what we’re talking about. We’re talking about serious wines that reflect the character of their vineyard each year, but express it differently in different climatic conditions.
For the wine lover, this is the epitome of what wine is all about: the fascination of annual differences, with no duds to get in the way. As Christian Seely of Châteaux Pichon-Longueville (in Pauillac) and Suduiraut (in Sauternes) says: ‘If you do a vertical tasting of Pichon or Suduiraut, you will find their characters running through, but with great vintage variation. Pichon in 2003 was extravagantly hot, in 2004 temperate, balanced and classic, but both wines are Pichon. We’re not trying to eliminate vintage variation.’
In Bordeaux it would be very difficult to do so, even if you wanted to; that cool, maritime climate varies far more from year to year than does, say, the climate of Chile. Mario Pablo Silva of Chile’s Casa Silva reckons that Chile has ‘90% less vintage variation than Bordeaux or Burgundy’. And, interestingly, the most adventurous winemakers there seek out extreme climates in order to have more vintage variation. Those annual differences in a fine wine – fresher acidity from a cool summer, lighter wines from a wet one, the subtlety that comes from a long growing season – are what wine lovers adore. But not bad vintages. Nobody wants those.
So the only thing that you need to worry about is when to drink your favourite wines; and that is complicated enough. Different wines mature, peak and fade at different rates, and while most everyday wines are best drunk when you buy them, top Bordeaux, Burgundies and the like should be kept. In their early years, they usually go through a closed, adolescent phase in which they can be sullen and inexpressive. Open them then and you may be disappointed. And you wouldn’t even be able to blame the weather.
What do you look for in a very young wine…
The tannins in a red may be startlingly grippy in the mouth; the acidity and tight structure of a white difficult to get past. But if it’s balanced, with a feeling of depth and harmony, chances are it’ll age well. Young wines, if they’re in a tight, inexpressive phase, should be judged on the length of the finish; the longer and more concentrated the aftertaste, the more chance the wine has of a long and happy life. In a good vintage it will be more powerful, in a lesser vintage fruitier and more immediately perfumed.
Seek advice from a good wine merchant – Berry Bros & Rudd and Corney & Barrow are very good for both Bordeaux and Burgundy – because not all good wines are investment wines, and those that are are super-expensive to start with.
For red Bordeaux, the top young years to lay down are 2009 and 2010. Look for good cru bourgeois and lesser classed growths like Chasse Spleen, Sociondo-Mallet, Poujeaux or Pontet-Canet, and don’t disregard the less-hyped years like 2007 and 2008, which will give a lot of pleasure in future. For red Burgundies, the 2009s are rich, the 2010s fresher and more classic. Buy the 2007s if you’re looking to drink them in the next couple of years.
You can buy an enjoyable basic Bourgogne Rouge from a good grower for £16-20; village wines are more, premier and grand crus more again. For Bordeaux, good brands like Dourthe No 1 (around £6) are good introductions to the region; while £10-20 can get some very nice ready-to-drink wines. And – of course – the sky’s the limit.