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  • 09 April 2020
  • Wine 101 Guides

Don't Judge a Wine by its Vintage

That word: Vintage. Outside the realm of fashion, it’s most likely a word that will conjure up a picture of an old fashioned wine shop offering you “The Finest Vintages!” or your stereotypical sommelier in a suit with a gold pin offering you “The Best Vintage of the Decade!” 

Is this the achilles heel of wine? For so long, wine - and even the simple notion of a year - has been marketed as a luxury product. Has this taken us too far in the wrong direction? Has the general public ceased to see wine as an agricultural product? 

The word carries with it all sorts of connotations. Particularly in the wine critics’ heyday of the 90s, when a critic pronounced a vintage “excellent,” it would see the prices of wines skyrocket overnight. But when the shoe was on the other foot, and a “disappointing vintage” was announced, with low scores dished out, it would leave consumers rejecting wines simply for having been made in a year where the weather didn’t quite go to plan. 

Wine professionals should know better. By declaring an entire vintage “disappointing,” it is not only a gross generalisation that is often inaccurate across the board, but it also instills fear in the mind of the consumer. Why wouldn’t it?! Who would want to buy a product that seems risky? Imagine if the same was done for orange juice because “the oranges had been subject to rot that year”? It’s likely that people would switch to apple juice, potentially bankrupting the orange farmers. In the worst cases, this means that winemakers struggle to sell their wine some years, or are forced to sell them at lower prices.

When a difficult vintage arises, it means a lot of worry and stress for the grower, particularly in the context of global warming where heatspikes and erratic weather patterns are becoming more and more frequent. But in the case of talented and passionate farmers, many of the toughest hurdles can be overcome, and the wines often turn out even more brilliant on the other side. It is often through struggle that one may achieve greatness. 

Guy Breton, Beaujolais icon, delves into climate change in Beaujolais and remembers the problematic 2002 vintage, reflecting on how much it has taught him:

The Beaujolais Climate

A Question of Terminology: Big vs Little

Guy is adamant that he prefers the wines he makes in “petits” years to the wines he makes in warm, ripe years. He emphasises that he seeks freshness, and delicacy. He explains,

“In my wines, I look for fresh aromas, and a feeling of finesse and lightness in the mouth. I like it when wine is discreet: the alcohol shouldn’t be obvious. This is why I often like the ‘little vintages,’ like 2016.” 

Perhaps the most famous critic of all; the now-retired Robert Parker, favoured the bigger, riper vintages, such as the Bordeaux vintage of 1982, which through his declarations he rendered famous. The opulence of these wines was testament to a long, hot and dry growing season, and the wines are considered on the “big” side. 

This is fine - even useful - for people who prefer riper, richer wines. But what about those who don’t? What about the people who like their coffees without sugar, instead of with two spoonfuls? 

It’s simple science: in hotter years, the berries ripen more, accumulating more sugar, which results in a richer and more alcoholic wine. According to vintage, alcohol levels can differ by as much as 5%. The French vintage 2015 created wines that were often sitting at 14.5% (and even higher in some cases), whereas in 2016, 12% (or even lower) was normal.

Neither of these vintages are “better” than one another. They’re just different. Perhaps a better way of branding vintages like these would be simply by labelling them as “cool,” “regular” or “warm” vintages. Perhaps that goes against the human instinct of always wanting to compete, or “win” at something, but when the person in question who’s being judged is Mother Nature… well, it’s not about winning.

The "perfect" vintages; those rare vintages where it’s sunny but not too hot, when everything is easy, will always be celebrated by winemakers and drinkers alike, but it’s important to understand what farmers have to go through when things don’t go to plan.

Climatic Hurdles

Global warming in itself means that viticulture has changed in just one generation. Where some wine growers’ fathers were harvesting in October, they are now harvesting in September, sometimes even August. 

However, Mother Nature can also show her angry side in other ways. 

Year after year (sometimes for hundreds of years) the grapevine reliably and patiently starts its annual cycle in springtime, after human beings have given it a hand during the pruning season. It will do this until it is either killed by a pest, disease or the human hand, or it dies of old age. However reliable the grapevine’s annual cycle may be, many things may get in the way of it creating the desired amount of fruit, and many seasonal problems may even threaten its life. 

Frost: the shoot on the right was hit by frost, hence is brown & dead. The shoot on the left appeared just after the frost, so is alive & green. Photograph taken by Jorge Temprado, Calatayud

Frost 

After the vine comes out of its dormant winter period, sap flow recommences and “budbreak” begins - little shoots start to appear from the wood. This is usually a sign for celebration: it’s a sign of life, and it signals the new vintage. However, particularly if it’s been very mild and this comes about early, it’s enough to get many farmers to bite their nails. 

The little shoots are extremely fragile, and if they start to develop when frost hits, it can mean a huge loss for the plants (and hence, for the grower). 

Conversely to what one might think, it’s not always the frost itself that does the damage - ice and even snow can actually work as an insulator. The problem lies in something that seems far less dangerous that time of year: the sun. If the sun rises to a blue sky in the morning, a night after frost, the sun will shatter the ice, and the new baby shoot.

This seems to be happening on a more frequent basis as early spring temperatures soar, so many winemakers are up all night on a frequent basis. Some growers use "bougies" - essentially giant candles - which repel the cold air, and the smoke disturbs the sun's rays. Others use giant fans or sprinklers, to up the temperatures. Sometimes, however, it's still not enough. 

Flowering occurring at the same time as a cluster is formed in the Valais, Switzerland, due to frost (variety is Petite Arvine) | This is what Thibaud means by it becoming complicated! Photograph by Dennis Lapuyade

Growers are currently underway with the 2020 battles against frost.

Just a few weeks ago, on 25th March 2020, a freezing cold wind coming from Switzerland hit Provence. Temperatures went down from -5 to -8. Usually hot air blowing from Africa protects the region, but alas, this time it didn't come to the rescue. Grenache, an early ripening variety - hence already far through bud break - was hit the hardest, and some growers lost 100%.

Meanwhile, in Burgundy, Pinot Noir is just about to start budburst, and Chardonnay is well underway. Thibaud Clerget of Domaine Clerget in Volnay was out in his Meursault vineyards protecting these young buds at the start of April. At just 28 years old, he took over the family estate from his father in 2015. Mother Nature threw him and all his colleagues a tough hurdle with a series of late frosts in 2016, that wreaked havoc not just in Burgundy but across France. 

“The vine - she’s very strong and will rediscover the energy to create some shoots again. But it becomes very problematic for pruning,” he muses. 

He made 60% less wine that year.

April 2020: Thibaud Clerget's Meursault vineyard with its "bougies"

The same vineyard: tiny Chardonnay buds to protect!

Up the road in Jura, one year later in 2017, Jean-Francois Ganevat’s vineyards were frosted three nights in a row: the 17th, 18th and 19th of April. Around 95% percent of his vines were affected, and he only made a miniscule amount of wine that year.

While cool climate regions tend to be hit the hardest, frosts can take growers by surprise, such as the night of 25th September 2019 in south Australia.

It's due to climate catastrophes such as these that wine growers begin négociant labels: this is where they buy grapes from other growers to make wines under a different label, in order to secure the financial stability of their families and workers. 

Battling the frosts in Burgundy Photograph by Marc Thompson

Morning after the frost on 25th September 2019, in McLaren Vale and Langhorne Creek, Australia | Photographs by James Hook, viticultural agronomist | This red colour turns brown and burnt looking within just a few hours

Later: wilted and dead

Fire

Perhaps the scariest to happen of them all is fire, and in a world that’s heating up and in which weather patterns are becoming increasingly chaotic, unfortunately they are becoming more and more frequent, being branded “the new norm.” 

The whole world’s hearts went out to the Australians earlier this year, when almost 20 million hectares burnt across the country. Billions, not millions, of animals lost their lives. In wine terms, wineries burnt down and vineyards were lost, and many lost their 2020 crop and wines due to smoke taint. The California fires of 2017 also saw many lives lost, burning parts of Santa Rosa town to the ground, and was the first in a series of fires that continue to wreak havoc in the state. 

California fires, 2017 Photos by Jack Edwards of Bucklin Old Hill Ranch

Jack Edwards

Jack Edward of Bucklin Old Hill Ranch was interning at Bedrock Wine Co that year. He remembers,

“2017 was already challenging. Heat spikes meant we were working like mad in the winery. We’d already been through two rounds of fermentations! Then 8th October came and it brought these crazy, crazy winds. My family had to evacuate from Old Hill Ranch, my uncle’s property, and I went to pack up essentials from the house. As we got close, there was a police block on the road so we had to trespass through neighbours’ land to get there. When we arrived, we saw the guest cottage had gone, nothing left. The fire had started to creep through the mulch that my uncle had put down around the main house." 

"So, we got our flatbed truck and put a ton of buckets full of water on the back. We drove around and threw the water wherever we could, including on a fence of a house nearby. I’m pretty sure that house would have burnt down if we hadn’t done that.”

The months that followed would see the whole community come together, providing houses, food, clothes, everything. It gave birth to the slogan of,

“The love in the air is thicker than the smoke.”

From afar, feeling utterly helpless, the stories and photographs were enough to make you weep, but Jack emphasised that the community spirit was unparalleled; it got everybody through those hard times.

Drought

Vines are immensely hardy and can handle droughts. However, there’s always a limit, and in extreme scenarios vines can shut down entirely to protect themselves, or even die. 

In the Swartland, South Africa, 2015 was the first hard-hitter of what unfortunately looks to be a series of drought years. Yields were down by over 50% and grapes that were usually lush and full of juice were tiny; more skin than pulp. While some of the most renowned farmers and winemakers such as Eben Sadie and Ryan & Samantha of Silwervis usually avoid irrigation at all costs, with the belief that a vine should be able to cope with its environment on its own; the farming methods should enable the vine to be healthy and self sufficient. Excess irrigation can inherently alter ecosystems and cause huge problems for the future. This is across all agriculture, not just wine; for example in Chile where avocado farming has boomed, entire rivers have dried up as there is almost no water left; it’s all been used to feed the avocado plants.

The beautiful old vine 1964 Silwervis vines: irrigation pipe in view: just in case

However, there’s a fine balance between nature and nurture. While farming without irrigation where possible is key, there’s also a line. If you see your vines suffer immensely and there’s nothing you can do to help them, irrigation may be the only answer. Samantha and Ryan installed irrigation in their old-vine Chenin Blanc vineyard after the drought of 2016. They didn’t use it, and still haven’t but Samantha says,

“We installed the pipes, as a back-up option if something like this happens again… we don’t want the vines to die.” 

Imogen Taylor of Nekter Wines was a harvest intern in the Swartland with Johan Meyer during the drought of 2018, just two years later. She remembers,

“I saw less than ten minutes of the lightest drizzle in 11 weeks. That was the culmination of three years of drought in the Cape. Day Zero - the day when Cape Town was expected to run out of water - was looming, and residents were told to curb their daily water consumption to below 50 litres. Showers were sub-30 seconds and every drop saved in buckets for washing clothes. When you consider the average loo uses over 10 litres every flush, it’s really not much. In the cellar, we adapted, saved and recycled water time and time again with endless containers and buckets. Somehow though, it just never seemed enough. The best shower I had throughout the whole harvest was cleaning the inside of the press!”

Sunburn

2019 saw some of the worst cases of sunburn Europe has seen. Some growers in Champagne, usually considered a cool climate region, saw temperatures soar well into their 40s, turning healthy berries into raisins. Down south, the heat was the most extreme: Tom Lubbe of Domaine Matassa in the Roussillon experienced 48 degree heat at the start of July. A Macabeu vineyard carrying a healthy crop was completely burnt by the sun. What had been healthy vines with green foliage and promising fruit became the image of what you might think was autumn, with shrivelled brown leaves, almost overnight. 

Hail 

When a flash hailstorm arrives that lasts just a few minutes, you might run inside to shelter, watching out of the window and marvelling at the hailstones jumping off the pavement, and then forget about it a few minutes later. 

Not if you’re a wine grower. 

Even a short spurt of hail has the potential to ruin an entire crop. With global warming also comes something less obvious than a heating planet: erratic weather patterns. For reasons that seem entirely random, hailstorms have become more and more frequent, and seem to hit the same spots. Not only that, but combined with strong winds, the hailstones are thrust into the vines at odd angles, hitting the berries from the sides. They are capable of knocking whole clusters and berries right off the vine, left right and centre. However, it doesn’t stop there: the berries, slashed and bruised by the hailstones attract various types of rot. Once this rot sets in, it also has the capacity to destroy a harvest, leaving clusters unusable for wine production.

We were with Pierre Cotton when a hailstorm broke loose last summer on the Côte-de-Brouilly in Beaujolais. Instead of being down about it, he firmly told us,

"You can’t just cross your arms when stuff like that happens, you have to get up and carry on, keep the morale high. It’s stressful - sure - and it scares me, but there’s nothing you can do about it. It’s a tough job - the life of a wine farmer. You work all day to make a living to be able to live from something you love. So no - you can’t get down about it. When something like this happens, well… it’s just part of the game. Too bad! You move onto something else. You continue. The bad times will pass.”

It was testament to the determination and bravery of not just Pierre, but wine farmers across the globe. 

Hail damage in Beaujolais

Hail damage in Burgundy Photograph by Marc Thompson

Pre-harvest rain

While less severe, extreme rain in the run-up to harvest can cause in the couple of weeks prior to harvest, the old nursery rhyme of Rain, Rain, Go Away, Come Again Another Day couldn’t ring more true. If it pours with rain during this period, the vine takes up excess water and the grapes swell, on occasion even bursting, attracting rot. This has direct knock-on effect in the winery, often causing problems such as volatile acidity, outlined in the earlier video with Guy Breton, where he remembers the catastrophe of 2002.

Pests & Disease

As if the climate itself wasn’t enough, each vintage also brings with it a host of microscopic, flying and crawling enemies, some of which you can’t see them until it’s too late. Tricky, wet vintages bring with them various kinds of rot and two types of mildew: powdery and downy, which can cause huge losses to growers. Every season might bring a new type of challenger to the vineyard, including various insects that feast on the grapes and leaves, and that carry bacteria from vine to vine. The latter notion is perhaps the scariest of them all; for many years growers were helpless in the face of insect-spread trunk diseases such as Flavescence d’Orée, Esca and “Dead Arm.” Thanks to extensive research and even Artificial Intelligence that costs each grower just six euros per year, associations such as the GDON in Bordeaux are making promising leaps and bounds, decreasing the amount of treatments needed per year by up to 30% - a huge result in a short amount of time. 

Growing vines is not vintage-dependent. It is a lifelong commitment, if not a generational commitment. Saskia van der Horst of Les Aarabesques in the Roussillon smiled when she told us,

"Yes, there are climatic challenges. Of course we're taking risks, but at the same time you're creating history; you're creating memory; and there's such pride in that."

So, next time we buy wine from our favourite growers, or try a new bottle, we shouldn’t be so quick to judge or to put a wine back on the shelf if it’s not our favourite vintage. Instead, when we open a wine, we should do a quick Google search to read what that year was like for the grower; to put ourselves in their shoes; whether good or bad, and raise a glass to them. 

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