Musings on Wine

What’s the Deal with Vintage Quality?

We often hear the words, 'it was a great vintage' or 'it was a poor vintage' when thinking about which wines to purchase. It's typically an all or nothing evaluation of a growing season in a particular wine growing area and I wonder how accurate and useful that really is to the average consumer?


The fact is not all regions should be assessed the same for vintage quality. In some regions of the wine world like Niagara, vintage quality is bordering on useless information because of the huge range of wine styles we make.  In other areas, like Burgundy where only Chardonnay and Pinot Noir are of real significance, you'd be crazy not to research the various years available before spending your hard-earned dollars on a bottle. The way I like to think of it is if a wine region has 2 or more important grape varieties planted, then one all-encompassing vintage assessment is simply not adequate. 

In Niagara, we grow an astounding number of very different grape varieties. These are mostly vitis vinifera, or native European wine varieties, but also some French Hybrids such as Baco Noir and a smattering of indigenous varieties used for grape jelly, such as Concord but these are beyond their best days. For the sake of this discussion, let's focus on the vinifera grapes examples of which include Riesling, Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Pinot Noir, Merlot, Syrah and Cabernet Franc. 2007 was the best vintage we'd ever seen according to the media and yet we rarely heard mention of our most important white varieties, Riesling and Chardonnay, from that vintage. Why not?

Each of the aforementioned vinifera varieties grows differently from the other. Each is on a different schedule for bud break, flowering, veraison and harvesting not to mention different sensitivities to winter cold, extreme heat and aridity, spring and fall frost, humidity and various resulting viral and fungal diseases. Each grape will yield different crop sizes too which is another important consideration of vintage quality assuming that making a lot of good wine is generally considered a better outcome than making a little good wine! Good wine can be made from Chardonnay in a range of weather conditions which is why it's the most ubiquitous white variety on the planet. In order to make top notch Pinot Noir, however, a very specific set of circumstances must be provided by Mother Nature. Pinot Noir likes temperate, relatively dry growing conditions over a long time period in order to benefit from the all important 'hang time'. Ripening Pinot Noir suddenly with extremes of heat and lack of rain yields a very different, and less interesting wine with low acidity, higher alcohol, less complex flavours dominated by baked fruit and often hard, coarse tannins. This was generally the case in 2007, even though it was heralded the vintage of the century. Compare that to ripening it slowly over many months, including a dry, warm fall when the all important flavours develop and tannins soften and ripen. This was essentially the case in 2009 and 2011 and yet we rarely hear of the quality of these vintage because they had their share of challenges including plenty of moisture and cool periods. In the end, several  grape varieties ended up making adequate wines at best. In those rare years in Niagara when heat and aridity combine to permit the complete ripening of Syrah or Cabernet Sauvignon, everyone gets pretty excited, but what about Riesling and Pinot Noir in those same vintages? All too often, the whites and delicate reds are flabby and lack structure and longevity in the very same vintages where these big bold reds are juicy, full and powerful.

Further, in every vintage, their are producers who make decisions that are different from the majority. Perhaps its a case of picking earlier, or later, or maybe it's a winemaking decision such as less oak, or a different blend. You can pretty much count on the fact that in every vintage, their will be exceptional wines, average wines and downright disappointing wines. Great producers tend to make very good wines in all years.

Given all these possibilities, how does one establish whether it's a good, poor or excellent Niagara vintage? Simply put, you can't unless you are prepared to source a different evaluation for each variety, which is rarely provided. When critics get excited about a Niagara vintage, it likely means it was a hot, dry year. When their annual reviews, however, are lukewarm it might mean it was a cooler, damper year. The question you must ask yourself is which variety do you like most, in what style and align your choice with the vintage characteristics and producers that suit your taste rather than pay too much attention to one panacea vintage.

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