De Long Wine Moment

 

October 29th, 2008

The Making of a Vintage Chart

Are vintages subjective?

Start of a vintage chart

8 out of 10 cats would agree that wine ratings are based on personal taste. Vintages, on the other hand, seem to be more grounded in the firm reality of weather and climate and their effects on the grapes. A good year is a good year, no?

I recently put together a vintage chart for an upcoming expanded version of our wine tasting notebook. Although I’m not a big fan of vintage charts, I generally find them interesting and thought yeah, why not include one? Just a little research to find the consensus and bada-bing bada-boom, a vintage chart. How wrong I was.

Vintage charts come in varying degrees of specificity, from the very detailed that describe the weather throughout the growing season and harvest to the very general which distill a vintage down to a number or star rating. This vintage chart is in the general category – I wanted to make it as bone-simple as possible and used a 1-5 rating scale:

1 poor 2 fair 3 good 4 very good 5 excellent

In keeping it simple, drink-now/keep/past-its-prime notations were omitted. Personally, I don’t find them useful. Especially now that you can just google, snooth or cellar track to see if a particular bottle seems to be ripe for the drinking. No, I just wanted a good general indicator of the relative strengths or weaknesses of each vintage.

Surprisingly, there’s not a lot of consensus out there. The following two examples – Alsace 1997 and Rhone 2002 – are pretty typical of how much opinions vary:

ALSACE 1997  
Conseil Interprofessionnel des Vins d’Alsace 5/5 (5)
BBR 9/10 (5)
Tom Stevenson 90/100 (5)
Williamson & Moore 4 to 4.75 (4.375)
Hugh Johnson 7-9 (4)
Wine Spectator 89 (4)
Robert Parker 87 (4)
Hachette 13/20 (3.25)
The Wine Society 6/10 (3)
Average (4.18)

note: my interpretation of each score is shown in (parenthesis)

The scores run from 3 (good) to 5 (excellent). I could have easily just averaged them to a 4 (very good) and called it a day. The problem with this approach is that the chart would then have virtually no excellent or poor vintages. Instead, I went with a 5 (excellent vintage) for a two main reasons:

  1. I found ‘official’ vintage assessments – in this case the Conseil Interprofessionnel des Vins d’Alsace – to be most useful in the sense that they would run the entire scale from excellent to poor. You might expect them to be biased – that every year was a vintage year – but overall, they weren’t. Some of scales did have to be slightly adjusted at the downside, though. Bordeaux’s lowest rating is medium – they gave their awful 1991 and 1992 vintages a medium – a little like Starbucks calling their smallest size coffee tall.
  2. One of Tom Stevenson’s areas of concentration is Alsace.
RHONE 2002 North South
Hugh Johnson 4-6 (2) 5-5 (2)
Tom Stevenson 70 (1) 55 (1)
Robert Parker 78 (2) 58 (1)
Wine Spectator 82 (3) 76 (2)
Decanter 4/5*(4) 1/5*(1)
Berry Brothers and Rudd 6/10 (3)
The Wine Society 3/10 (2) 4/10 (2)
Average (of my 1 to 5 interpretation) (2.1) (1.2)

*Decanter gave 3/5 for the entire Rhone, but with this note: Classic concentration and power in the wines from the North but a poor vintage for the Southern Rhône – I’ve interpreted as above.

Again, there are some major differences. This time, I took the averages as they pretty much reflect my impression of the Rhône in 2002. Also, it correlates with Robert Parker’s numbers. Like him or not, Parker is extremely knowledgeable about the Rhône Valley.

2002 Allain Graillot Crozes-HermitageCoincidently, we had a 2002 Allain Graillot Crozes-Hermitage (Northern Rhône) this past weekend. If it had listened to the vintage chart, it would have been only a middling wine at best. In fact, it was actually very good and an excellent example of what great wine makers can do in indifferent years.

It had all the signs of an off-year, which in this case means that the grapes didn’t ripen optimally. The alcohol was lower (12.5%), the acidity was a bit elevated, the tannins slightly rough, and the fruit reduced to a background player. A complete disaster? Far from it – the wine had an amazing intensity of black pepper and some herbal elements that would not have been so pronounced had the fruit been stronger. The intensity held up through a very long finish – the mark of excellent wine making. A four star wine in a two star vintage.

One of the other difficulties in putting the chart together was mixed vintages, where some areas in the region did well while others suffered. Hugh Johnson gives a range of number ratings (ie 6-8, 4-6 out of 10) which seems to be a good way to handle mixed years. However, in practice, every vintage gets a 3 to 4 point spread which sort of negates its usefulness.

In the end my method was this:

  1. Take an average.
  2. Look at the range.
  3. Decide who to trust, take the average (or both).
  4. Repeat for each cell.

Not exactly bada-bing-bada-boom.

Enter to Win Three Pocket Wine Tasting Guides

Not 1, not 2 but 3

The guide that’s been called “The Ultimate Wine Tasting Cheat Sheet” by our marketing department!

To enter, please leave any comment relating to vintages. Anything from a quick “vintage schmintage” to an doctoral thesis on “why vintages matter” will be accepted. Really, any comment will be accepted. Just keep it clean, Fred.

3 winners will be chosen at random Monday, November 3 2008 at 12 noon EST.

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  • http://printersrowpoet.wordpress.com Holly Wehmeyer

    My wine tasting group has not yet narrowed our tastings by vintage, but perhaps we will try it. Your wine tasting guide would be most helpful!

  • Dan Collins

    Don’t know about the vintage chart, but I wanted to tell you that I had the Wine Map of the Iberian Peninsula and the Wine Grape Varietal Table framed. They look AWESOME! Please hurry and finish the rest of the wine world so I can complete the set. Nothing like a little nagging, eh?

  • http://cowsandclover.blogspot.com/ Ryan Reichert

    What an intriguing concept – I’ve never been one to pay much heed to vintage. All I can say off the top of my head is that 2003 and 2005 were top years for Bordeaux. That’s it!

    I agree that it is entirely subjective, but you’ve got to have some standard if you’re going to measure anything, right? The subjectivity of wine – ie: I’m always right – is wonderful, but sometimes, as humans, we just need to give things a score.

  • Paul Connery

    Another site I found that had some good info re. vintage charts was FrenchScout.com.

  • Dirk-Antoon Samyn

    The thing about many Vintage charts is that they are mostly based on weather or climate conditions with a narrowed generalisation for a region. But they don’t take into account that in a region there are sometimes many different microclimats due to differences in height, slopes, etc… with very different results in grape maturity and thus also in wines. Few charts are mentioning that they are based on a extensive tasting of the quality of the wines from very different parts of the judged region.

  • lauren

    Adding color to your chart would help to. I am very visual and its easier to read red and blue, for instance, than 1 or 4.
    thanks!

  • Marcus

    I have the Wine Grape Varietal Chart, but was previously unaware of the Iberian Peninsula Map. Its very nicely done–I particularly like the inclusion of notes showing the latitudinal “parallels” with other wine regions of the world.

    What country/region is next?

  • Benno Kersten

    Personally I find it quite helpful to have a good vintage chart for reference to older vintages.
    I know the quality of recent vintages (say, going back to 1990 or maybe 1985) from tasting experience but when it comes to buying older vintages on auction a chart is very helpful.
    Ever read the Vintage Time Tables, by Jancis Robinson? Very interesting and well made, although now too old and outdated. Maybe a good idea for a re-write?

  • Kevin

    vintage schmintage

    I wish I was more creative…

  • John Knuth

    I like the color-coding concept as well. I have the variety chart (framed) and use it for educational purposes for new wine drinkers in helping them identify wines they haven’t tried and may like. The color helps visualize. Big fan…I too am waiting for the rest of the wine maps. Keep up the good work!

  • Dr Mum

    Back in the day… we would do a bit of grape -picking in the Minervois wine area of France for a friend who got ought of teaching into wine-making. I don’t know if this happens now but a wave of migratory nomad pickers would follow the vendange up through Europe. They were a multilingual lot, each had one backpack and dog, and they were walking encyclopedias of wine and often had a much broader perspective of knowledge than the actual vignerons.
    One of the best meals I ever had was at Monsieur and Madame Petites end of vendange party in Villespassans circa 1980. The itinerant pickers cooked a six course dinner from the simplest ingredients mostly “found” about the place….wild asparagus, mushrooms and some rice stuffed apples and a goat cooked on a spit rubbed with local herbs straight from the garrigue. Homemade goats cheese, figs from the tree outside steeped in brandy with cream. All beyond totally yum.
    But what made it the most standout meal of all time was the wines chosen to compliment it by a well matured Dutch guy who had the look of Mick Jagger. He described each wine lovingly before each course and there was a reverence there for the wines like a religion. They were all perfect compliments to each flavour. Encroyable! It was a leisurely meal topped off by a glass of Madame Petites homemade liquer. I was very lucky to experience such a masterly dinner event..I wonder if that still happens like that?

  • http://www.luxurycollection.com/turnberry Cormac

    Vintage has an impact on each and every wine, as does terroir; but the gift comes in understaning the two and being able to produce quality and character with each of these in combination, year after year. Come chose to try remain consistent in style, others consistent in quality.

  • Tobias

    I think you’re right to simplify the scores as much as possible, and all in all your chart covers France and the US West fairly well. In comparison the rest of the world seems overly simplified, and like a lot of regions are neglected. Some regional condidions may be more homogenous, but it raises the question of whether there ought to be more detail or skipped altogether.

    And as Lauren says, shades of something for columns always makes it easier to follow long lines.

  • Tommy

    Sounds complicated.

  • Jim Wignall

    The question is not whether it’s good. It’s how good is it? And, of course, how easily does the label come off?

  • Saiphul Singh

    As you so aptly put it, what it finally boils down to is the vintner and how the wine is produced. Good year or bad year, one create can create magic or produce undrinkable garble.

    The 2002 Allain Graillot Crozes-Hermitage you quoted being just one example. Another great one – the 2002 Giuseppe Quintarelli Primofiore.

  • http://www.ultimatewines.co.uk Paula Sindberg

    Very interesting – and about the same conclusions that I’ve come to over the years. What surprises me is not the variation, that’s expected, but the breadth of difference in some areas, especially in the Northern Rhone for 2002. I suppose some of the variation is based on what was tasted and when. Even if all the same wines were tasted by all the evaluators, overall impression might be swayed by in which order the wines were tasted. If the last few wines tasted were real dogs, that’s got to influence the overall impression, unless the final determination is made purely mathematically (e.g. – the average overall rating score or something and even that is influenced by order of tasting).

    Basic conclusion – at best a vintage chart is only a rough indication of quality and at least 2 charts should be consulted to get a more balanced view.

    And as far as your new vintage chart is concerned, I am most pleased that Austria makes your chart as well as Oregon and Washington. Just to see their inclusion means that they are finally making an impression – thankfully. And, as expected, my personal opinion on Austria (one of my specialty areas) differs from the chart. I think that 2006 was an exceptional vintage, better than 2005, and 2003 was very ordinary (many of the wines are starting to fade already and, even at best, many were just bizarre due to the heat of the vintage).

    Overall, a fun topic.

  • Peter Nickless

    Thanks for doing the work of compiling various opinions on vintage qualities. It is hard to keep up with so many varied opinions in the wine world from so many sources of “authorities”. Your chart would benefit from some colour.

  • Danielle Rockstad

    I have been running a women’s wine group for a year now. We continue to have a ton of questions, particulary from new members, regarding vintage. This chart will be extremely helpful, as have your others. Thanks!

  • http://members.aol.com/jmacbeth/ John S. MacBeth

    I know there are a lot of wine producing areas, and volumes and availability might not be global but Ontario is worth a look. Personally I think their Baco noir offerings from older vines are unique, distinctive and enjoyable. (The world likes the ice wines, I’m not so keen.)
    Thanks for your original work. I enjoy your sight.

  • http://churchillcellars.com Mark in Toronto

    No wonder we are all so confused. You’ve done an admirable job of ‘fining’ the quagmire of vintage charts into a relatively clear and focus document. One of the things I find most frustrating with vintage charts is that as soon as they are published, they are obsolete – the wine evolves and the charts don’t. Another equally exasperating problem is the inability of those charts to express any type of nuance. It’s a rather blunt instrument to base one’s purchasing decisions on: id est – if it wasn’t a tremendous year in the Barossa, then Stuart dumps more of the E&E juice into the Ebenezer and it’s a real steal or a négociant decides to de-classify some of his/her inventory and therefore their commune level Burgundy is better than usual, etc., etc., etc. Regards, from Canuckland.

  • Tony Selvaggio

    Nice job – thanks!

  • http://dungeonbazaar.com angel

    I feel like such a novice. Though when I first started drinking wine I gravitated towards the white varieties. Now I find myself gravitating towards bolder reds. I’ve even found adding a splash of wine to some of my already existing recipes will add more flavor and depth. I don’t do well at picking out what flavors are in a wine such as chocolate or currants but I’m willing to try most and give them a fair chance. I’d like to say that I either like it or I don’t. But as my horizons broaden I find that wines I maybe didn’t appreciate a few years ago are among some of my favorites now. And recently I’ve discovered Malbec which is fast becoming a new favorite.

    Too bad I just keep forgetting to write in my wine log notes about what I like and why. ;)
    I’m looking forward to using the chart we just received and experimenting with even more wines.

  • http://www.delongwine.com Steve De Long

    Thanks for all of the thoughtful comments so far.

    I added some color as Lauren, John, Tobia and Peter suggested. It really does help legibility, but I should have known that – doh!

    I especially enjoyed Dr. Mum’s poetic vignette of a wine culture that doesn’t seem to exist anymore.

    Benno, I’ve never seen Jancis Robinson’s Vintage Time Tables – are they detailed descriptions of vintages? Interestingly enough she decided not to include a vintage table on her extensive website. I can certainly understand why. They’re a lot of work for something of such marginal usefulness. Also, what vintage charts do you consult at auction?

    Saiphul, yes, I would imagine that Quintarelli could work wonders in a bad year.

    Tobias, you’ve hit on an important point about over-generalizations. Actually the Loire is at the edge of relavance as well due to a very disparate set of climates. It’s almost comical how Berry Brothers treats all of Italy as a single region! In the end, I just consolidated as many regions or countries that I could find data on. Yes, it’s far from perfect!

    Paula, I should have consulted you on Austria! Sorry! I agree that you should definitely consult a few vintage charts, especially if there is money at stake.

    John, next chart, I’ll try to include Ontario as well as the Finger Lakes.

  • Menahem Fuchs

    Thanks for the effort, would love to get a copy of this.

  • nick

    I’m starting to discover vintage… Will be doing my first vertical tasting shortly!

    nick

  • http://www.yvesdelage.com Yves Delage

    Hi,
    I prefer a system that rates wine according to it’s price. A good reason
    for this will be found in your article where you say that the “2002 Allain Graillot
    Crozes-Hermitage should have been only a middling wine at best.
    In fact, it was actually very good and an excellent example of what
    great wine makers can do in indifferent years. ”

    Thus a wine rated 1.5 means I would pay 1.5 times it’s actual price.
    This means that I would rate very poorly a Château Petrus.
    It also means I would have to change my rating regularly.

  • http://www.delongwine.com Steve De Long

    It’s time for our PRIZE DRAWING. Drum roll, please. . .

    From the random number generator at random.org

    Here are your random numbers:

    22 10 4

    Timestamp: 2008-11-07 20:49:09 UTC

    Congratulations Paul Connery, John Knuth and Tony Selvaggio!

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    I´m trying to contact yours to propose business and I don´t know how. Please contact us by mail. Thanks.

  • http://TheProvince.com/liveat5 vanguy

    Interesting stuff! I’ve always been fascinated by vintage charts.
    Good food for thought.

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