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Good vintage is all in the year

TIME and time again I've met someone who questions the importance of a vintage. Why should the same wine in different years, often separated by only a single year, command vastly different prices? Anyone who has tasted the same Bordeaux chateau in 1981, a poor year, and 1982, a great vintage, need not ask this question. Bottles from 1990 and 1991 are similarly fine examples of extreme variations in vintages and Bordeaux wine quality. It's much easier to let people taste and decide for themselves than try and convince them. Nonetheless, I dedicate this week's column to the importance of picking a vintage and trying to help readers be vintage smart.

Happy vintage

The most important, but not only, factor in influencing the quality of a vintage is the weather. Therefore, in the climates of regions in northern Europe such as Bordeaux, Burgundy, Champagne, Alsace and Mosel, where weather can experience extremes, the vintage of the wine is quite important. Conversely, in regions where the weather is more stable and where irrigation is permitted, as in the South American regions of Mendoza, Maipo Valley and Casablanca, the vintage is of lesser importance. In many tightly controlled wine regions of Europe, winemakers must make do with the weather nature bestows upon them, while many regions in the new world are allowed the use of irrigation and other technology to mitigate the variances of nature.

In brief, a good vintage anywhere begins with moderate spring weather, certainly no frost, with a balance of sunshine and moisture. This results in healthy vines and grapes during the season's early growth stage. But vines and grapes gain distinction and complexity through struggle so as the summer months progress the weather should increasingly be dry, hot and with plentiful sunshine. The more challenged the vines, the deeper the roots struggle for nutrients and water. The juice inside the grapes becomes more concentrated while the grape ripens to an ideal harvest point.

In addition to weather, other factors such as disease, different winemakers and ownership may also have a profound influence on a vintage. Money also plays a role. New ownership with greater capital to spend on winemaking talent, vinification and storage facilities plays an important role in a wine's annual quality. There are numerous tales of underperforming wineries who suddenly have new owners who invest in the next vintage with dramatic effects on quality.

Now or later

When you purchase a certain vintage, do you want to drink it now or save it for a special occasion in the future? Something my father did, that I often encourage my friends to do, is to purchase the recent vintage when your child is born and store it for those special occasions to come. When the child turns 18, graduates from university, gets engaged or married or for any other great milestone, nothing touches the heart quite like enjoying a wine as old as they are.

Recent standouts

I'd love to regale you with stories of the great vintages of years past, of some of the greatest wines ever made that many decades later still taste superb. Just take a look at the 1961 Chateau Petrus, one of the greatest wines ever made. Wonderful, but certainly not practical. Older wines from great vintages are scarce and cost a fortune. If you don't know the bottle's history and how it was kept they are also very risky investments. Fret not, there are still some excellent recent vintages that are relatively reasonably priced and suitable for drinking and collection.

Recent great vintages to buy now in Shanghai:

Bordeaux 2005:

"The top Cru Bourgeios wines from 2005 will provide super drinking over the next five-10 years while the 2005 first-fifth growth wines and best Right Bank wines will age beautifully and appreciate in value and taste."

Burgundy 2005:

"For investment buy one of the highly regarded Premier and Grand Cru wines."

Southern Rhone 2007:

"Many Cotes du Rhone drinking beautifully now, most top Gigondas will gain from some cellaring; top Chateauneuf-du-Pape will last for decades."

Tuscany 2006:

"Buy everything from this great vintage."

Piedmont 2006:

"Pick Barbera reds for drinking now and Barbaresco and Barolo wines for storage and collection."

Rioja 2004:

"Purchase only the top Reserva, Grand Reserva and Real wines from the best-known producers such as Marques de Riscal, Bodegas Escudero and Muga.

Napa/Sonoma 2007:

"2007 is the vintage to buy and drink over the next 10 years."


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