“What was the year like though?” a question that sends a shiver down the spine of any wine retailer, sommelier, winemaker or plonk aficionado trying to impress his or her mates with a prized bottle. While vintage variation remains hugely important to the identity and quality of a wine and is largely what separates wine from other beverages produced year-round, it is difficult to summarise the quality of a vintage in a score out of 10, as is so often seen on websites and in wine publications.
Australians, Americans and Europeans flinch at the mention of 2011, a vintage plagued by horrible weather, arriving at inopportune times for many regions throughout the world. We’ve had so many blockbuster vintages recently, why give the time of day to what is seen as a lesser year? Because often quality producers making wine from quality vineyards produce beautiful wines of great interest regardless of the year. Because maybe vintage difficulty is not in fact a perfect, or even good, proxy for wine quality.
The quality I most often see and appreciate in wines made in ‘lesser’ vintages is balance. Balance is generally thought of as one of the four main markers of wine quality along with length, intensity and complexity. Balance in wine is how well the aroma and palate components interact and harmonise with each other.
High-tannin wine should have acid to match so as not to overwhelm the palate, fruit intensity should match body and, yes, sauvignon blanc should have enough passionfruit and mango on the nose to counteract any varietal tomato-bush characters. It’s also integral to a wine’s identity; what we expect when we open a bottle and put our nose to it. Hunter semillon at 14% alcohol won’t taste like a Hunter semillon because it’s out of balance.
So how does understanding the concept of balance in wine help us destigmatise lesser vintages? First, I think we need to examine what determines the quality of a vintage in the eyes of wine critics and writers. We start with a simple proposition: the quality of the grapes will reflect the quality of the wine.
Fruit quality is determined by weather events that impact the vineyard, from when the young buds begin to develop in late winter through the time the fruit is picked in late summer, or even into late autumn depending on where and what you’re growing. ‘Good’ vintages are associated with a warm growing season with no hail, frost or anything else that might wipe out the tomatoes you have growing in your backyard. No news is good news.
In ‘bad’ vintages, vines will experience rain late in the season; hail, frost, or excess wind during flowering; or just not enough sun and heat to get things completely ripe. Rain late in the season can be especially troublesome as it is seen as having a diluting effect on the sugars, flavour and colour in the grapes leading to a wine of lower intensity. Late rains can promote disease by increasing moisture within the vine’s canopy and grape bunches. This all sounds pretty horrible, so why should we give these wines a chance?
Again, we come back to balance. To elucidate my point I’ll use one of the most underappreciated vintages from an esteemed region this decade: 2014 in Barolo. This region in north-west Italy produces some of the most coveted nebbiolos. Hail decimated yields early in the season and was followed by rains that ramped up disease pressure on vines, requiring constant attention.
It wasn’t labelled an immediate disaster such as Bordeaux in 2011, however with a string of consecutive outstanding vintages including the 2010s and 2015 being hailed as another grand slam before the ’14s were even in bottle, there didn’t seem much point in people forking out the rapidly increasing amounts of cash needed for these wines. I would like to urge readers to seek out the 2014s as they are inarguably good Barolos.
Now what makes a good Barolo? I believe it needs three things. First: tannins. Tannins with intensity and shape on the palate. Second: an element of prettiness. The aromatics should have dried florals, perfumed and preserved among the classic fruit and savoury characters you expect. Third, (and this one is controversial): reined-in palate weight.
Great Barolos for me invariably have presence on the palate from tannins and acid with fruit weight playing a supporting role. How does this relate to 2014? I would argue that 2014 has produced some of the most aromatically pretty, transparent and immediately enjoyable wines that the region has seen this past decade. And the quality that gives them all these things is the fact that they are balanced from day one.
Barolo famously needs years, decades even, for the tannins are screamingly mouth-dominating and aromatics are closed, brooding and overly savoury for the first phase of its life.
This is where 2014 shines. From what I’ve tasted the wines show immediate openness on the palate. The tannins are still unmistakably Piedmontese but surprisingly approachable and compelling. The fruit weight hangs back, allowing acid and phenolic structure to take the reins. Beautifully in balance.
The takeaway point is that in a world of increasingly uncertain climate conditions, challenging vintages may become a much more regular occurrence for both winemakers and wine consumers. However, give the wines from these years a chance, as you may find approachability and balance in their youth that can be appreciated, while your 2015 Bordeaux, Barolo and Barossa shiraz remain slumbering in your cellar for the decades to come.