Taste Like A Pro - On Vintage Variation...

Reproduced from Year 5, Issue #20 of Spirito di Vino Asia...

Readers of Spirito diVino noticed that we score wines on a 100 points scale.  To reach our conclusion, we look for balance, persistency, complexity, precision of style, and finesse.  In this issue, we look at how vintage variations give the wine a stylistic signature and its quality.

As wine is made from grapes, how the fruits ripen throughout the vintage can greatly influence wine style and quality. Key is that during ripening, fruit components transforms at various proportion and at different rates: sugar accumulates, acidity depletes, flavors become more attractive, and tannins soften.  The best ripening conditions more or less synchronize this process so that each component are at their respective optimal level at the time of harvest.  Poor conditions affect this synchronization and create imbalances in components.  Another key issue is that each grape variety has specific climatic requirements to reach optimal ripeness.  For example, Pinot Noir can ripen in relatively cool temperatures in contrast to Grenache, which needs sunny and hot conditions to reach peak maturity.  Therefore, when a variety is properly matched to a site that provides the required conditions, the grapes ripen consistently and in relatively good synchronicity from year to year and yield a wine that is good to great, a score from the low 80s to the low 90s.  To obtain an outstanding wine, a score above 95, conditions must be absolutely ideal and if they are poor, the wine is acceptable in the best of cases and reach a score below 80.

This is especially true in marginal climates like those of Champagne or Bordeaux for examples.  In such a climates, weather conditions are less predictable from year to year and can readily experience extreme weather circumstances such as abnormally low temperatures, or unusually high amount of rain, especially at harvest.  In Mediterranean climates as those found in Sicily or Southern Rhône, the weather throughout the ripening season is less subject to extreme conditions and ripening can be relied upon to give high average quality fruit in almost every vintage.

Key to a vintage style and quality are the conditions during critical events of the growth cycle between early spring and mid autumn.  The two most important of those are fruit fertilization when flowering and fruit set occur in late spring, and fruit maturation, the period after veraison taking place late summer, when grapes change color and start to accumulate sugar and deplete acidity.

During fertilization, essential conditions for quality are average temperatures around 20 degrees Celsius, plenty of sunlight, light wind and relative humidity above 50%.  Conditions other than this hinder pollination and can cause problems such as “coulure”, when flowers do not fertilize and fail to yield a fruit. When this occurs, yields are low and can encourage abnormally high accumulation of sugar in the pollinated fruits, leading to imbalance of alcohol.  “Millerandage” is another such problem in which some of the fruits within the same bunch fail to produce a pip and cause heterogeneous ripening.  This can yield some overripe, “jammy”, notes and imbalanced sugar at the same time as underripe, green notes, and tart acidity, giving the winemaker nightmares.

During the fruit maturation stage of the growth cycle, the best conditions are warm and sunny days at around 25 degree Celsius to slowly accumulate sugars and develop optimal flavors together with cool nights to retain balanced natural acidity.  The more slowly this process occurs, the thicker the skin of the grape becomes and the softer are its tannins imparting a deep color, rich aromas, and a soft silky texture to the wine.

When conditions are less than optimal, it is necessary for quality minded producers to work especially hard in the vineyard to optimize conditions and encourage ripening. In the cellar, a difficult harvest requires an especially stringent selection of fruit and gentle handling of the berries at various stages of winemaking.  These techniques increase costs and the difficulties for the winemaker to achieve good results.  It is therefore not always correct to judge every wine as being in the same basket when a vintage is declared less than optimal.  If the producer was attentive and worked hard throughout the entire year, it is possible for them to make good to outstanding wine in a difficult vintage and each producers must be evaluated accordingly.

In the next issue, we will explore how to evaluate the quality of wines “en primeur” in Bordeaux.