Vintage, does it really matter?
In short, yes it does. The weather, consistent or volatile, cool or hot, shapes everything that happens in the vineyard, which gives the winemaker the grapes to play with.
It is the parent of the child, the creator of the beast, Mary Shelley to Franken-wine.
It can be complicated with so many regions and climates to consider, even just within Australia, but they can be broadly broken down into three climates - Hot, Warm and Cool.
This is the guys up in Riverland, Riverina and Sunraysia. The by-words here are consistency and reliability. The sun is warm for endless days and water flows straight out of the rivers to irrigate the vines.
Vintage variation means the least to these dudes. They’re steady. They’re consistent. They’re reliable. They drive trucks and drink cold beers. They’re stable. Their element is Earth.
This is the likes of Barossa, McLaren, Coonawarra, Clare, Margaret River, Hunter and Central Victoria.
Broadly reliable but susceptible to major eruptions from time. Not actual eruptions, but biblical-esque disasters none the less. Fires, droughts, floods can have major impacts on supply and quality. Their element is Water.
Think Yarra, Mornington, Geelong, Canberra, Adelaide Hills, Great Southern and Henty.
These regions exist on the fringe of winery civilisation. This is your alternative crowd, pinot-philes and gamblers, staking their income on whether their pinot noir or riesling will tip into ripeness before autumn closes in. It’s usually either awesome, or awful. Their element is Fire.
A bad vintage?
In the last 10 years only 2011 was a major ‘bad vintage’ over a broad array of Australia, with notable exceptions for parts of WA and NSW. Cool conditions throughout the growing season exacerbated by heavy rain at vintage caused dilution of wines across VIC and SA. Not all wines were affected to the same extent but punters have long treated this vintage with caution.
After that it is a case of knowing each regional climate as you drink it.
Smoke taint caused big problems across the Yarra in 2009, and King Valley in 2007.
Overcoming vintage variation
Benefit of blends
Merlot ripens at least a week before cabernet, so it often makes sense to have both planted nearby, as they do most famously in Bordeaux, and also Margaret River. The grapes complement each other in the final blend and give the winemaker increased options as the weather closes in around harvest.
A big deal is often made about single vineyard wines, however multi-vineyard blends offer far greater flexibility, protection and in theory, quality. Penfolds are the biggest exponent of this in Australia. Selecting the best grapes from a variety of vineyards around SA ensures the best of the best get used in Grange, whatever the vintage conditions.
Adaptability, and even humility, is key.
In the Yarra running up to 2011 it was highly fashionable to do whole bunch fermentation. In a cool year like 2011 however, that approach produced green, hard wines.
The winemakers who adapted to the conditions, rather than imposing themselves upon them, are those who triumph in the difficult years.
Yes vintage is important. It is the personality and very essence of a wine. But like personalities, there are a wide array and you can easily find consistency if you so desire it.
For those buyers who prefer risk, consider the following adage, long followed by purchasers of Bordeaux, Barolo and Burgundies.
Buy the best producer you can in a bad year, they always produce good wine. Take your chances on new producers in the good years. That is where the value lies.