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Why you can’t judge a wine by its vintage

We all know the stereotype, some old fuddy duddy slowly removing his monocle after lengthy perusal of the wine list and loudly proclaiming “I will take the 1959 Chateau Margaux, that was a most splendid year”... But why not the 1958 or 1960? Is it really that much of a big deal? Do we need to worry about such tedious things as vintage charts?

The short answer is no. There are many reasons why you and I can be spared from memorising years and get back to slurping Shiraz and chinking Chardonnay. Firstly though, we need to briefly discuss why vintage has played such an important role in wines from ages past, and especially wines from abroad. Let’s look at a region of the world where vintage is fretted about more than anywhere else, where one single year can wipe hundreds of dollars off a bottle’s value. Mofos, welcome to Bordeaux.

In Bordeaux, vintage is crucial. Bordeaux is positioned right at the northernmost part of where Cabernet Sauvignon will ripen - its climate is very volatile and its vintages variable which explains why they traditionally planted five different red grape varieties. It was a way of hedging your bets so even in a poor vintage so you would end up with something that was ripe and drinkable. To compound this further, the French can be a somewhat precious bunch -  they like their traditions and their laws and they tend to stick to them. This means that if a French winery wants to retain its AOC classification, they’re restricted in many ways that us happy-go-lucky Australians aren't. Basically, if they have a shoddy season there is much less they can do to minimise its damage. This means if it’s a bad year in Bordeaux, it’s likely that you’ll end up with an average wine.

This is a problem with vintage charts and generalisations: they paint with too broad a brush. You’ll always have exceptions and to blindly discard these wines is a massive disservice to the tireless winemakers who have been out there in the vineyard managing trellises like maniacs and hand sorting grapes like squirrels on Ritalin. These winemakers and wineries with obsessive attention to detail and ingenuity in their arsenal are making beautiful wines in ‘bad years’ with all the odds stacked against them.

So please , don’t dupe yourself. Don’t judge a wine by its vintage, judge a wine by the only thing that truly matters - its taste!

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