The latest updates from the UK's leading wine specialist

Claire Dawson is well qualified to bring you this issue’s Master Class. One of our top WSET achievers, she was awarded the David Burroughs’ Scholarship with her Advanced Certificate in 2003 and the Vintners’ Scholarship and Vintners’ Cup when she gained her Diploma in 2006.

What is a Vintage?

People often get worked up over vintages. So let’s get back to basics on what – and how important – they really are. A wine vintage simply refers to the year in which the grapes used in making it were grown. So being offered a ‘vintage’ wine certainly does not guarantee greatness in itself. It simply tells you its heritage.

Why do Vintages matter?

Vintages are far more important for wines from variable climate regions than in warmer areas, where growing seasons tend to be much more uniform and the vines irrigated. This is because, as with any agricultural product, weather directly affects quality. Late spring frosts, for instance, can kill the vines’ young buds and significantly reduce the size of the entire crop. Such reduced yields can mean better juice concentration and quality, but often higher prices too.

The weather during and in the run-up to the harvest is critical. The aim is optimum ripeness, both physiologically and in terms of sugar levels. But when to pick can be a gamble. Rain near to harvest time is a real problem, diluting the juice in the grapes and encouraging fungal diseases. So should producers risk a weather change waiting for extra ripeness and potential alcohol, or pick early to secure the harvest?

The range of decisions open to producers means that some will simply perform better than others in any given vintage. So vintage generalisations are less valuable than producer-specific knowledge. Indeed, by finding out which producers performed well in ‘poor’ vintages, you can often find yourself a real bargain.

When should you pop the cork?

This is really a matter of personal taste. It depends, for example, on your favoured levels of fruit, tannin and secondary characteristics. Product-specific vintage information is a useful guide to a wine’s potential style, structure and anticipated maturity. Bear in mind that older is not necessarily better, with many wines – such as Beaujolais Nouveau – designed to be drunk young.

Overall, when it comes to vintages, the important thing to remember is that context is all. Branded wines aim for consistency, with any variations in vintages ironed out. But for many wines, especially those destined for the long haul, vintage information is vital. With that in mind, vintage charts are an invaluable tool to help you make good choices when faced with unfamiliar wines.

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