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Vintage guide

One of my biggest bugbears in India is looking at a wine list in a restaurant or a hotel, and noticing that there are no vintages or years written next to the wine names on the list. It’s sloppy and shows lack of attention to detail. Often, specially in small restaurants, wine lists are prepared by wine or other alcohol companies, as a means of offering financial support to the outlet. In return, the majority of the alcohol listed comes from that company’s portfolio.

Vintage is very important in the world of wine. It’s one of the things that make wine unique, because it is due to the vintage conditions (the weather and climatic condition of the growing season of the particular year) that make the wine taste the way it does. If the growing season was extremely hot and dry, as it was in 2003 in much of Europe, the wine will generally be fruit-forward and have lower acidity levels. In very cold years, such as 2002 in much of Australia, wines are usually more restrained and show higher acidity. For a wine professional, and especially for someone studying wine, being familiar with vintages of all the major wine growing areas can be quite a task, but it certainly sounds impressive when extolled at dinner parties!

There have been some great vintages in certain regions in the world. Most recently, 2010, 2009 and 2005 have been lauded as some of the greatest ever vintages in Bordeaux. 1996 was compared to the practically unsurpassable 1982 vintage in Champagne. The trio of 1945, ’47 and ’49 is hailed as vintages of the century in many parts of France, and 1997, 2001 and 2004 were outstanding in most of Italy, especially in Tuscany, Piedmont and Veneto. In contrast, 2002, during which it rained a lot, is seen as a rather poor year in Italy.

Two styles of wine where vintage plays a big part in its quality and price, are vintage champagne and port.

Vintage champagne is very unique. Although only comprising about 10 per cent of all champagne production, it has attributes that differentiate it from non-vintage (NV) champagne. Its production methods are controlled by the appellation laws in Champagne. The most expensive vintage champagne is the préstige cuvée of each house, such as Moët et Chandon’s Dom Pérignon or Louis Roederer’s Cristal. Vintages are only ‘declared’ in the best years — when the winemakers deem that the weather conditions have produced the best quality grapes.

For the big guys, like Moët or Roederer, it seems that demand for their wines, particularly in emerging markets like China, Russia and even India, is leading to more ‘declared’ vintages than ever before. Vintage champagne must be aged in bottle for a minimum of three years before being released, with most producers holding the wine back for much longer. There are currently smatterings of 2004 Cristal in the market. Dom Pérignon’s latest is 2002.

Vintage port is an even rarer product. In general, only about three or four vintages per decade are ‘declared’ by the port houses. 1963 remains the most outstanding vintage to date, post World War II. Vintage port constitutes a mere two per cent of port production and it is partly its rarity that makes it so valuable. It can also be incredibly age-worthy. On Portuguese producer Dirk Niepoort’s recent visit to India, he cracked open a lovely 1937 that was still quite fruity and powerful.

Vintage ports are wines of high quality. They are neither refined nor filtered before bottling, so as they age, a crust or sediment develops in the bottle. Unlike tawny ports, which are produced in an oxidative way and thus are tawny brown in colour and can last for weeks after opening, vintage port is dark red, like wine, and begins oxidising once the bottle is opened. So it must be consumed like regular wine — as soon as possible.