Vintage Chart Myths

By Dan Berger

In 1985, the cover of a national wine magazine trumpeted a story headlined “The Great 1982 Cabernets.” Four years later, the author of that article wrote that California’s 1982 Cabernets, on the 100-point scale, rated no better than a 78.

     How, you may ask, could a vintage go from one of the great vintages to one no self-respecting collector would deign to buy? In just four years?

     Such is the myth of the vintage chart and it points up the fallacies in any so-called system to rate such a subjective discipline as taste, and apply it to a wide range of wines from various producers.

Vintage Chart Myths     The fact is, at the time of the original article, many 1982 Cabernets were quite voluptuous to some people. These are people who love up-front jammy, almost port-y aromas and fat, rich tastes. Such wines were forward and easy to like.

     Is it possible that the author, looking for a headline story that would be attractive to readers, ratcheted up his view of the wines in 1985?

     Moreover, look at the context of the 1982 vintage. After the cool-year vintage of 1975, the two drought-year vintages of 1976 and 1977, the hyped and only partially successful 1978s, the cold, rainy 1979s, the heat-affected 1980s, and the short harvest season of 1981, 1982 came along at a timer when red wine lovers were looking for something to cheer about, something as great as the 1974 vintage.

     Most writers were starved for another “vintage of the century,” and 1982 seemed tailor made. Moreover, as the 1982s were being reviewed, the 1983 harvest was already in barrels, and was seen as dicey, an El Niño vintage in which flavors would not be classic. And the 1984 harvest was already in and many believed the wines would be good, but that 1982 would be better.

     Viewed in relation to the vintages around it, 1982 seemed like it was as good as it was going to get for a while. In that context, hyping the 1982s wasn’t a bad idea.

     Looking at vintage charts from around the world, you get the feeling that there is a fixed-in-stone element to all of this. Yet many of the rankings are based on concentration, not quality.

  Vintage chart fallacies abound.

–In every modern-era vintage (from about 1980 on), there have been very few if any flat-out disaster vintages.

–Most California vintage charts assume that Sonoma gets fewer points for some wines than does exalted Napa.

–Regions that are adjacent often are lumped together illogically. For instance, in Napa in 1984, Spring Mountain wineries made stellar wines but not in 1985. Yet every major wine critic loved all the 1985s better than the 1984s.

–Old rating stay with wines for decades, long after the vintages should have separated themselves into better or worse ratings.

     Another aspect to the older ratings that irks me: they assume perfect storage conditions for every bottle. If there is one thing you can count on it is bad storage for most older wines.

     And there are many other problems here. One of them is the relative nature of the rankings. Look, for example, at a vintage chart that rated California’s 1989 north coast Chardonnays as poor with the same vintage’s Cabernets (83). That seems fair, doesn’t it? After all, it was the same vintage.

     Yet the grapes are radically different. The early ripening Chardonnay was hard hit by early rains, and most wines turned out poor. But late-ripening Cabernet survived the early rains, and many 1989 Cabernets turned out to be superb.

     Finally, the one major problem with vintage charts is that in some areas (such as California and Chile) they have little meaning, and in others (Portugal, Champagne, Burgundy) they are far more meaningful. Yet even in the latter case, there are exceptions.

     For example, though 1992 was a poor year for red Burgundy, chances are a bottle from Domaine Dujac would be a better bet today than any 1994 (a better year) from an unknown producer.

     As goes the old saying, there are no great wines, only great bottles of wine.

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