2019 Vintage | What Does a Vintage Actually Mean?
Jane Masters MW is Opimian’s Master of Wine
The concept of vintage wine has been around for millenia. Indeed, our Club takes its name from Opimian wine, made for Lucius Opimius in the year 121 BC—a highly prized wine that was drunk and written about by Cicero and Pliny the Elder over many years. Vintage ports and vintage Champagnes are only made in the very best years, but most wines are made each year and vintage simply denotes the year the grapes were harvested to produce it.
Vintage is noted because conditions during the vine growing season can have an impact on the quality and quantity of grapes produced. Frost, rainfall or lack thereof, high temperatures, hail and wind can all affect grapes, particularly at bud-break, flowering and harvest. The majority of wines are made to be consumed within several years. Warm regions with regular dependable sunshine, moderate temperatures and access to water show less variation between years. For these wines, the vintage can be used as a guide to drinking them (drinking window) while they are at their youthful peak.
The 2019 Vintage
Over the last five months I have tasted hundreds of European wines from the 2019 vintage picked last September and October. According to the International Organisation of Vine and Wine (OIV), global wine production in 2019 was approximately 263 million hectolitres, which is an average production following the bumper crop in 2018. The quantity of grapes produced can have a bearing on price. 2019 has shown well, despite a year with rain and frost in spring, followed by a hot summer and issues of drought in some areas. Winemakers’ know-how and use of technology to adapt to conditions have produced good results, and many of these wines feature in the current and forthcoming Cellar Offerings.
2019 has produced good wines in northern climes. Gerd Stepp in the Pfalz in Germany found himself adapting to drought conditions, whereas in the past his focus was on mitigating disease pressure from cool temperatures and humidity. Similarly, Christof Höpler in Austria experienced lower rainfall and warmer than normal temperatures with perfect, sunny conditions at harvest. The Loire Valley in France has also produced delicious wines. Further south, great-tasting wines were produced throughout Italy, southern France (including Bordeaux) and Spain.
Assessment of vintage is perhaps more relevant to wines for cellaring or investment, as many of these are produced in more marginal climates with greater risk of spring frosts, hail and rainfall at harvest, causing more variation. Conditions during the growing season affect the quality and longevity of the wines produced through impact on natural acidity, sugar and tannin levels. The quality of early-drinking wines gives some insight into the potential of more premium wines, and
so far the signs for what’s coming are good.
Each spring, wine professionals from around the globe attend the “En Primeur” tastings to assess the Classed Growth wines produced in September and October the previous year (the event was cancelled this year because of the coronavirus). These are unfinished wines still in barrel that will continue to mature for another year or so before being bottled and released. Individual wines can be assessed at the same time, gaining a general overview of the vintage and different appellations. Bordeaux wine prices are released after the En Primeur tastings and ideally would be based on the intrinsic quality of the wines made, but the laws of supply and demand also play a role. In a bad year, good wines can still be made; indeed the skill of a winemaker reveals itself most at these times. So while generalizations around vintage can be useful, it is important to taste specific wines to evaluate their quality and identify those that offer the best value.
To date, all the 2019 Bordeaux wines I tasted (which admittedly are earlier-drinking wines) and everything I have heard from the estates indicate it is a very good vintage. Quantities are slightly down on the ten-year average, but the fine wine market is sluggish and the coronavirus pandemic is having an impact, so prices may soften. In Burgundy, quality is high—Jérôme Billard’s wines are supple and succulent and those tasted at the Hospices de Beaune auction all showed well, although yields are low.
Whether you are looking for wines to enjoy soon or wines for the cellar, 2019 is definitely a vintage to consider.