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When vintage matters

When vintage matters

You're scanning the restaurant's wine list, trying to make a good choice, but you can't remember whether the 1997 vintage was excellent in Napa but not so good in Bordeaux ... or the other way around.

Keeping track of wine vintages and remembering which years produced good wine in which regions is one of the necessary but somewhat daunting elements of fine-wine appreciation. How do the experts remember all those years?

Frankly, most of them look it up. Vintage ratings are found in large books and small (see below for a couple of specific recommendations), as well as online.

It's also worth keeping in mind that vintage is important but not always critical. Particularly in modern times, technology in the vineyard and the winery makes it possible for wine makers to produce reasonably good wines even in many years when the weather doesn't cooperate. What's more, some producers make good wines even in "bad" years - and vice versa - so it's rarely wise to generalize.

But sometimes the weather is so terrible that nothing can save the wine. This summer's wild weather - in parts of Europe in particular - has already caused problems so severe that some producers in a few fine wine regions may not produce a 2002 vintage at all.

In Northwestern Italy, for example, a summer of thunderstorms capped by a tremendous hailstorm early this month has literally stripped the grapevines of their leaves and shattered most of the grapes in Barolo. Record high water in Southern France recently flooded vineyards from Chateauneuf-du-Pape to Baux-de-Provence, ruining hopes of any crop for some producers. Earlier floods in Austria and other parts of Eastern Europe may have caused similar damage there.

Meanwhile, an unusually cold summer in Australia (which enjoys summer during the Northern Hemisphere's winter) dramatically reduced the size of the harvest in many regions, although a warm period toward the end of the season reportedly resulted in potentially fine wine.

Happily, world weather patterns are so variable that some regions invariably enjoy excellent vintages while others are suffering; and barring unusual circumstances like those in Barolo and Chateauneuf-du-Pape this summer, it's never wise to write off (or celebrate) a vintage until the grapes are in and the wine is made.

Now, about those references. Online vintage charts abound, and you'll find references to many of them in our Favorite Wine Links on WineLoversPage.com. Click to
and select "Vintage Charts" from the list of categories.

One of the most interesting is the Berry Bros. & Rudd Historical Vintage Chart, which contains this first-rate London wine merchant's advice on wine vintages for the major French wine regions plus Oporto, from 1977 all the way back to 1846! You'll find this trove of wine information at
If this long link won't work from your E-mail, simply go to Berry Bros.' home page,
and click the VINTAGES tab to find all its excellent vintage ratings, old and new.

Two of my favorite print references are competitive pocket-size wine guides from British authors - Hugh Johnson and Oz Clarke - both of which incorporate surprisingly comprehensive wine encyclopedias into a small format, with descriptions and ratings of thousands of wines including the author's advice as to which vintages are good and which are ready to drink.

These books are updated annually, so take care to choose the 2003 version; Johnson's is already on the market, and Clarke's is coming soon. Should you choose to purchase either from Amazon.com, the following links will return a small commission to WineLoversPage.com and help us pay the rent:

Hugh Johnson's Wine Book 2003 (usually ships within 24 hours):

Oz Clarke's Pocket Wine Guide 2003 (order now for November shipment):


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All the wine-tasting reports posted here are consumer-oriented. In order to maintain objectivity and avoid conflicts of interest, I purchase all the wines I rate at my own expense in retail stores and accept no samples, gifts or other gratuities from the wine industry.

Wednesday, Sept. 18, 2002
Copyright 2002 by Robin Garr. All rights reserved.

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