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Burning Question: Are official vintage ratings meaningless?

Do official vintage charts tell you much about the wine in your glass? Or has new technology, combined with a heightened sense of regional variation and a dose of commercial realpolitik, rendered regional vintage ratings obsolete?

Steven Spurrier Bordeaux 2012

Decanter consultant editor Steven Spurrier weighs up Bordeaux en primeur wines

Gone are the days, it seems, when an entire vintage could be written off as undrinkable or simply to be avoided; as some have described Bordeaux’s class of 1963, for instance.

Take a look at several of the many vintage charts produced by regional bodies, merchants – and critics – and it’s clear that quality variation has narrowed at the higher end of the scale for some of the best-known wine regions.

For example, on the recently updated chart for Rioja, one must cast an eye back three decades to find a Rioja vintage officially classed by the region’s DOCa council as worse than ‘good’. The 1984 vintage was merely ‘satisfactory’, and only ‘average’ is worse than that.

Some argue this is the result of advances in technology, such as optical sorting machines, flash heating to remove fungus and ‘gravity’ systems in the cellar that treat the harvest with a ‘gentle hand’.

Will we never see a bad vintage again? ‘If you consider a bad vintage is like 1974, then the answer is no,’ said Nicolas Glumineau, manager of Pichon Lalande in Pauillac, in the August issue of Decanter magazine.

Even Bordeaux 2013, which many chateau owners have called one of the most challenging of their careers, has still produced some desirable wines, according to Decanter consultant editor Steven Spurrier.

The trick is to work out which ones. Relatedly, a common complaint about regional vintage charts is that they must generalise.

This jars with the modern trend for ever-greater precision in winemaking, as producers seek better plot-by-plot understanding of their vineyards. But, does that mean vintage charts are of no use to wine drinkers and collectors?

Yes

David Gleave MW, Liberty Wines

‘Vintage charts are of little value these days,’ said David Gleave MW, managing director of UK importer Liberty Wines. ‘Viticulture has improved dramatically, which means not only that overall quality is higher than before but also that the character of individual estates is now more marked and often results in much greater diversity within a zone. This move to the specific makes vintage charts, which are by their very nature general, of even less use.’


No

Will Hargrove, Corney & Barrow

Will Hargrove, head of fine wine at UK merchant Corney & Barrow, said that vintage charts still have their uses, even though they 'over simplify' out of necessity. 'In general terms, we're quite anti the idea of simplifying a wine down to a score,' he said. 'But I do think vintage charts give buyers an indication, and it's good for people when you're talking about a region that they don't know that well.' He added that it helps to split up regions to a degree. 'For example, you should always distinguish between Right and Left Bank Bordeaux.'

Who do you agree with most?

Read an extended version of this debate in the August issue of Decanter magazine, on sale now.

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