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Vines versus vintage – Ask Decanter

Is a lower-level wine from a non-riserva vintage is better, or does vintage quality have the upper hand?

Fedde van Dijk, Amsterdam, asks: Some Tuscan producers make riservas or other premium cuvées only in good vintages, so in bad years their lower-level wine includes grapes that would otherwise go into the riserva.

Does this mean the lower-level wine from a non-riserva vintage is better, or does vintage quality have the upper hand? For example, in 2014, Biondi Santi made no riserva, using the grapes for its Rosso di Montalcino Fascia Rossa. What would critics rate higher: this 2014 wine or a Rosso from a better vintage?

Michaela Morris replies: In Italy, the term riserva is linked to ageing regulations. In theory, a riserva should have the structure to endure extended ageing and offer greater cellaring potential on release. While it may come from a single plot, it could be a selection of choice grapes and/or barrels from multiple sites.

In a given vintage, a producer may forgo making a riserva, instead using the best fruit to preserve the quality of the regular bottling. But whether this is ‘better’ than a year in which a premium cuvée was made depends on the vintage. There is no hard and fast rule.

Biondi Santi’s Fascia Rossa is made using declassified fruit from Brunello vines. It may rival the estate’s regular Rosso di Montalcino from (well rated) 2013, whereas the 2015 Rosso has earned higher scores than Fascia Rossa 2014.

A critic would judge each wine on how it shows in the glass. While tremendous wines can be achieved in challenging vintages, a truly great vintage is one in which excellent wines are produced at all quality levels. In this respect, vintage has the upper hand.

This question first appeared in the July 2020 issue of Decanter magazine.


See also: 

What is ullage in wine and should you worry?

What is light strike in wine?

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