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What makes a great vintage?

There are six critical factors that need to be in place if winemakers are going to produce a great wine. We list them below, as grape pickers begin to work their way through northern hemisphere vineyards, from California to Bordeaux and all the way China's Ningxia.

The 2016 wine harvest is whirring into action in Europe, North America and China.

How can the crop be assessed at this early stage?

The late Denis Dubourdieu, professor of oenology at the University of Bordeaux, had five criteria for what makes a great vintage and these are by now both famous and accepted by many great winemakers, particularly in Bordeaux.

With his gracious permission, I list them below.

Dubourdieu always stated that three of these criteria must be fulfilled to make good wine, four for very good wine and all five for great wine.

How a great vintage is made:

1. An early and rapid flowering and a good fecundation assuring a sufficient yield and the hope of a homogenous ripening.

2. Sufficient hydric stress at fruit-set to limit the growth of the young berries and determine their future tannic content.

3. Cessation of vegetative growth of the vine before colour change, imposed by limited hydric stress and therefore allowing all the goodness from the root to flow into the grapes and not unproductive growth.

4. Complete maturity of the grapes (sugar content among other factors) assured by the optimum functioning of the canopy (leaves) up to harvest time without further vegetative growth (point 3).

5. Good weather during vintage without dilution or rot, allowing full maturity of all grapes including late ripening varieties.

Denis Dubourdieu, Decanter

Denis Dubourdieu spares several hours to discuss the Bordeaux 2013 vintage with Decanter journalists ahead of the en primeur campaign. Credit: Chris Mercer / Decanter

Source: Denis Dubourdieu, winemaker and professor of oenology at University of Bordeaux, 1949 – 2016

6. There is then a caveat, or what could be described a silent sixth clause. It is that making a great wine is very closely related to cost. The numerous operations required in the vineyard to make great wine are extremely expensive.

‘You cannot make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear. Therefore, weather conditions tend to be more important to smaller growers.’ John Salvi MW

Green pruning or crop thinning costs a fortune in time and labour, as was particularly shown during the Bordeaux 2014 vintage.

That year, Vieux Chateau Certan and many others de-leafed a second time one week before harvest for maximum ripeness.

Secondary bud removal, shoot removal, nipping off the tendrils that have wrapped themselves around the wires, de-leafing on both sides, pollarding, in some places removing the third cluster, tying up and all the other operations that have to be done by hand are often beyond the reach of small growers in less prestigious appellations.

Most of these are to remove unwanted growth so as not to waste nutrition from the roots and to help ripening.

One can aim at perfect grapes if one is able to cosset each and every vine from birth to death and also if one can afford the luxury of only putting the very best wine in the final blend; if one has the potential to have more than one level of wine as do most of the Bordeaux classed growths.

In 2014, Chateau Margaux put 36% of its yield into its first wine, 24% into their Pavillon and 40% into their 3rd and 4th wines.

You cannot make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear. Therefore, weather conditions tend to be more important to smaller growers.

This article was first published in September 2015 and has been updated for the 2016 wine harvest.

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