Vintage Variation

January 19, 2016

A bad year can dramatically affect the drinkability of a particular wine, making or breaking an entire 12 months of grapes, sweat and tears. Here’s why.

We are all slaves to the weather and none more so than our farmers. Unlike brewers or spirit producers, those who grow grapes have one chance to get their crop right. The weather is, arguably, the greatest mitigating factor in what makes wine good, bad, or ugly, and is at the heart of the notion of terroir; the idea that every single site on which wine grapes are grown is special and unable to be replicated. However, despite the unique qualities of the site, if the sun does not shine, or the rain does not fall at the right time, the grapes are unable to ripen and the wine is of a lesser standard. Equally, if the vineyard is on a site that is too hot the wine will lack subtlety and finesse and be overbearing and boring.

Regional differences

When looking at vintage variation, it is important to remember that Australia has vineyards in almost every state, so if South Australia has a tough vintage, that does not mean that Margaret River or Victoria suffered the same fate. Knowing these things does not require 24 hour observation of the Bureau of Meteorology, but it does require a little reading to know who is doing well and who is doing it tough. In cool years, the regions famous for big blockbusters can produce wines of greater finesse, offering more spice and delicacy. The cool weather reduces the massive dark fruit expression and high alcohols. Equally, in marginal regions where ripening is unreliable, a hot year can be a good thing, guaranteeing ripeness.

Cool and wet conditions creates delicacy

The 2011 Wynn’s Coonawarra Cabernet Shiraz Merlot, for instance, is from a cool and wet year. It was the constant cloud cover and rain events that made 2011 a year that separated the good winemakers from the bad. Good winemakers dealt with the conditions well, but those with less experience were unable to make decent wine. These 2011 wines from the eastern states, now with 5 years of development, are close to their peak. The cooler years result in wines that are often lighter in colour, more spicy and delicate, and offer a palate of flavours inconsistent with hotter, more generous years. The 2011 reds will not age for as long and are ready to drink now. Expect more spice, lighter hues and more delicacy.

Warmth creates ripe, lengthy wines

The 2005 Seppelt Chalambar Shiraz is made from a very good year. This means that the weather conditions were suitable to ripen fruit as near to perfect as possible. When the fruit is in great condition, the wine then can express that season very well and the resulting wine will also last a lot longer in bottle. Expect big rich flavours, typical of a warm year and, given the 11 years of age, you will see more complex, earthy notes and development.

Break it down

There are many things that make the world of wine confusing, but a little reading will start to break down these barriers in no time. Much of the riddle of wine comes down to region and weather, and while it can seem daunting, the enjoyment is often found in the exploration of wine from different ages and regions of the world.