Next year, the European wine industry - or much of it - will probably short-change its customers. People expecting and paying for a bottle of red or white that tastes like the one they bought last time, won’t get it. However hard most producers have worked, they will struggle to give their grapes the richness of flavour the weather gods have denied them.
At the top of the pile, of course, winemakers who are already blessed with the finest equipment in the vineyards and winery, will also have been able to afford to throw away or sell off all but the best vats. Most wineries do not have that luxury. They have to take the pig’s ear nature has dished up, and try to stitch it into something that looks like a purse.
Despite their efforts, unless they’ve miraculously managed to yield high scores, those top producers will almost certainly be forced to drop their prices. Most others, however, faced with a harvest that, in France’s case, has yielded 25% less wine than in recent years, will be charging more.
In other words, consumers will dig deeper in their pockets to obtain less pleasure.
That’s the nature of making vintage wine, someone will say with a sigh.
As if that’s the only option.
Doing it differently in Champagne
Champagne producers, don’t see things that way. In response to their trickily marginal climate, they long ago developed the technique of blending reserve wines from previous harvests to create a consistent product whose main job was to show off the house style. Prices were affected by harvest sizes too, but at least the product remained more or less the same.
Anyone who wanted something more characterful, could pay a premium for the vintage wines produced in years and quantities when the grapes were deemed good enough.
To complicate matters, between vintage and non-vintage, there’s another odd hybrid creature: multi-vintage. The most famous example is Krug, which resolutely prefers the term to non-vintage when talking about its Grande Cuvée, but Champagne fans will be familiar with Gosset’s Grande Réserve and Jacquesson’s Cuvée series. All of these principally differ from non vintage in not aiming for consistency: each release has its own character. And now Roederer has followed the same path, replacing its NV with Collection 242, which will presumably be followed next year by Collection 243 and so on.
Each producer has their own way to produce a Multi Vintage. Jacquesson, simply adds 20-30% of the previous Cuvée to the new wine. Krug, which appended ‘Edition’ to the 158th release of Grande Cuvee (based on the 2002), adds up to a dozen different older vintages to make up between a third and half of the blend. And sometimes even more. Roederer, by contrast, has elected to create a solera-system it calls its ‘perpetual reserve’, that it began in 2012. Stored in stainless steel, it is replenished with young wine as the mature blend of harvests is drawn off. This wine makes up 35% of Collection 242, along with 55% of 2017 and 10% of oak-matured Chardonnay of various ages, from young vines destined to provide fruit for Cristal.
Multi-vintage is a clever way for a high quality Champagne house to produce a more characterful version of non-vintage, and to raise its prices. And as Roederer’s cellar master Jean-Baptiste Lecaillon admits, it’s a lot easier to do today with the generally warmer climate than it might have been 20 or 30 years ago. But it’s still a method of mitigating the challenges of the single year.
Still wine pioneers
So, as I’ve asked before, why shouldn’t more top-rank still wine producers follow the example of the Champenois and Vega Sicilia, Opus One and Penfold’s in offering multi-vintage alternatives to single-vintage wines? Opus One lovers seem to be happy to pay $150 for the 2018 release of Overture, Wine-searcher has $482 as the average price for Vega Sicilia’s Unico Reserva Especial, while Penfolds released its G3 and G4 blends at six times that price. Far from cannibalising their other wines, in all of these cases, the blends have given the brands an additional story to tell with each release.
More especially, why are we still so focused on producing single-vintage wines at the sub-$12 level where most buyers are no more looking to experience the variations in quality and style from one harvest to the next than they want to buy a tougher steak or scrawnier chicken?
At this level, the rationale for embracing non- and multi-vintage is surely the same as the one for switching to screwcaps or Diam or Nomacorc: consistency and predictability
Worse still, though, we’re not even honest in what we’re doing right now. With the 85/15 (or in the US 75/25) leeway allowed in many regions for most wines, the issue is already being fudged. Why not come clean and have real vintage wines and real non- or multi-vintage wines that producers can be proud of, and consumers can expect to enjoy?
Of course, it would take some transitionary work to get there from here, and there would be initial cashflow issues, especially for producers at the higher-volume, lower-price end of the market. But these are easier to address today while interest rates and inflation are still lower than they are almost certain to be in the future.
But what about the consumers? Won't they be sorry to see vintages disappear from labels?
I'm sure that would be true for those who take the time and trouble to buy premium and super-premium wines, but those are small minority of wine drinkers.
Do people reaching for bottles of Merlot, Pinot Grigio or even Rioja or Chianti in their local supermarket or self-service liquor store really care?
What information do they derive from the four digits?
Do they know that 2018 was a better vintage in one region than 2019? Or vice versa?
Are they going to store any of these sub-$15 wines in a rack until they're reached their prime? Of course not. They almost certainly don't have a rack. And if they do, it's probably in the kitchen, next to the fridge, and all the heat that's given off by its cooling coils.
Most people really don't care about vintages. What they care about is getting a drink they are confident of enjoying.
And there will be another advantage.
Wine producers are always looking for ways to charge higher prices. In an ideal world, one might easily imagine a pricing hierarchy for still wines that begins with non-vintage, rises to multi-vintage, and then to vintage at its peak. What this could yield, as it does in Champagne, is more profit.
But who wants to talk about anything as grubby as profit (or even financial sustainability) when we could be discussing terroir…?