Hortense Bernard, of Millesima, Shares Her InsightWhether you're a wine maker, a retailer, or a consumer, everyone knows that the year on a wine label can make all the difference when it comes to the experience you'll find inside the bottle; it's just understood. Just because you loved the 1999 version doesn't mean the 2003 will offer the same satisfaction. But what, exactly, determines the product that comes from a certain year's harvest? Is it simply the weather, or is there more that shapes the final product?
One factor is the evolution of production methods that has occurred over the last few decades. There have always been especially skilled winemakers and vintners who know all the tricks to dealing with a "challenging" year, but in the past there were plenty who did not. This is much less true today, when a great many winemakers start their career in university, studying oenology. The end result is more "good" years. Or in other words, more successful (and enjoyable) vintages in the bottle.
Vintage variation shapes wines in every region of the world, but no place is better known for this than Bordeaux. I recently enjoyed tasting through three different vintages, from two Bordeaux producers, and the vintage contrast to be clearly evident. In addition, I was able to discuss this topic with a native Bordelaise whose family has been in the business of grape-based alcoholic beverages since 1928. Hortense Bernard, of Millesima USA, grew up in Bordeaux, in a family that has been involved with wine and spirits for four generations. She has been passionate about Bordeaux wines since childhood, and is today an expert on what makes one bottle different from another. Her family's company, Millesima, has more then 2,500,000 bottles of Bordeaux in their inventory.
Our conversation gave me greater insight into the components the come together to create a "vintage". Here are a few notes from that conversation, and about the wines we tasted.
|Hortense Bernard of Millesima|
B- How is "vintage" about more than just weather?
H- It's not just because it's raining that you take an action, it's the decision you make when it rains. It's also the assemblage, when you mix your varietals and decide which plots go into your first wine and your second. That selection is an important part.
B- So the character of vintage, in a particular bottle, is dependent on more than just the weather?
B- Do Bordeaux producers make different choices regarding varietal blend based on the vintage?
H- Since the blend is determined by the percentages of each planted in the vineyards; it doesn't change much. Although vines have to be replanted every so often, sixty years or so, but the terroir of the vineyard dictates the best varietal to plant, and the varietal in the vineyard doesn't change much. There is a selection as to the assemblage (blend) of the first label versus the second label. They will choose which plots to put in the first, and which for the second, based on the quality of the plots in that vintage. That selection is an important fact in making good wines.
B- Bordeaux producers typically have first labels, and seconds, etc. Do they make less of the first label in a difficult vintage to preserve quality or reputation, putting more juice into the second label?
H- Sometimes, but not necessarily. Keep in mind that the first label sells for much more than the second. If they produce much less, it will cost them money. Do they want to make only 10% first label instead of 50%, it all depends on the winery and what they can afford. If your price reflects whats in the bottle, then it doesn't matter. That is a big characteristic of Bordeaux, the fluctuation of price due to the vintage quality.
B-Does the weather really impact one part of Bordeaux differently than another?
H- It seems stupid to speak of differences in weather in Bordeaux, since it is such a small place, but in 2014, for example, the right bank had more rain than left bank, so there was a difference. For example, you may wake up in the morning in New York and think that it's a bad day for the beach, but if you had gone, you would have seen it was lovely, because the weather can vary considerably, just a few miles away. The Medoc, on the left bank, is often different than the right.
B- How do great winemakers make good wine in a difficult year?
H- It's not just the winemaker, but really the team. It's also very important to know your terroir. You can be a good winemaker, and move to another estate, and not manage [well] your first years. You have to know your vines, your soils, how it goes every year, and have recollection of how it goes in the past. There are so many tools he can use to focus what is going to happen, and make a big difference.
That's why the estates that do well every year are the ones that have been repeating [there method] for years and are very consistent.
B- So vintages from the best producers are more consistent because of their experience with the specific terrior?
B- Let's talk about a specific example. In 2003, a very hot vintage, how did producers still make good wine?
H- They accepted what was happening and did something atypical, but that was something really nice too. If you try to make the classic Bordeaux style [under such circumstances] I think you loose something.
B- The vintage chart, in Millesima catalog, rates 2002 as a good vintage, but 2002 is known for being a very difficult vintage in most of Europe. What made it less so in Bordeaux?
H- American consumers love to buy the best vintages; they buy 2000, 2005, 2009, 2010; in between, almost nothing. On my shelves right now there are so many 2002. Americans don't buy the smaller vintages, "in between" vintages. The 2002's are really good right now. They are good, but many need to be consumed earlier.
B- That sounds like a buying opportunity for consumers.
H- Yes, because it's cheaper, and the vintage was not lauded. But right now they are drinking really nicely.
Hortense and I tasted through six Bordeaux wines, from two different producers, to get a sense of the differences that occur from year to year. Tasting "verticals" of the same wine, from the same producer, is a revealing (and fun) way to see how vintage influences the final product, since other factors are equal.
Three Vintages From Two Bordeaux Producers
Chateau Fombrauge, Saint-Emillion, Bordeaux, France
2008 Ch. Fombrauge, Saint-Emillion Grand Cru
Very different than the 2003 with a more finessed nature. While the fruit is still dense and solid, the characteristics are that of dried red raspberry, dried black plum with gravel Earth, pretty floral notes, some forest floor, and subtle pencil lead. The palate shows more lean black fruit, with a firm texture, and a pleasant, easy finish.
2010 Ch. Fombrauge, Saint-Emillion Grand CruThe nose takes some coaxing at first, showing limited notes of brooding dark fruit, with fine firm edges. Black cherry, and blackberry, charred meat, and lanolin fill things out with some time in the glass. The palate has savory, mouth-watering black fruit, with bright acidity and fresh blackberry.The finish is long, savory, and satisfying. Complete from beginning to end, this is complex, and seductive, albeit reserved.
Ch, Pontet Canet, Les Hauts de Pontet Canet, Paulliac, Bordeaux, France
2005 Les Hauts de Pontet Canet, Paulliac 13% ABV, $50
Pretty dried floral nose highlight the fresh, clean black currant and blackberry. Mild Earthiness underscores the nose, along with bitter dark chocolate notes. The palate is full and firm with lean blackberry, lovely fresh acidity, and a pleasant lightness. Later notes of coffee appear on the firm finish.
Most prominent on the nose are notes of dried basil and other aromatic dried herbs overlying ripe red cherry and red plum with dried pomegranate. There's an elusive note of anise there as well, but very subtle. The palate is well balanced, medium to light weight, with plenty of acidity. Cured tobacco, char-grilled meat, and subtle pencil shavings make-up the profile. The finish is brief and a bit tart with fine grained tannins that are subdued. Easy drinking with understated complexity.