Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Is there a reliable law of the decades for wine vintages?

Is there a reliable law of the decades for wine vintages? 

In a recent conversation with Jeannie Cho Lee, famous South Korean journalist and author and Master of Wine (the first ethnic Asian to achieve this accreditation in 2008), while attending the 2012 Super Nations Cup Polo Tournament at Tianjin Goldin Metropolitan Polo Club (surely one of, if not the best Polo Club in mainland China), I started to talk about an old idea about the law of the decades for wine vintages.

My late grandfather was the one who first enlightened me about it. Being a local winemaker from the Cotes de Bourg, spending most of his time outside in his garden combining “potager”, orchard and vineyard, he knew of the old ways about nature’s signs to anticipate the weather, the growing cycle of the vines and to certain extend the quality of the up-and-coming vintage as early as early spring.

He just had to look at the sky, observe the environment of the vines, the flora and fauna surrounding them (trees, plants, flowers, herbs, insects, mammals, birds, etc… ) and also refer to the cycle of the moon. Basically, like most people of the older generations, he still had the instinct and the knowledge for these natural things that we have forgotten.

We do not know anymore how to listen, watch and learn from nature. The trend is do things fast and efficiently, yet not anymore in depth and details. Where is the time when people still had passion, desire, instinct and craftsmanship? Nowadays, we rely more and more on computer, calculation and complicate analysis to predict and anticipate what will happen with everything; yet it is not always more accurate and often falls as a statistic or an approximate forecast rather than an old school, more traditional and verifiable fact.

The law of the decades for wine vintages is one of those facts, resulting of a lot of patience, watch-attentively-and-learn type of attitude and more especially careful attention to the various patterns and cycles of life in general. And that process can be applied to a lot different things in direct relation with nature and its various cycles, not only wine vintages.

Of course, this process of predicting or anticipating the vintages via years of experience and in-depth knowledge of the specific climate which characterize a region and its Terroir, has to be applied to a specific region where enough vintages have been recorded and tasted to really be accurate. You cannot generalize or apply it to a country for example, too many variations. It has to be done on a smaller scale.

Let’s apply it to the whole region of Bordeaux over the last 70 years. I can hear you say already: "It is too vague and general", but it will do for this example.

Why Bordeaux? Because it is where I come from and where I grew up with my grandfather, and therefore possess the most personal references. Bordeaux is also an easy target as it is known historically to only produce 3 to 4 good vintages per decades.

And the questions are: are they the same years every decades? Could it be a pattern or cycle in the climate and the weather that could explain why some years are always better than others?

The law of the decades for wine vintages consists on analyzing the past decades and see if there is a pattern between certain vintages or certain years, like a recurring result in term of quality and production of the wine characteristic to specific years; almost like an unavoidable life cycle that could not be countered or changed, but rather anticipated because of previous characteristics, signs and patterns from the studies of earlier vintages and decades.

But let me explain with a very simple table chart, which will be more visual and easier to understand at one glance. I’m partial not to base the following results on the critic’s ratings, but mostly on my memories of what my grandfather used to tell me and what I witnessed and tasted myself over the last 30 years including the past 20+ years working in the wine trade (It is based on my unique point of view and opinion, and does not reflect what critics and press may think).

Decades
0
1
2
3
4
5
6
7
8
9
Remark
1940





Great





1950









Very good

1960
Ok
Great
Bad
Bad
Very Good
Bad
Good
ok
Bad
Bad
Ok decade
1970
Ok
Ok
Bad
Bad
Bad
Ok
Bad
Bad
Good
Ok
Bad decade
1980
Bad
Bad
Great
Very Good
Bad
Great
Very good
Bad
Ok
Great
Very Good Decade
1990
Very Good
Bad
Bad
Bad
Bad
Very Good
Very Good
Ok
Good
Ok
Ok to Good Decade
2000
Great
Bad
Good
Bad
OK
Great
Very Good
OK
Good
Great
Very Good to Great decade
2010
Very Good
Bad








Will see
Average
Good
Bad
Good
Bad
Bad
Very Good
Very Good
Ok
Good
Very Good




Some people will not see it or admit it, but there is somewhat of a pattern in the results presented in the above table. People may also say that it is difficult to say because of the climatic changes that occurred over the last 30 years and that this table is too generic and should be applied to a smaller region than the whole region of Bordeaux. And I will say yes, you are right, it definitely should be applied to a more specific region to be more accurate. However, this is just an example for the people that never really thought of doing such an analysis or comparison before.

Most things in life happen in cycles and patterns that have been traced, recorded and studied for years by scientists, including climate and microclimate, weather, geography, topography, historic and work of the land, etc… Things usually evolve around similar axes and patterns that come back or reappear as a recurring factor by cycle of a certain amount of years. For this example, we are talking about decades, basically what happen every 10 years in terms of climatology to a certain designated area.

For this example, we have to take in consideration all the factors that affect this particular area. Bordeaux is greatly influenced by an oceanic climate and temperature are rather moderate yet with heavy rain fall throughout the year. Also numerous microclimates in various appellations depend of their proximity with the Gironde estuary and the two rivers flowing into it La Garonne and La Dordogne. We also have to take in consideration the fact that the left bank is rather flat with isolated small hills and gentle slopes, while the right bank rests on a limestone bedrock plateau extending from the Cotes de Blaye to the north and descending all the way to the Cotes de Castillon, undulating all along with rounded hills creating a totally different attractive landscape. Consequently, all these factors create numerous microclimates and niches where temperature and humidity may differ from places next to each other. We also have to take in consideration the tremendous work in the vineyards and the cellars from the Chateaux owners and winemakers in addition to new techniques and technology to produce better wine that have been deployed over the last 15-20 years, increasing the quality. 

However, this last point is a bit controversial; because some of the best wines of Bordeaux are now produced by people that leaves Mother Nature do her job in the vineyards and adopt a minimalist attitude in terms of interference with the wine evolution in the cellar. Stay tune for one of my next post on that fascinating subject that deserve a post in itself (you can also read some of the previous ones that I wrote on the subject).

However, going back to the above table and looking at the average results, we can conclude that over the last 60-70 years, Bordeaux vintages ending with:

 (0) are usually Good to Very Good; 
 (1) are Bad; 
 (2) are Ok to Good; 
 (3) are Bad; 
 (4) are Bad to OK; 
 (5) are Very Good to Great; 
 (6) are Good to Very Good; 
 (7) are Bad to Ok; 
 (8) are Good; 
 (9) are very Good to Great. 

Somewhat, it seems that the vintages ending with 0, 5, 6, 8 and 9 are pretty reliable in general, while the ones ending with 1, 3, 4 and 7 tend to be less reliable and of lesser quality. The ones ending with 2 are mixed, and despite 1982 which was a great vintage, and 2002 which offered great bargains for the quality, the rest were not that good. We will see what 2012 has to give.

Some of you may be surprised that I said that 2003 was a bad vintage. Well, in my opinion, despite a few distinguished effort from a few Chateaux, and I was there for the en Primeur campaign for 8 days of tasting more than 1000 wines from both banks (some 3 or 4 times over the week in various tastings), and I can surely say that 2003 was the less homogeneous vintage I ever tasted in my whole career. It was all over the place, no consistency and no charm, with combined overripe fruit, weird acidity and green tannins. I already wrote many times over my views in various previous posts and the reasons why this vintage tasted the way it did. You can read some of my views at http://www.ledomduvin.com/2010/04/bordeaux-they-did-it-again-sigh-or.html and http://www.ledomduvin.com/2009/06/coup-de-gueule-follow-wine-press-or-not.html 

Obviously, as I was saying earlier, this is very general and can easily be discussed and disputed; however, there is a pattern, and that you cannot say the opposite. And I found that fascinating. It makes you think I’m sure. Try to apply it to a more specific region, and not necessarily Bordeaux, but also Burgundy, Loire, Rhone, Languedoc, Rioja, Ribera del Duero, Piedmont, Tuscany, Napa and everywhere else. You will see it is very interesting.

Of course, mountainous vineyards and regions where the weather is less homogenous with overall climate, temperature and humidity changing rapidly and drastically, are less likely to show this type of patterns. This type of decades table vintage quality chart is definitely more adaptable to regions where the climate is rather temperate (in both continental and oceanic) roughly the same and do not present too many extreme differences from one year to the next.

Jeannie Cho Lee was even expressing the very interesting idea to see if it could apply to the Chinese calendar, which is not calculated by decade but by dozen of years. The use of 12-year animal cycles for recording the years in China dates back to 100 A.D. Each year is symbolized by an animal and the 12 animals are mouse, ox, tiger, rabbit, dragon, snake, horse, goat, monkey, rooster, dog and pig. We could even push the idea to apply it to the biodynamic calendar and moon cycle to see if instead of days, there could be a root, fruit or leaf years.

As I was saying, it is just an idea, a concept and ancient way the older generations used to have, when computer where not there to do the job. Climatologist and meteorologist are surely very interested in this type of experience. And Oenologists and Winemakers must also have a sense of it and even reminiscences of this lost instinct; more especially the ones working with Biodynamic, Organic, Biologique, “Lutte Raisonnee” and other natural methods.

But I wrote this little post in memory of my late grandfather and his way of doing things, which is for me the old way, the old school way, the way that I personally would like to go back to, especially now with my kids. When things were important and had a purpose and sentimental value. Because our generation should take and make the time to understand, watch and learn nature, the environment and our everyday surrounding, rather than not paying attention anymore and pass by without seeing or even thinking about these important things that are still all around us and on which we relied on for centuries, but we do not know how to see or feel anymore. Let’s retrieve this lost instinct.

Enjoy!

LeDom du Vin

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