When one first starts buying wine, particularly when building up a personal collection, one quickly learns that the two principal considerations – apart from price, of course – are names of desirable and favourite wines and vintage evaluations. Listing one’s favourite wines is easier, compiled from one’s drinking experience. Vintage evaluations are learnt from browsing wine pages on the Internet, and ratings from drinking sessions and discussions with fellow wine lovers.
That is today. But 30 years ago, there was no Internet. And there were few reasonably experienced wine drinkers, let alone wine lovers, in one’s community – Singapore. There was only Decanter magazine, thank goodness, and opportunely at the time in 1983, Robert Parker burst onto the scene with his Robert Parker Wine Advocate wine magazine. The latter, in particular, with its 100-point scoring of wine quality, was a godsend and avidly devoured.
Since then, one has got a little more knowledgeable, a little wiser and more critical about accepting printed evaluations and scoring as gospel truth. One learns to reach out to wider sources instead of only one or two sources. And you learn which source is the more neutral in terms of personal recommendations, and what the biases of individual sources are. And if you read French – which one does not, sadly – there are French wine magazines and Internet sources to access.
Back to vintages. How does one – as critically as possible within one’s own experience – evaluate the various assessments and scores? One learns soon enough whose ratings and wine notes are the more knowledgeable and reliable, and which to read with a more critical evaluation. One learns just as quickly too, that English wine writers tend to be a little more cautious and conservative than others, and that one can rely on one’s own experience. And also that loudly wine press-acclaimed vintages need to be read and assessed a little more critically.
And of course it is also normal (and natural) to focus one’s attention on the widely acclaimed vintages and scores, in particular the 100-pointers. But soon enough, one learns to apply a little more critical view of these – which are more neutral and more balanced, and which are biased by personal preferences.
One thing that one has learnt is to take the reviews and scores of the so-called “off” vintages with a good pinch of salt. And the best way to learn is by drinking your favourite wines from these “off” vintages. And buying them, especially en primeur when the opening prices are generally much more acceptable.
Rioja 1958, Muga
Feb 14, 2016
A friend’s wine, dinner at Spanish Restaurant Binomio
A surprisingly good colour for a 48-year-old Rioja. Medium-dark reddish brown, also surprisingly youthful and very attractive bouquet, fresh, fruity, appealing. Medium concentration. Good fruit and complexity. A very nice glass of wine. Amazing.
Gran Clos 1996, J Fuentes
Feb 10, 2016, own wine, dinner at home.
Garnacha 50 per cent, Carinena 40 per cent, Cabernet Sauvignon 10 per cent
Deep purple with brown tints, nice sweet entry, very big concentrated wine, very dark flavours, good ripeness, and balance, and with sufficient freshness to balance the great sweetness. Medium length and good finish. Tasted better the next evening.
Chevalier Montrachet 1984, Domaine Leflaive
April 20, 2013. Own wine, dinner at home.
Glorious golden liquid; nose of mature pure chardonnay, nutty, and a touch orangey. Lovely drink, rounded citrusy, beautifully put together, almost sweet, with great freshness. Marvellous for a 1984.
These were three wines, each of which were from inauspicious vintages in their own category of wines. Spanish Rioja 1958 91 points, 1996 86 points; White Burgundy 1984 83 points. Were one to limit one’s choice to wines of no less than 95 points, these would have not made the cut.
The point to be stressed is that vintage guides are useful, and interesting. It gives one an overall view of the landscape of wines and their vintage variations. There is beauty in perfection, but there is also hidden beauty in lesser mortals. Were that not so, few of us would have made the cut socially and career-wise.
And thank goodness for that. Imagine a country of look-alikes – in looks, thought, culture and tastes. And so it is with wine. Remember that popular saying “Variety is the spice of life”? And one of the nicest advantages of having one’s own wine collection is to have available within easy reach a reasonably wide range and variety of wines.
The other point that is worth pointing out is: Do not focus one’s sights – and therefore one’s collection – only on top vintages, those vintages so loudly proclaimed in the wine press. This is a practice akin to eating the same food every day, every meal – which is boring.
One more point. Five-star vintages are well worth collecting and drinking. But they take time to mature. One makes it a practice not to broach a top vintage before it is less than six years old, preferably 10 years. One may, for purpose of assessing development of the wine, open a bottle at six to seven years of age. This will give an idea of how the development is proceeding and approximately how much longer it will take to reach full maturity. Of course the timing needs to be varied depending on the wine itself – its classification, eg Bordeaux Classified (Cru Classé), Burgundy Grand, Premier, Cru Classé, etc.
A final point. Including the lesser vintages in one’s collection or choice of wine has the great advantage of having the same wine but in a smaller vintage to drink while waiting for the greater vintage wine to mature. It is also a valuable learning exercise – learning the style and character of the Château’s or Domaine’s wine as expressed in different vintages. An educational and enriching experience.
This story first appeared in The Business Times.