We’ve often had people come up to us and point to the vintage chart hand-outs that we offer to the general public: They ask in wide-eyed bewilderment, “What is this?”
Basically, vintage charts score the success of the vintage, as far as the quality of the wine goes. The charts are universally tabular in form, with one axis for the region being classified and the other axis for the calendar year of the vintage. They are most frequently numerical, usually written on a scale of 7, 10, 20 or 100. Some authors opt to use symbols like dots or stars (more stars = better quality, etc.). Our chart, prepared by Don Schliff, the president of the large California-based wine importer/ wholesaler, Wine Warehouse, uses a scale of 1-20. We especially like this one because it shows several wine regions in France, Italy, Germany, Portugal and California.
What do these charts say?…
The score for the most recent year or two is really an indication of the success of the harvest for that year. The newly made wine from that harvest is evaluated for its potential development. This is an educated guess by experts who know the life cycle and idiosyncrasies of wine. The earlier years on a chart reflect the original premise plus how the wine has developed in its maturation process of aging. Sometimes scores are altered by the authors as the wines for that year show a different posture as they age.
Bear in mind that you cannot make good wine from lousy grapes (the unhappy results of inclement weather in a particular region). Some very skilled wine-makers, however, can at times make very acceptable wine from such grapes. Also remember that you can make lousy wine from good grapes, if you do not know what you are doing, or are not paying attention that day! The numbers on a vintage chart really indicate the success of the harvest with regard to the quality of the grapes.
Any attempt to rate vintages in California’s diverse wine regions runs into trouble. Even if the author conscientiously rates Napa, Sonoma and Mendocino separately, what about Santa Barbara, San Luis Obispo and. Temecula?
The key to using a vintage chart is to remember that it is at best a generalization. You have no assurance that the wine you select is a good bottle because it is from a highly rated year. With a low rated year, however, you can pretty well bet the wine is mediocre. Additionally, some charts indicate when wines of a particular vintage might be too old, i.e., losing it. Old and rare wines are frequently quite expensive, due solely to their rarity This doesn’t mean they still taste-good! We have wallet size vintage charts available for you (to avoid these pitfalls) — on the back of our business cards! P.K.