When I first started to get into wine I eagerly devoured almost as many books and magazines on the subject as glasses of the actual drink. Hugh Johnson, Michael Broadbent, Jancis Robinson, Clive Coates and Oz Clarke books were bought and studied, often at great cost. They steered me towards certain wines, countries and regions and to a fairly classical way of thinking about wine. At the time Bordeaux was the epicentre of wine with Burgundy a fairly distant second. A visit there reinforced the idea that Bordeaux was aloof, remote and tourist unfriendly for those of us without large incomes or inheritances. Nonetheless I bought en primeur, got lucky with 1990 for example. I learned about the importance of vintage.
Much has changed in intervening years. Bordeaux is now more tourist friendly, Burgundy less so from the days when a free cellar visit offered Grand Cru tastings. Climate unfortunately has been one of the major changes. In some ways this has been good, grapes ripen more easily and the days of green, sour wines of Bordeaux, Loire reds etc are mostly behind us. Winemaking skills too have developed, science and learning have given winemakers the skills to make the best of their grapes whatever vagaries have affected the vintage. Indeed vintage mattered less seemingly. Vintage charts were useful but no longer a key part of planning my wine purchases.
My love of natural wines only seemed to confirm that vintage was less important. Each bottle is taken on its own merits rather than compared. And yet. I still keep bottles of the same cuvée from different years to compare, I have Jeff Coutelou’s Le Vin Des Amis, Flambadou and Classe stretching back every year to 2013, other producers too. I’m not sure why, maybe I will have a tasting one day of the different vintages to see how they compare. That I haven’t done so would support the notion that I haven’t seen vintage as a key part of my wine drinking.
Why am I rattling, or prattling, on about this? Well in the last month or so I opened two bottles of Jean Foillard’s Morgon wine. I hadn’t even realised that I had done so, a visit to New York in between might have blurred the memory. My notes though reveal two very different wines and it made me wonder about vintage all over again. Foillard, of course, was one of the natural wine pioneers, part of the group which transformed that region’s winemaking and influenced producers and wine drinkers around the world, including Jeff. I have bought his wines regularly though, in honesty I often prefer other producers such as Breton, Lapierre and Thévenet.
Morgon is perhaps the most serious of all Beaujolais crus, its granite and schist soils and climat producing denser, more concentrated wines than most of the region. Therefore, I like to give even village wines such as these a few years in bottle before opening them to give them time to mature and peak. Even then most Foillard wines have been enjoyable without really exciting me. The 2017 version was a typical experience. There was some nice dark fruit flavours and good texture but not a whole lot of joy. The 2018 was different. Bright red fruits on the nose and in flavour. There was more freshness to lift the fruit above the structure and tannins, there was pleasure in the bottle not just respect for it.
So, was this the result of the vintage or a difference in winemaking between the years? Unfortunately not much detail emerges from the domaine, the wines sell themselves without him needing to court publicity (or even a website as far as I can find). I actually tasted the 2017 with him at a tasting in Montpellier and he was reticent then too. I can’t find any explanation in terms of how the winemaking differed in the two years. So, is it an example of vintage difference? Well 2017 was a good year in the area until hail storms hammered it in July and Morgon suffered more than most, losses of up to 80% for some producers. 2018 by contrast was one of the great vintages, a sunny vintage, ripe grapes but with good freshness too according to many vintage summaries I have studied for this article, such as this. That reflects exactly what I found in this bottle. It seems that vintage has indeed been reflected in these two bottles.
Of course this is not a surprise, I know from working so many vintages with Jeff that the grapes are different every year and that wines reflect the grapes. It seems I have been guilty of underestimating vintage in my wine buying, I need to rethink my rethinking.