When a Wine List Falters

A good vintage chart can improve your wine selections
Aug 10, 2010

Have you ever opened a restaurant wine list to find that the vintages were missing?

That happened to me while I was on vacation in South Carolina. Edisto is a remote and rustic island south of Charleston, and its virtues do not include sophisticated nightlife. But there is one fine restaurant, called the Old Post Office, and I went there with a group of friends. The 40-selection wine list offered some good producers, but no vintages were listed at all.

I suddenly felt strangely lost. It was like looking at a map, but all the street names were missing. You could recognize the general neighborhoods, but it was practically impossible to find a specific address.

First came the difficulty selecting a white. I hesitated between a Bourgogne blanc and a Pouilly-Fuissé, both priced under $40. Normally, I'd figure them to be similar in quality and character, since both are Chardonnays from France's Burgundy region. But what if one were significantly older? That could make a huge difference in the taste of the wine. A younger vintage would likely offer fresh fruit and bright acidity, while a wine that had been in bottle for a few years might be softer, duller, even oxidized.

Then came my quandary over the red. Some of my guests were Zinfandel lovers, and I spotted a reasonably-priced Châteauneuf-du-Pape that I thought would intrigue them. But not if it was a 2002, from a rain-soaked vintage that produced mostly tart, diluted reds. And maybe not if it was a 2005—a great vintage, but one whose massive wines still need a few years in the cellar to show their best.

The waiter didn't know the vintages off-hand, so I asked him to bring the bottles to the table so I could know for sure what I was ordering. As I waited, it struck me that many people probably feel "lost" like that much of the time. Because even when they do know the vintage, they may not have the background knowledge to extrapolate from the vintage date to the character of the wine.

That's where a vintage chart can be very, very handy.

Vintage charts summarize the quality and character of wines from a particular region in a specific year. A good one delivers two crucial pieces of information. First, it provides a general assessment about the quality of a given vintage relative to other years in a specific wine region. Second, it offers a window of drinkability for each year rated. Are the wines concentrated, tannic and potentially long-lived? Or is it a lighter, more forward year that will be approachable early?

Wine Spectator editors rate vintages from more than 30 regions around the world. Each vintage rating consists of three components. The score indicates the general quality of the wines. The description sums up the growing season and the wines' character. The drink recommendation suggests when the wines will be at their best. 

Our vintage charts are now available in a free iPhone app, which you can download from our app page. We think you'll find them helpful, and we hope you'll give them a try.

Of course, vintage charts are general in nature, and can't guarantee they'll lead you to a great wine. But at the least, they'll help you find a better choice than a 2002 Châteauneuf-du-Pape.

When do you use vintage charts? Have they ever helped you make a better choice, or avoid a bad one?

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