What’s the Difference Between a Good Vintage and a Great Vintage?

T here is a ‘Wine Legends’ section on Decanter.com and I found myself perusing some of their featured wines over the weekend, in particular I was drawn to their description of Chateau Palmer 1961.

I have never tasted a wine from the legendary 1961 Bordeaux vintage – when I began learning about Bordeaux two decades ago, it had already secured a place in history. One of the first things I learned was ‘this was an amazing year’. Price and scarcity would ensure that I will probably never get to taste it. (I’d love to say that writing about it is its own reward, but that would be stretching the truth.)

Since then, there have been several phenomenal vintages that we’ll still be talking about in another two decades time. I started thinking about what sets them apart from the vintages that are just ‘good’ – what are the key factors that make a vintage truly great? Here’s what I concluded:

- High praise for wines on both the left and right bank - Bordeaux’s weather usually favours either the Cabernet-dominated wines of the left bank, or the Merlot-dominated wines of the right. 2015, for example, appears to favour the right bank wines such as Pomerol and Saint-Emilion. 2015 is a fantastic year, but probably won’t be legendary like the 1961.

- Longevity – In the greatest years there will be an abundance of wines with a robust structure that can age for decades, like the wines from 1961. These are wines we will still be talking about and trying to track down half a century after the vintage.

- Emerging superstar wines – It was the 1961 vintage that made Palmer one of the most revered wines in the Medoc. In more recent years, we have started to see fourth and fifth growth wines that perform well above their classification, carving out reputations of their own as ‘cult’ wines.

- Critics love them. There are some disagreements about wines from ‘good’ vintages, as 2015 demonstrated. In the greatest years, no matter whether the wines are big and opulent or soft and luscious, critics will seldom dispute their quality and finesse.

Nonetheless I have a soft spot for the ‘good’ vintages. And here’s why…

I love Bordeaux. It’s been a favourite ever since I first started to take wine seriously. If you, like me, are buying Bordeaux to drink, you could do a lot worse than seeking out some of the vintages whose wines mature more quickly. I’ve had some amazing wines from the 1997 and 2001 vintages – ‘good’ to ‘very good’ years, but not in the same league as 1961.

They perhaps lack the ‘silky and harmonious bouquet accelerating like Michael Schumacher from the starting grid’ that Michael Broadbent noted in the ’61 Palmer, but you still couldn’t fail to be impressed by them.

Find out what makes the ’61 Palmer such a legend here today for more information.