Vintages are a weakness of mine.
At this point, outside of a handful of iconic examples, I would not be able to tell you which vintages were excellent or awful in any given decade, in any wine region.
For a sommelier, this seems like a huge oversight – how can I give guests the most accurate information possible to ensure they have the best wine experience?
In a restaurant situation, this is mitigated in a few ways:
- If you have control over the wine list, you can choose to stock only good vintages, to the exclusion of all others.
- Otherwise, within the wine list, one can use price as a guideline; this vintage is $200 dearer than the previous one, so it must be much better.
- One could also give a sort of non-answer, saying “there is no such thing as a bad vintage, just vintages that are ready to drink earlier rather than later”.
It’s a semi-bluff in a sense – you do your due diligence when constructing the wine list, so you don’t have to remember every year.
Ultimately, no one wants a guest to feel that they made a mistake by choosing a crappy vintage – that just lacks diplomacy.
However, in an exam setting, one needs to be better than that.
A New Approach
Drawing maps might work with geography, but this approach breaks down when dealing with numbers.
On a whim, I decided to try a new technique: pattern recognition.
Port turned out to be a great place to start because the main houses must declare when they plan to release a vintage port.
These vintages are helpfully tracked by the Instituto dos Vinhos do Douro e Porto, or Port and Douro Wines Institute (IVDP).
In contrast, other regions make wine every year when possible – vintage evaluations are done by multiple parties, inside and out, all with their own standards and agendas.
There is another reason I chose to start with Port – In the Theory portion (which I failed) of the Advanced Sommelier Exam this year there had been a few questions regarding Port vintages, which I had shamefully left blank.
The chart laid out at the top of this article is the final result of my efforts.
I will now break down each decade and explain how I fix the patterns into my memory.
1900 and 1970 – The Diagonals
Starting with the 1900s, I found a common pattern with the 1970s.
I imagined a diagonal line going through the declared years for the 1900s.
For the 1970s, this line is tipped with an arrow point on the bottom-right, marking the declared years of that decade.
1920 and 1980 – The Ys
These two decades form a pattern that bear a striking resemblance to the upper- and lower-case letter Y.
1930, 1940, 1960, 1990 – The Ls
If you’ve ever played Tetris, this shape should be familiar to you.
There may be a bit of confusion here, simply because there are four decades to remember, and the L-shape could conceivably fit in multiple positions – For the 1960s was it 0-3-6-7, or 1-4-7-8? Or even 3-4-5-8?
I like to use the 1960s as the origin, because it is a “proper” upper-case L.
For the 1960s, the “L” is all the way to the Left
Viewed this way, there is only one orientation and one position where this pattern can fit.
The other decades can be adapted from this.
Now see the shape for the 1940s, a perfect mirror image of the 1960s.
For the 1940s, the “Reverse-L” is all the way to the Right.
The 1990s is an inverted L-block, looking like a lower-case R.
For the 1990s, the “r” is all the way to the Right.
Finally, for the 1930s, even though only three vintages are highlighted, you can imagine it being the same shape as the 1960s if you extend it.
It just happens to be shifted diagonally up and to the right.
For the 1930s, the “L” is shifted Up and to the Right.
1910, 1950, 2000 – The One-Twos
I named this set the One-Twos because they are characterized by having two adjacent vintages highlighted, with one other floating elsewhere.
These three decades were probably the most challenging for me to internalize, because they did not form a simple pattern.
I actually begin with the 2000s, visualizing the paired vintages rotating around the center (the 4 highlighted red) from 2000, 1910 and 1950.
Of course these are not in chronological order, but when viewing the whole chart you can imagine moving in a roughly clockwise direction coving those decades.
The next challenge is to link the “floating” vintage to the paired ones.
The best way I have come up with is to apply chess terminology:
- 2000 – the 2007 vintage is linked diagonally to 0-3
- 1910 – the 1917 vintage is linked by a jump to 1-2
- 1950 – the 1950 vintage is linked by a knight’s move to 5-8
I’ll admit it’s not the cleanest association I’ve come up with, but it seems to work for me and I hope you will be able to use it too.
2011 – The Loner
I have not bothered to create a diagram for the decade of 2010 because currently the IVDP website lists only one vintage – 2011.
It is important to keep up with the news, however, as it seems many of the major houses will be producing a 2016 vintage.
For now, as it is not listed on the official IVDP website I have chosen to omit it.
The Final Diagram
Looks a bit chaotic, doesn’t it?
However, after spending enough time fixing these patterns in my mind, I’m now able to recall over 100 years of declared Port vintages.
For other people there might be more effective ways to go about it, but this is what I’ve found works for me.
In the end, being able to this is probably useful only in an exam setting, or to avoid being scammed by someone trying to sell you a non-existent vintage.
However, I hope these techniques can be applied to my future studies on different topics.
The world of wine is huge, and I’ll need every trick in the book to keep a handle on it.