The subject of vintages can be an intimidating one for those just getting into wine or into a particular wine region. Quite why that little number should be considered the difference between ordinary and extraordinary, normal and exceptional, is quite mysterious. What is ‘a good year’, and who decides? And based on what criteria? And, perhaps most importantly, how can the discerning wine buyer distinguish between a fine vintage and a difficult one? Fortunately this in-depth guide is here, to hopefully shed some light on what a good or bad year actually entails (in Amarone in particular), and to give our breakdown on the vintages of Valpolicella in the 21st Century.
Intro – what makes a goood vintage?
A description of a vintage is almost always a description of weather, and even then above all a measure of sunshine. A fine, dry summer encourages strong and uninterrupted progression for the vine, from budbreak (the early-season initial efflourescence prior to grape growth) to harvest, with a big contrast between temperatures during the day and the night – known usually as diurnal temperature variation – known to be crucial in developing acidity while retaining sugar; a rainy summer might prevent the grapes from ripening fully, and even worse, encourage mildew and other fungi.
This is not the whole story, however: rain, for example, is necessary earlier in the spring and late winter, whereas overly hot temperatures in the summer (i.e. too many days in the mid-to-late-30s°C) will actually make the vines pause their growth, to resume when the heat dies down a bit, a disastrous development in the life cycle of a vine.
Vintages in Amarone
Not every wine region is particularly vintage-dependent, as there are many parts of the world where the weather is by and large reliable year on year. Valpolicella is, however, not really one of them, and its grapes quite finicky and difficult to cultivate into a quality wine crop. The region can be hit by rain and storms, not to mention the characteristic fog to which the valleys are so prone; furthermore the Corvina grape, which forms the backbone of Valpolicella’s great wines, is a slow, late-ripener, and given the appassimento process relies on grapes of exceptional ripeness this means strong sunshine late in the season is essential to produce fruit good enough to make Amarone. Moreover, Corvina also has a tendency to overproduce fruit if not carefully pruned and controlled, especially in hot seasons (as a rule of thumb, a vine only has a certain amount of flavour in it, and if this is diffused too widely among too many grapes then the resulting wine will be thinner than a wine made from a vine that produced fewer, more concentrated grapes).
Finally, producers of Amarone della Valpolicella have an additional challenge not faced by most wine producers, and another one brought on by the appassimento process. The raisinifying grapes ideally want as dry a winter as possible, as too much humidity can prevent the skins from losing moisture evenly and uniformly, as well as encouraging moulds and fungi.
And so, a truly exceptional vintage in Valpolicella will be hot, but not too hot, for a very long time – well into September and October, with summer rain at a minimum (but not totally absent), and a not over-wet winter either. In less felicitous years winemakers can still use all manner of techniques to muster great wine out of a not so promising harvest, but there is still something special about the natural alchemy of a great vintage, when nature and nurture combine perfectly to produce magic in a bottle.
Vintages of the 21st Century – The Breakdown
2000 – *****E
The first year of the new milennium was a legendary one, as well as one which shows that the rules outlined above aren’t always a perfect guideline! The summer was in fact remarkably uneven, with an unusually warm spring followed by an alarmingly cool July, with a highs more like 15°C than a more usual 30, before picking up again in August to hit above average heights once more. This late heat fortunately allowed an early harvest, given that the rains came and stayed for all of the autumn. Wines from this vintage, probably owing to this sharp late-season ripening, are renowned for their extraordinary depth and darkness, which has allowed them extraordinary longevity and development in the bottle. Not just a star – a possibly unique one.
2001 – ***
A vintage in which the weather started off rather well, but which was compromised later on by rain and even crop-damaging hail around harvest time, reducing yields and ultimately wine quantities, not to mention a wet winter. Nevertheless that initial good weather snuck through, meaning that much of the wine that was made this year is well worth a look even two decades on.
2002 – **
The early rain was well timed, but its continuation wasn’t, continuing throughout the summer and resulting in one of the wettest years in recent decades. Some luckier producers managed to make some excellent wine but they were exceptions – many chose not even to release an Amarone from the vintage, given the less-than-ideal ripeness levels.
2003 – ***
In great contrast to the previous year this was, at the time, the hottest summer ever recorded in the region. This was largely good news for the prize vineyards at the highest altitudes, but further down the valley slopes, where the heat and humidity were more intense, some vines suffered. Overall the wines were rather good, though few will have made it to the present day in peak condition owing to over-ripeness and a relative lack of acidity.
2004 – *****
In many ways a true ideal vintage, 2004 was a great year in a more conventional, expected way, unlike 2000’s idiosyncrasy. Hot, but not to the same levels as the previous year, and relatively stable throughout the spring as well as the summer, allowing steady growth and late picking. Crucially, the winter was a fine one, relatively lacking humidity and allowing for an excellent appassimento period. An excellent year for Barolo, Chianti and much the rest of Italy as well, the best of these wines will be drinking beautifully now and for several more years.
2005 – ****
An uneven year temperature-wise, but one which ended up averaging quite encouragingly hot despite a cool spring. However, this was counteracted by the rain and general humidity throughout July and August, which meant a general reduction in diurnal temperature variation. A hot, dry September was a boost, however, pushing the vintage from good to excellent, even in spite of a wettish autumn, although those hot nights meant a relative lack of acidity, and consequently a reduction in the amount of wine from this year with true ageing potential. Nevertheless, much wine from this year did make it, with many bottles still going nicely.
2006 – ***
A ‘normal year’, if such a thing exists in Valpolicella – which is to say a year of some extremes. Spring was wet, cool, and late in coming and going, but was then followed by a summer of welcome heat and aridity, extending the growing season and promising tremendous ripeness. At the time, this vintage was considered an upgrade on the previous year; however, despite their youthful fruitiness and approachability, the wines have not aged overall as well as those from 2005; however, some producers managed to create wine with a bit of staying power, albeit perhaps not with as much as in other years.
2007 – *****
If 2000 proved all our rules wrong, 2007 proves them all right. There were fears that a late season hailstorm, which destroyed up to 90% of some producers’ crops (including Romano dal Forno, who ended up not releasing an Amarone this year), would ruin the year; however, the truly excellent summer weather, which had persisted from a warm spring that had induced an early budbreak, had allowed most producers to harvest exceptionally early, thus avoiding the devastating storm. The winter that followed allowed for a good appassimento, completing the passage of this vintage from a good-but-salvaged one to a real standout, with the wines that made it ageing extremely well to this day.
2008 – ****
A good if difficult year, with a perhaps over-wet spring leading to a good but moderate summer. The harvest was complicated by rain and hail, but most producers managed to make very good wine from this year, the somewhat cooler weather even resulting (from the most skilful winemakers) in wines with particularly fine acidity, resulting in elegant, balanced wine.
2009 – *****
2009 defied early expectations to become, not merely a good year, but a really stellar one, whose wines have aged better than many predicted at the time and are continuing to grow. A wet late-winter was followed by a hot spring and very hot summer, but less-than-perfect day-night temperature variation led many to fear the wines would lack the acidity necessary for real ageability. However, the vintage turned out a truly outstanding one, with the top winemakers’ stuff holding up beautifully.
2010 – ****
Initially not especially well regarded, some wines from 2010 developed remarkably over time and remain alive in the bottle these days. Hopes were high after spring rain gave way to July heat, but a cooldown and early return of rain in August quite literally dampened expectations. Nevertheless, a brighter, drier September harvest season followed, and although the grapes didn’t ripen as much as in other years (and indeed fewer were deemed harvestable for Amarone and Recioto purposes), this was compensated for by high levels of acidity, giving much of the wine more potential for in-bottle development than previously thought. As a result, a bottle of 2010 Amarone should be approached in the knowledge that it is likely to be more elegant and less powerful than some other vintages.
2011 – *****
A tremendous vintage by any standards. The rain fell when it was wanted, early in the spring where it helped hydrate the vines, and was followed by an exceptionally hot late summer and harvest season. The hydration in the vines, the cooling breezes and the large diurnal temperature variation contributed to the strong ripening and high retention of acidity prior to picking. A very dry winter followed, leading to very even appassimento across the region, with excellent raisinification. Wines from this year have proved extraordinary, with deep power, increasing complexity and a remarkably refreshing acidity, and should prove themselves, not just now, but for many years to come.
2012 – ****
A tricky vintage, but a rewarding one. Generally speaking the problems were caused by a lack of rainfall in spring (following on from the good dry winter for the previous vintage’s appassimento), as well as in summer, where temperatures comfortably topped 40°C, causing some vines to pause from heat stress and drought. Older vines with deeper roots faired better however, managed to access moisture where others didn’t, and many fantastic Amarone wines were made in this year, typically of extreme power and concentration.
2013 – ****
Another year of great contrasts. The winter persisted longer than usual, and the spring was characterised by large amounts of quite heavy rain. A strong midsummer followed, however, encouraged good strong ripening, with a relatively temperate August raising hopes of a top vintage. However, harvest-time hailstoms struck once again, reducing a lot of the crop, and wrecking many harvest plans. Nevertheless it was in some ways an old-fashioned vintage for the region, and the experience of the winemakers of the region meant many were able to persevere and produce some very fine wine.
2014 – **
A very tough year, unlike any other in memory, with unique and unforeseen challenges. After a normal spring summer temperatures unprecedentedly dropped, and unseasonal rains caused the grapes to swell with moisture, as well develop lethal fungal infections like grey rot and powdery mildew. This necessitated an early harvest, and the total amount of grapes harvested for Amarone and Recioto was dramatically reduced. The harvest season was nevertheless fair, however, meaning that the season could end on a high, and the wine made in this most unpredictable of years was, in the end, quite traditional and old-school in style.
2015 – *****E
From challenge to triumph. After all the problems of the previous summer, 2015 turned out to be perhaps the best vintage of recent years, with rain early in the season, a moderately warm (and not entirely dry) June and July, with the true warmth and diurnal temperature variation in August and September meaning sugar-fat grapes with nonetheless high levels of acidity. Throw in a fine appassimento period and you have essentially the perfect vintage, wines of power and finesse that will grow and grow over the decades.
2016 – *****
Another superb vintage, though not necessarily from the most auspicious-seeming year. A good one, though, similar to the much-vaunted 2015 with its cool, damp spring, moderate summer and hot harvest months, but with more rain for longer in the early months. Nevertheless the wine from this year is shaping up extremely well, with all the power and freshness you’d hope for in early years, but with a lot of underlying complexity to suggest a long period of development in the bottle.
Other years to look out for:
1983 – *****
1988 – *****
1990 – *****
1995 – *****E
1997 – *****
1998 – *****