Guest column: Robert Mason

Non vintage, non issue

Blending wines from different years isn’t a problem for winemakers in Champagne, or for Port producers. So why should non vintage be such a taboo for still wines? By Robert Mason, June 2020

A gathering of suspect bottles. Hushed furtive murmurs on street corners. Illicit figures lurk in the shadows. Cowering wines hide in the cellar for fear of being locked in the attic as the “dirty little secret”.

These are non vintage still wines.

Yes, these wines exist. Quality wines at that. There are many people that have invested time, money and care into producing outstanding non-vintage wines. There is a place for them and there is an audience for them too. As wine consumers become more educated, their willingness to experiment grows – not only shopping better but seeking excitement. Maybe it is time, now more than ever, to embrace quality in all its forms.

As an industry and as consumers, we are perfectly happy to buy and celebrate non vintage sparkling, sweet and fortified wines. There is no salaciousness. No feelings of shame. Yet the red, white and pink elephant (hic!), in the centre of the room, is not given a chance to shine. Not one bit. Why?

Robert Mason

Whenever NV still wine has reared its head out of the darkness and tried to speak, it has been met by a sea of disgusted faces and grumblings of derision. We have all been guilty of expressing disappointment and prejudice against NV still wines at one time or another, “cheap and nasty” being the general consensus. Stigmas of EU blends come to mind.

The whole point of a non-vintage wine is consistency. To create a wine with a steady reliability; to be uniform and immutable. Each bottle should taste the same, regardless of when or where it is consumed.

A non vintage Champagne is a prime example and is an emblem of the house style. Maybe now, in times of such global change, we ought to see NV still wines as a “house” expression of style? How about a Château Latour NV or a DRC NV?

Although these examples are extreme and highly improbable, the core ideas might not sound so wild, especially when taking into consideration the numerous variables that winemakers face.

We all know climate change leaves many wine harvests in the lap of the gods. So much so that regions are having to adapt to less familiar vine varieties – and, as a consequence, their wine laws – to suit climate conditions. The Covid-19 pandemic has impacted us all, and vignerons have been hit hard. Many wine regions are facing a huge surplus of juice. They must scrabble across markets to make ends meet, or help to top up the already full wine lake.

Flooding beside the Russian River, Healdsburg, Sonoma County in February 2019. © GibsonOutdoorPhoto / stockadobe.com

At a recent webinar held by the Institute of Masters of Wine, winemakers in the Southern Hemisphere expressed concern at the release of vintages for core brands. Some wines are having to be held back due to the effects of lockdown. This creates a backlog of youthful wines to be released past their peak, thus risking a drop in quality and denting the brand image.

The alternative is to flood the market: not ideal for the inevitable and imminent global recession. Maybe one answer is to blend multiple vintages in order to level the surplus?

So a NV blend makes perfect sense. It is an insurance policy against poor growing seasons, unpredictable weather events and catastrophes such as Covid-19. After all, en-primeur was created after the Second World War to help boost sales and revive the economy. Creating an entire division of wine sales from nothing, purely as a means to preserve healthy cash flow.

If the proverbial horns of the bull were to be yanked slightly, non-vintage still wines could prove to be welcome relief and a stabilising catalyst, on a global scale. The USP is undeniable. Then, in this ideal world, vintages should only be based on conditions being “just right”, as is the case with Port and Champagne. Restoring the word “vintage” to its rightful noble title.

Are vintages, by their very nature, at risk of becoming dilute and less special in the absence of non-vintage wines? After all, a vintage wine has the same potential to be just as dreadful as a non-vintage wine.

There is nothing to be ashamed of anymore. The world of wine needs a radical approach: maybe we need to be thinking more laterally? Perhaps it is time to reconsider non-vintage still wines and give them a chance. There is good wine out there, with or without a vintage year. The key is to have an open mind, be bold and embrace, not waste, all the vine has to offer.

Robert Mason’s Taste Test

San Marzano Cinquanta, Puglia
RRP: £21.99

The Cinquanta is one serious wine. Time, money and effort have been put in to create something special: thick glass, embossed lettering, cork closure, not to mention 50+ year old vines, spontaneous ferment and 12 months in French oak. Full, punchy, intense Primitivo/Negroamaro when first opened. Six hours decanting gives the wine an incredible elegance, complexity, finesse and focus. Worth spending up. 97/100

Vachnadziani Rkatsiteli, Kakheti
RRP: £9.49

Put aside any thoughts of qvevri and deliberately oxidised “natural” wine. This Rkatsiteli from Georgia is a pure, quietly complex and elegant modern example. Hints of Upper-Loire stony and steely minerality blended with bright, refreshing lemon zest. At just 12.5% abv it is the perfect summer sipping wine. Superb value. 91/100

Feudi di San Gregorio Trigaio, Campania
RRP: £11.25

This 100% Aglianico defies its stereotype by being super smooth and accessible. A full-bodied wine with plenty of fresh red fruit and just a touch of earth. It shows best when slightly chilled, bringing a vein of pure minerality and a steely edge. A fun, cool vino rosso that is a good gateway to the variety and the region. 89/100

Robert Mason’s industry experience includes working in the independent wine trade in London. He now works as a consultant.


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