Portuguese winemaker António Maçanita knew he was taking a big risk in 2015. He decided to market a style of premium rosé with no vintage date on the bottle. The response of his friends and neighbors was unanimous.
In no uncertain terms, they said he was making a bad choice.
“Everyone advised me against it,” says Maçanita. “They said rosé needed to have a young date on the bottle to be sellable.”
Determined to prove them wrong, Maçanita mixed in wines from different years, to see if he could produce something far greater than the sum of its parts. His Fitapreta Rosé is now a bestseller, proving that nonvintage wines can do well. More blended labels, including a red, are in the works.
The seeds of a revolution
Is Maçanita a pioneer? From one perspective, no; winemakers in Champagne have been combining different vintages for centuries. This helps to smooth over the inevitable quality variations between harvests, as weaker vintages can be given a shot in the arm with the addition of wines from better years. The wine drinker benefits from a consistent product, regardless of the weather.
Another argument in favor of this approach is that the end result is more complex, more complete, than a single-vintage expression. In many regions, young wines often require several years to reach their full potential. This is perhaps an anachronism in such a fast-paced world; who has the patience to lay bottles down in a dusty cellar? “Part of my motivation was to create a more evolved and gastronomic style of rosé wine,” says Maçanita. “I much prefer older rosé — young wines feel like a shadow of what they could give.”
Yet until recently, still winemakers were suspicious of this paradigm. Many influential voices have long argued that expressing the characteristics of different years is of paramount importance, whether they’re rain-sodden disasters or sweltering infernos. Their main objection to the multi-vintage paradigm is that vintage blending sullies terroir, transforming it into just another bland, standardized product.
“We have never tried multi-vintage blending, and have not seen the need to. Being able to capture different expressions of each vintage is a very important part of our winemaking,” says Ornellaia estate director Axel Heinz.
“Producing a pure vintage style allows us to make wines that are different from year to year and have their own specific story to tell.”
However, a growing number of trailblazers, from South Africa to Napa Valley, see things differently. They’ve decided to stick two fingers up at tradition and follow the Champagne model.
A long way to go
Admittedly, there is a long path ahead before the onset of a revolution. But a counter-culture movement, while still in its infancy, is starting to make waves.
“It is funny to me that people will happily drink nonvintage Champagne or Sherry, yet with other styles of still wine it is seen as quirky or strange,” says Samantha Suddons, founder of South Africa’s VineVenom brand. “I wanted to make wines that are reliable, approachable, and based more off a certain winemaking style than vintage variation. If people like the taste of the wine, then that is all that matters — I would hope that winemakers would also see the benefits of my approach.”
In addition to producing a rosé, red, and Chenin Blanc white, Suddons will be releasing an NV orange wine later this year. She finds it gratifying that local interest in multi-vintage expressions is growing, with wines now made by an eclectic range of wineries including Bergsig, De Toren, Sijnn, Mellasat, and Ken Forrester, who all made a conscious decision to produce multi-vintage labels.
It’s not just South Africa. Cain Vineyard & Winery has also decided to produce a multi-vintage blend: Cain Cuvée. Situated in one of the most beautiful parts of Napa Valley, the Spring Mountain District, the property was founded by Jerry and Joyce Cain in the 1980s. After deciding to craft a blend of the classic Bordeaux varieties, the owners thought that blending vintages could give their customers a guarantee of quality.
New World pioneers
According to Chilean label Caballo Loco, vintage mixing can serve a multitude of purposes: It can enhance complexity, increase reliability, and smooth over the occasional misjudgment. “We never planned to adopt the multi-vintage model. It was a random occurrence,” says Luciano Fiori, North America sales director at Grupo Valdivieso, owner of the brand.
“I remember that our bottling line used to be 200 km (124 miles) away from the winery; during transportation of our premium wines some barrels didn’t fit in the truck and were left behind, piling up different varieties and vintages altogether.” A subsequent visit from some influential wine buyers encouraged the team to properly taste this higgledy-piggledy treasure trove. As it turned out, the customer’s advice on certain barrel samples was “ease down on the new oak.” Because time travel was out of the question, the winemaker decided to blend across different years, favoring wines with less oak impact. Caballo Loco has maintained this approach ever since.
“Caballo Loco is based on a selection of the best vineyards, vintages, and varieties in the central valley of Chile,” he says. “Our philosophy is based on the solera system, where 50% of the mixture is from the previous edition and the other 50% comes from the best lots of new wine.”
Fiori suspects, however, that European growers are far less likely to embrace the multi-vintage model due to “snobbery about the idea of a vintage date denoting something special.” Interestingly, EU law permits multi-vintage blending in still wines; a grower in France, for example, can add up to 15% from another harvest to their vintage-dated wine, although few winemakers dabble in this practice. Overall, despite Champagne and wines like Sherry, this movement is confined to the New World.
One of the key proponents of blending across different regions and years is Peter Gago, head winemaker at Penfolds. In 2017, he released a new version of Penfold’s flagship wine Penfolds Grange. For the first time ever, it combined three vintages in one bottle. At the time, Gago was inundated with questions as to the motivation and wisdom of this venture. Just what was he thinking? Gago’s response: “A blend of blends. Why not? An expression spanning vineyards and vintages, retaining 100% Grange DNA. This Penfolds G3 release celebrates both the past and the future.” The latest edition, Penfolds G5, mixes up Grange wines from the 2010, 2012, 2014, 2016, and 2018 harvests. It is outstanding: rich, complex and velvety magic. It’s also very expensive, retailing at over $2,600.
Fine wine resistance
For the moment, Penfolds G5 remains an outlier in the fine wine market. Regions like Bordeaux rely on vintage hype to justify price rises, which more than offsets the problem of selling weaker years. Adopting the multi-vintage model would put a stop to all that. Moreover, sommeliers are generally attached to the concept of vintage. As the gatekeepers of restaurant wine sales, their views count.
“I think the wine-drinking community understands the importance of vintage at large, even if the specifics of each vintage are left to aficionados and wine professionals,” says Watson Brown, wine director, Eleven Madison Park in New York City. “It remains an excellent connection point between our sommeliers and guests as just one of the many intricacies of our world that are exciting to share with those who are drinking from our wine list at the restaurant each night.”
Watson believes that the idea of a vintage expression is ingrained into the DNA of the fine wine sphere. A multi-vintage product, he argues, would endanger wine’s ability to reflect the season it comes from. The vast majority of winegrowers are 100% behind him. Their resistance is unlikely to dissipate anytime soon.
Luciano Fiori and other advocates of the style have a different point of view. “It may be the case that winemakers regard wines from one vintage as inherently superior,” he says. “But for the moment, every region experiences good and bad years. So maybe we should all be thinking about multi-vintage still wines.”
3 multi-vintage still wines to try:
Cain Wines Napa Valley Cuvée NV17 (~$34)
A blend of two vintages, Cain Wines NV offering just keeps getting better and better. Deeply aromatic and richly textured, it reveals an enticing mix of cassis, damson, and vanilla in the glass. With fine tannins and ripe acidity, this will stand to age for a few years. But then again, who could wait?
Gamble Family Vineyards The Mill Keeper Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon NV (~$40)
In 2021, Californian stalwart Tom Gamble created The Mill Keeper brand, inspired by a trip to Champagne. A blend of different vintages of Napa Cabernet, the wine is fresh and lively, with attractive notes of blackcurrant, sage, and mint on the nose. The complete antithesis of a fruit bomb, The Mill Keeper is reliably excellent, year in, year out.
Stella di Campalto Montalcino Fiorello Choltempo NV (~$110)
This multi-vintage red blend from Tuscany is outstanding. Based in the heartland of Brunello di Montalcino, Stella di Campalto mixes up different vintages of Sangiovese, aging them for at least three to four years in old barrels. The result is a very complex wine of impeccable freshness and purity. Black cherry and violets on the nose are complemented by a structured and elegant palate, with notes of plum, mushroom, and rosemary.