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Does vintage still matter?

18 comments

Maybe it’s the freezing cold spell we’ve been having lately, but I’ve been thinking about the weather, and how it affects grapes in these modern times, when there are so many weapons in the winemaker’s tool box to un-do any damage it might cause.

It’s so different from the old days. Prognosticators used to opine on a vintage almost before the grapes had been picked, and buyers would genuflect and base their buying decisions on the edicts of a few. I was reminded of this when I picked up my old copy of Michael Broadbent’s The Great Vintage Wine Book, which is one of the best wine books ever. Michael colors entire Bordeaux vintages with a few flourishes of his pen:

1863: mediocre quality
1864: A truly grand année
1866 and 1867: unripe vines and feeble green wines
1870: the greatest, possibly, of all time

Blog disclosure: This is not my cellar!

Of course, Michael wasn’t alive then, but resorts to reports then current from vignerons and brokers, as well as his own extensive tasting of old wines. How easy it was then to paint Bordeaux vintages with a single brush. After all, it’s a smallish region — only about 40 miles separate St. Estephe and Bordeaux — and a relatively homogenous one, weather-wise. True, it might hail on one vineyard and spare another next door, but mostly the entire district has the same weather. Also, because Bordeaux is in a damp continental (as opposed to Mediterranean) climate, yearly weather patterns can differ dramatically.

California is so different. With our Mediterranean climate, the old saying that “Every year is a vintage year” is truer than not, although it was long the fashion among critics to claim otherwise. If you live in California, you know this to be true. Summers are dependably warm and dry. Autumn is typically gorgeous. Yes, it can rain in September, particularly in the north, but not heavily, and even if it does, the next week usually will be sunny and dry, allowing the water to evaporate off the grapes instead of spoiling them.

Winter can be nasty, with floods and freezes, but the vines are dormant and don’t much care. Spring is iffy, with late rains and frosts sometimes wreaking havoc in the vineyards (as they did in 2008). But for the most part, a bad Spring will result in a short crop, but not an inferior one. California’s weather is so dependable — even with climate change — you can set your watch by it.

And then there are all the tricks vintners use to counter the effects of weather, in both the vineyard and in the winery. The sciences of viticulture and enology have salvaged crops that would have been ruined once upon a time.

I write up Wine Enthusiast’s California vintage chart every year, and I’ll praise a year like 2005, which was so kind to Pinot Noir, or 2001, when North Coast Cabernet excelled. But the truth is, everybody tends to make more of vintages than they deserve in California. The downside of a harsh vintage rating — for example, the way some critics trashed 1998 — is that consumers, buying into the anachronistic Bordeaux model, tend to shun everything from that year, including some very good wines that didn’t suffer at all. The bottom line for consumers — and for budding bloggers — is that vintage variation should be taken with a grain of salt.

  1. I find your last sentence pretty freakin odd. Why not substitute “— and for budding bloggers — ” with “— and for senior California wine writers — “?

    Also, you make the case in your last paragraph not to do a vintage chart. Why not follow your own advice?

  2. Jack- good points. I deliberately wrote “for budding bloggers” because I’ve seen evidence of a certain tendency for them to buy into the spin they’re given by winemakers or PR types. I’ve urged them to develop some skepticism and journalistic fact-gathering, instead of simply repeating what they’re told. As for “senior” writers, I don’t know what their thoughts on vintage are, because I don’t really pay that much attention to them. And on the matter of vintage charts, I stated that I do contribute the California part to ours, and there is some validity to the claim that, overall, one year is better than another. But this is not a reliable parameter for consumers to make buying judgments. The only reliable parameter is what’s in the bottle! And that’s why consumers who are looking for clues as to what to buy should look to people they respect for recommendations — be they critics or merchants or whoever.

  3. Steve,

    I’m not as much of a ‘veteran’ of the wine industry as you are, but these last four years have shown that Mother Nature DOES have an impact on vintage, and that vintage variations are very very real.

    That said, I agree with your assertion that macro claims of ‘good’ or ‘bad’ vintages are somewhat misleading as the variability that exists within a state such as CA are great; since winemakers have a number of ‘tricks of the trade’ to make better wines out of ‘less than ideal’ grapes; and the weather in a state like CA will most likely (notice I didn’t say NEVER) not be as drastic as, say, Burgundy, where rains help determine the ‘quality’ of the vintage.

    I think one other thing that makes the discussion more difficult is how quickly reviewers like yourself are expected to ‘rate’ a vintage . . . For example, 2005 pinots were ‘open for business’ generally very young, and this approachableness (is that a word?) made them easier to assess. Take the 2006 pinots, though, and the same thing could be said. Early reviews were generally not that good, but I’m a believer that 2006 pinots, at least down in the St Rita Hills and the Santa Maria Valley, are going to be beautiful wines in a year or two – they just need a little more time to ‘strut their stuff’.

    Great observation and nice blog – I’ll be curious to follow and see what others have to say . . .

    Cheers!

  4. In between the spring frosts and autumn rains there are many meteorological events that affect the vines.
    Vintage variation can be seen in wines coming from the same vineyard.
    These variations can be beaten out of any wine – either by picking so late that each year’s grapes taste the same (ie like raisins), or in the cellar.

    Steve, the market drives much of wine style. I think you underestimate how much the public’s desire for consistency in wine (from vintage to vintage) impacts/contributes to this perceived lack of vintage variation.

  5. Larry, I’m becoming more and more convinced that subjectivity plays a far greater role in wine evaluation than I might have thought. Knowing what the vintage is — knowing the label — knowing that winery’s price — all these are so determinative of how critics evaluate wines. We all want absolute truths in life, including in wine, but things are seldom clear cut. I can write that the 2001 Napa Cabs (tasted in 2003-2004) were the best ever, but that doesn’t mean that every 2001 Cab out of Napa was good. It also wasn’t necessarily because of the weather. Vineyard managers were doing better viticulture, winemakers were doing better enology, and the vines were older.

    Arthur, I’m not sure what you mean that “the public’s desire for consistency in wine (from vintage to vintage) impacts/contributes to this perceived lack of vintage variation.” Perhaps you can explain a little more?

  6. Steve

    Wine is a business. That means wine is a product. It is no esoteric fact that winemakers know that the general public likes particular traits in wines. Additionally, it is not a secret that the majority of the marketplace seeks predictability and consistency of any product.

    If you want to move your product, you make it suitable to the desires of the buyers. Thus, “the public’s desire for consistency in wine drives a lack of vintage variation” in many cases.

  7. I think today is hard to taste the difference between vintages due some winemaking techniques… wines taste the same year after year because basically the grapes are pick way overripe so pretty much you have wines made mostly from raisins and raisins don’t care about the weather.

  8. Morton Leslie says:

    Vintages matter in a general sense in Bordeaux. Even more from property to property due to geology. But you can’t compare a relatively homogeneous (geographically and climatically) region like Bordeaux to a much larger heterogeneous region like California and say anything meaningful about the importance or unimportance of vintage.

    The problem is not the meaningless of vintage, it is the meaningless of talking about California as if it were one region growing one related set of grape varieties like Bordeaux. The problem is with people who make these meaningless generalizations when they should know better.

    Vintages matter in California, but at a regional level. When you look at a smaller region like the Napa Valley you find that a list of cool wet years like…1967, 1972, 1975, 1979, 1982, 1998, and 2000 all have significance in Napa Valley Cabernet quality, but no meaning in “California wine.” When you go to smaller sub-areas like Howell Mountain or the Mayacamas range you find even more significance, though these regions may fare opposite to the valley floor. And finally when you look at specific vineyards within the valley you see even more significance and correlation to vintage.

    What about 1976, 1977,1986,1987? Do you think these drought years in the Napa Valley had no signifance to wine quality and that speaking of these unusual circumstances does not help in understanding why the wines are the way they are?

    Budding bloggers. Listen to me. Vintages matter. It’s only if you make broad generalizations that characterize California or France or Italy or Australia as single homogenous growing regions that speaking of vintage loses its meaning. But that is because you’ve set up a meaningless conversation in the beginning.

  9. Great topic, and one that I find myself confronting quite a lot when I’m asked for “wine advice.”

    I wrote my own sort of mini-treatise on this back in May ( see http://1winedude.blogspot.com/2008/05/trouble-with-vintages-when-you-should.html ), and said that the majority of my fine wine purchases have been in “bad” vintages. The bottom line is that a passionate producer with talented staff and a history of great winemaking will still make impressive wine in an off year. They may not be wines of sublime perfection, but they sure as hell won’t be bad, and they have the potential to totally knock your socks off.

  10. Jen,

    To me, this is a vast over-generalization of CA wines . . . And it is one that simply does not fit anymore. In fact, I’m not sure it EVER fit . . . There certainly have been reviewers who lambasted CA wineries for extended hangtime leading to higher alcohol levels, but I’m not sure that the general public necessarily agreed with this.

    There certainly are some wines produced in CA that fit your description – and there are plenty produced in WA, in Australia, and, hold onto your hat, even in FRANCE that the description fits . . .

    But to make such a broad generalization of CA just is not ‘correct’ . . . IMHO . . .

    Cheers!

  11. Washington state even more than California might be considered to have minimal vintage variation. Autumn is routinely sunny, days warm, nights cold, weather dry. Hey – it’s a desert! But other factors do influence the styles and flavors of the wines year to year. And often the warmest, ripest, most easily accessible vintages get the big ratings from out of state critics. The opposite is also true. The Washington vintage that was almost uniformly panned by the Press (this writer excepted) was 1999. Yet it has undeniably turned out to be one of the greatest vintages ever, and the wines are aging superbly. I do think there are vintage variations, but I look forward to the day when they are celebrated, not rated, and enjoyed for their subtleties.

  12. Morton,

    I agree 100% and only wish I had articulated the point the way you do. I guess I had assumed that it went without saying that vintage variation can be seen within AVA, sub-AVAs, districts and, of course, vineyards.

  13. Here’s what I get:
    1. In California, vintage matters. To some extent.
    2. The effects of vintage can be and are masked, sometimes heavily, by interventions such as long hangtime.
    3. But vintage doesn’t matter in California as much as it does in France.

    Can we agree?

  14. It’s spooky Steve, I sort of brought up the subject on my blog today – http://underthegrapetree.blogspot.com – simply out of frustration from a retailer’s view point. I get people that take second- or third-generation infromation from wine reviewers such as yourself and spin it as “1998 – awful vintage” which irks me because I KNOW Chateauneuf du Pape was great in 98, as was Oregon and Australia. But with all the innovations in winemaking and the unconscious drive by winemakers to craft wines for points and glory, it seems to have really made vintage irrelevant in some cases. I think like a lot of your commentors stated, it matters in regions with a sense of place, but I really don’t see it in California. Customers seem to take what their friends or people they supposedly quote at face value and copy that opinion for themselves. But when you taste them blind on the same wine, they find no faults at all. It is a business, and we are in it to sell wine, but it becomes frustrating when all the education and time you put into your job seems to fall flat on its arse when dealing with the public most of the time.

  15. Steve

    Re:

    1. – the smaller the region, the more vintage matters – I agree with Morton Leslie
    2. – agreed
    3. – as with #1, with smaller AVAs vintage variation becomes more distinct and thus its significance approaches (and possibly equals) that of France.

  16. Morton Leslie says:

    The effects of vintage have been greatly reduced in Bordeaux with the ubiquitous replacement of chaptalization with concentration by reverse osmosis of the must. This correlates to the elimination of vintage characteristics in many California AVA’s by letting the grapes raisin on the vine.

    While for the most part these two interventions have not made wine more interesting or enjoyable to me, there has been one benefit. I used to buy classified Bordeaux in the “worst” vintages finding the few vineyards that excelled despite the growing conditions. It made my cellar interesting from a certain aspect. (Yeah, I didn’t have the big names in the great years, but I could surprise someone with a wine.) In the “great” vintages I could explore with total satisfaction the petit châteaux and unclassifed bottlings. Now with homogeneity, I find I am satisfied just exploring the latter.

  17. Perhaps vintage dates on California wines are most relevant as
    mere signposts helping one to find one’s way back or to help another
    find direction? Then, there is Vintage Dating which is equally controversial and usually transpires around senior centers.

  18. I couldn’t agree more with Steve’s comments on vintage. In thinking about vintage, I think the most important consideration is: Did the grapes get ripe? Any difference between vintages where the grapes ripened pales in significance in comparison to a vintage where the grapes didn’t ripen. Unripe grapes give thin wines with lots of green (bell pepper, green olive) qualities, particularly in the Bordeaux varities, especially Cabernet Sauvignon. In France, many regions are on the edge as far as ripening is concerned, so one vintage can be much better than another. Also, France is more likely to get rain in the harvest season, which motivates grapegrowers to bring the crop, ready or not, to avoid botrytis. In both regards, California is more fortunate. Most grapes ripen easily here most years, and rain is much less of a factor. The result is that grapes are usually ripe when picked. While not eliminating vintages as a factor, they are much less of a factor than in France.
    I would also like to respond to a number of the posts concerning hangtime. There is no right or wrong answer on this subject. Grapes develop as they ripen. For red wine grapes, they start with green thin flavors. They then move to what I call the bright fruits (strawberry for example), then a series of darker fruits (cherry, blackberry, prune, raisin). These flavors vary by variety as well (Cabernet is more prone to green flavors than Syrah, for example). Sugar levels go up (resulting in higher alcohols), and acid levels come down. But the sugar and acid levels do not strictly correlate to the flavors, so you can get vineyards where the flavors till aren’t there despite high sugar and low acidity, and vice versa. While I consider prune and raisin “overripe”, at least when present as the dominant characteristic, that is a subjective judgment. It ultimately comes down to what you like in a wine.

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