Does vintage still matter?
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.