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A Very Good Year

January 17, 2010

Many people find wine intimidating. I like to spend my Sunday mornings demystifying the subject and encouraging people to enjoy wine.

One thing that people seem to get hung up on is the subject of vintages.  And it is easy to understand why.
–       The wine press glorifies some years and demonizes others.
–       Some vainly attempt to drink wine only at its peak.
–       Popular culture shows wine drinkers appreciating “a very good year.”

Yet for most people having a deep working knowledge of vintages is an unreasonable expectation, mostly because wine is now a global industry.  If you only drank local wine, all you would need to understand vintage is a good memory.
–       It was so hot last summer, every time I mowed the lawn I sweated buckets.
–       Spring of 2007 was so rainy that all my seedlings got washed out.

Today we don’t exclusively drink the local wine. To name a few, we drink wine from France, Spain, Italy, Germany, South Africa, Australia, Chile, Argentina, California, and New York.  And each of these countries and states have their own growing regions with their own micro-climates.  To keep all of this information in your head, you would need to be a wine scholar and do nothing but study historical weather reports for the world’s major wine-growing areas.

That said, I would like to make a bold statement and talk about it a bit further: For most wine, vintage does not matter.

And like most bold statements, it’s not true across the board.  There are some wines where vintage matters very much.  But those wines surely represent less than 5% of wines consumed globally.

Most wine, even most good wine, is made in a house style that tries to maintain some consistency year over year.  Which, mind you, is an incredibly difficult challenge for a product that is dependent on the whims of nature.

The world’s finest wines are not made like that.  So the 1982 Latour may be a completely different animal from the 1986 Latour.

But I am not talking about wines like these.  Although to be fair, one does not need to be spending this much money on a bottle of wine for vintage to make an appreciable difference.

For better or for worse, the vast majority of wine today is intended for consumption upon its release.  Most of the red wines on store shelves now are from 2006, 2007 or 2008.  The year of each wine’s current release depends largely on how long it was barrel aged and how long it has been bottle aged.  Wineries make these decisions in part based on inventory on hand and when a wine is deemed ready to drink.  But this is another subject.

The thing I find most useful about vintage is using the date to help figure out the character of the wine.

As wine gets older, the tannins, acids and fruit fade.  In the best wines, there are other flavors that lurk below the surface that reveal themselves more and more.  But in general, when looking at bottles of wine under $15 per bottle, the focus is mostly on the former.

If I were confronted with three different cabernet sauvignons, which tend to be very tannic, I might shy away from a 2008 in favor of a 2006.  However, if I wanted a fruity California pinot noir to pair with a mushroom risotto, I might be inclined to the 2008 or 2007 for its promise of more food-friendly acidity.

These vintage selections have nothing to do with the vintages themselves, but only the length of time from which the grapes have been picked.  It’s important information, to be sure.  Which is why I get really riled when vintages are not included on restaurant wine lists.

But when buying wine, relax.  The vintage date is your friend.  Do not think you need to be an expert in historical global weather patterns.  Winemakers do the best with what nature gives them.  And for the most part, there is no bad wine.

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