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The Reluctant Sommelier: Is Vintage Important?

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by Nina Sventitsky

I have seen this question in several blogs lately. Why is it coming up now?

It could be a result of the great 2012 vintage of wines from regions up and down the West Coast of the US, released starting last Fall and continuing into this year – in particular, wines that have been aged for a few years in oak are readily available from an outstanding vintage. The 2010 Barolos from Italy are out now, as well, another great vintage for that wine region. Ditto for Brunello.

What makes a decent vintage anyway?

Essentially, it’s a great growing season, one in which the weather, sunlight, temperature all happen at a pace that allows for steady ripening of grapes, across a region, with consistency. A vintage in which, no matter what your macro- and micro-climate is in the vineyard and no matter where you are in that wine region, the yields were ideal, ripening was ideal and potential for aging and market value are fantastic.

The point about vintage is this … you can have the best soils, experienced growers and winemakers, a well-known wine region, but a bad summer of heat, or a series of rainy days just prior to harvest, and it all goes out the window. Weather is the main variable in determining the success of the particular vintage.

This is why regions like California, Australia and Spain have been gaining traction in the United States; fair prices, more consistent weather in generally great climates for wine, and styles that we like.

Here in the US, the West Coast is blessed with a perfect convergence of geology, topography, climate and weather. 90% of US wine production comes from California. Another few percentage points come from Oregon and Washington.  Our West Coast climate is the envy of all other major global wine regions, because it is generally consistent. In California particularly, we are blessed with predictability.

Not so with some of the rest of the world’s great wine regions. Get a bad vintage or two in a row, and you’re sitting on a lot of expensive wine with bad reviews. And you have to live with that wine and hope for the best.

Maybe I exaggerate a bit. No one is horrified drinking Burgundy from a not-great vintage; maybe feeling a bit ripped off and disappointed, but not horrified.

If you are simply buying for everyday drinking, and not to cellar, what’s at retail is going to be fine – you should simply understand which broad regions are dependent on variable weather. Those with weather challenges year to year are Northern Italy, France, New Zealand, Chile – and here in the US, Oregon due to some ripening challenges.

You should also know your wine style, what you love. If you are a big Cab drinker, and love rich juicy wines with a lot of tannin – 2011 Napa Valley is not the vintage for you. In spite of what I said in the previous paragraphs about our perfect weather, 2011 was unseasonably cold and overcast in California. It was a very cool vintage and I don’t mean culturally cool; I mean literally cool. It was the summer-that-never-was out here, with grapes taking FOREVER to ripen. Red wines are a bit austere. But for whites? A cool season means crisp acid and possibly more aromatics – there is the silver lining for this “bad vintage.”

Declared Vintages

There are some regions that will “declare” their great vintages, like Champagne and Porto. You should expect that this practice guarantees that the regions winemakers think it’s their best, and that the wines are meant to be aged.

In Rioja, the wine region that I represent (disclosure alert!), the consortium rates each vintage, from (No Comment) to Good to Very Good to Excellent. Most Rioja bodegas won’t make a Reserva or Gran Reserva wine in a “Good” rated year – too much expensive oak goes into making these wines, since there are minimum aging requirements in barrel and bottle. Grapes from those vintages will go into simple wines with a bit of oak aging and prices under $20.

Thomas_Arvid_Cork_2001 (1)

When Should I Just Give In and Open the Bottle?

Such a confusing and mysterious question. This is when a bit of research and a Coravin helps. Coravin is an expensive accessory that allows one to extract a small amount of wine straight through the foil and cork to test readiness; once removed the cork reseals itself and you’ve got your answer. But it’s $300 and so new (released only a few years ago) that there is not enough data to support that the wine is not affected by the argon gas injected into the bottle to protect against oxygen contact.

The best option is to research – the region, the vintage and harvest conditions, the winemaker’s style or reputation. Five minutes of time will make a lot of difference.

In general? Most of us wait too long to open that bottle of California wine that’s been sitting in the closet forever. Not every wine region supports extra long aging. Napa Valley wines? If you have not opened your 1990’s, you’re too late.

Then again, don’t be an ijit and buy a young wine and expect it to simply “open up” after a run through the aerator. Barolo from the excellent 2010 vintage? Hope you’re patient, because that baby needs another decade, and can last another 30 years.

Rather than publish a master chart of the past 20 years of vintages from the great wines of the world, I urge you to take a few minutes to search “(xxx region) vintage report“.   Most wine regions publish vintage reports, or harvest reports.

FYI, here is the vintage summary from the Napa Valley Vintners:

http://www.napavintners.com/napa_valley/vintage_charts.asp

And from Sonoma County Vintners, a report on the 2010 vintage, lots of learning in this one:

http://www.sonomawine.com/press-room/press-releases/147-challenging-growing-conditions-produce-outstanding-grapes-throughout-sonoma-county

And because this can be a bit confusing, a knowledgable retailer, storefront or online, plays an important role. There are so many online retailers known for providing in depth info about producers, regions, weather and vintages – among them WineAccess.com, Winex.com, K & L Wine Merchants (KLWINES.com). Snooth and Bottlenotes are excellent for background information on wines and vintages.

One thing is certain – researching and tasting through vintages is a helluva lot less expensive than researching your next audio obsession! And it’s something you can do simultaneously.

Happy sipping!

About the Author

NinaSunsetGlassNina Sventitsky has been “into wine” for the last 20 years. She serves as the Secretary General of the North American Sommelier Association (NASA) and is the brand ambassador for the wine region of Rioja, Spain. She is also a professional wine educator, focusing on US varieties. Her professional certifications include: WSA/NASA Silver Pin Certified Sommelier, NASA American Wine Specialist, NASA Italian Wine Specialist, WSET Advanced Certificate, and the Court of Master Sommeliers Level 1.

She’s also a partner at WyWires.

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2 Comments on The Reluctant Sommelier: Is Vintage Important?

  1. matthewpartrick // March 26, 2015 at 11:59 PM //

    Great article. Could you consider a topic for next time about European wines to contrast? Maybe Appellation Contrôlée designations, or aphid blights etc. I also especially love the stories about Champagne houses ferreting away the good stuff during WWII. Thx again

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