Food & Wine Thursdays: What’s in a Year?

The mainstream Wine Press has been abuzz with how great both the 2007 Napa Cabernet vintage and the 2009 Beaujolais vintage in France has been. Writers are calling both perhaps the best vintage in a decade or at least in the last several years. As I mentioned over on the Huffington Post, 2010 Provence Rosés have also been getting a lot of buzz and 2008 Willamette Valley Pinot Noir from Oregon is also considered a banner vintage.

(As an aside to the non wine-geeks reading this, these vintages all represent the most recent releases on the market. Different styles of wine spend different lengths of time in tank, vat, barrel and bottle from harvest to release.)

But what does a “great” vintage really mean? I started thinking about this question in earnest because although I agree that 2007 Napa Cabernet is quite good and better than the last couple vintages, I’m finding that I enjoy the previous vintages of Beaujolais, Willamette Valley and Provence better than the newest releases.

In general, a great vintage means both a productive year with good crop yields and a balanced year with ideal climate conditions to facilitate proper ripening of the grapes. A great vintage, generally speaking again, is going to be a riper more productive year which favor certain styles of wine more than others. A heartier harvest can be a great thing for full-bodied grapes like Cab or Zin but it’s not necessarily ideal for lighter red grapes like Gamay (the grape of Beaujolais) and Pinot Noir.

For instance, at a tasting of several dozen 2008 Pinots last month, I found them to be monolithic in style with little distinction between producers. When compared against 2007, a notoriously difficult year in the Willamette Valley, they were radically different.

(As another aside, while I prefer the 2008 Beaujolais vintage, 2009 is still great and should be excellent with another 6-9 months in bottle.)

In the United States, we tend to associate productivity with quality when measuring a harvest–a perfectly reasonable Anglo-American sentiment. The wine makers I’ve spoken to in Southwestern Europe are more circumspect, however. Spain, Portugal and southern France all experienced a long, hot, dry growing season in 2010 with well-timed rains. It was a very productive and very ripe year. The general consensus is that the quality of their lesser cuvées will be elevated but that the quality of their flagship wines will be a bit dilute due to the overabundance of good-but-not-great fruit. Truly characterful wine–like characterful people–benefit from a little struggle now and then.

But of course grape growers need to make money, so they need to maximize grape production without hopefully compromising quality. And that’s the great thing about a “great” vintage–the rising tide lifts all ships. More wine can be made and excess fruit or wine can be sold off to négociants or used to make lower-priced cuvées. In a great year wines at all price points will be of generally good quality. I’ve already had several under $20-retail small production domestic Pinots that were quite good, always a difficult find. Take advantage.

But with excellent producers making wines from excellent fruit from vineyards they control or own outright, does a “better” vintage really mean a “better” wine? My contention is that it does not–good producers will make good wine regardless of the year. They’ll have to make less of it and it might be more expensive, but it will still be a wine of distinction.

(And just to stir the pot: if you’re making heavily oaked 14.5% alcohol Pinot Noir or Gamay, the only thing that matters is productivity not quality anyway, no?)

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About David D.

I'm a wine professional. Like a real one who makes most of his living in wine and have for most of my adult life. I also write, but you can see that.
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