(An introduction for the non wine geek: This is the time of year when, initial fermentation having completed and fermented wine having been transferred to barrel, tank or vat for aging, preliminary assessments of the quality of the most recent vintage are being made.
These assessments are being made both by regional regulatory councils who use a combination of chemical analysis and blind tastings as well as by merchants, critics and writers who use this very early tasting to assess the potential for quality in the wine when it is finally bottled and released–often two or more years following the tasting.
These assessments can go a long way to determine wine prices, especially with more highly valued regions, but have not necessarily borne out historically in terms of overall quality.)
The accolades are coming in throughout Western Europe about the 2010 vintage. It’s being called the best year in a long time for the pink wines of Provence, the Rioja vintage was just rated “excellent,” and writers are literally jizzing into barrels over the en primeur Bordeaux barrel tastings which have been taking place in France over the last several weeks.
In my opinion, I think they’re probably full of shit.
But why is that?
The 2010 vintage–especially in greater Southwestern Europe (I include Bordeaux, Provence and the Rhone Valley)–was almost too perfect. There was lots of sun and well-timed rains and few significant oddball climatic events to disrupt ripening. In short, yields were quite good and of good quality.
That doesn’t necessarily make an excellent vintage, however. Productivity does not directly correlate to quality. The fertile and productive Central Valley of California is one of the largest wine growing regions in the world but, outside of a couple small AVAs around Lodi, are there any quality wineries of note? No, because such productive land and favorable growing conditions produce nothing more than perfectly fine and boring wine.
The same thing can happen in otherwise great vineyard sites if productivity is too high. Managing yields is one of the most important parts of grape growing, as the concentration of flavor in individual berries is what matters most. Just because you got more grapes that reached physiological ripeness at the ideal time doesn’t inherently mean you have better fruit than a less typical vintage.
Inside Rioja reports that, although the Rioja DOC rated the vintage excellent, the growers are being paid some of the lowest rates for their grapes thus far in the 21st century–even top vineyard sites. To be fair, the Rioja Regulatory Council does use a fairly objective metric of chemical measurements to produce its ratings, but I’m still suspicious of a system wherein vintage ratings are determined by a group who has at least some vested interest in seeing a very productive vintage rated as high as possible. An excellent rating in a productive year means you can either sell more higher-valued wine or make a larger margin–or both.
There’s a commercial element to this that goes beyond the basic business of wine making and wine selling. Ratings create buzz. Barrel tastings create buzz. And the more often these things happen and the more speculative fuel they can provide for wine writers, bloggers and self-described “experts” to stroke each others egos over, the better. It’s too early to see if we’re collectively engaging in a form of vintage “grade inflation,” but it’s tough for a writer to get a second free trip to Europe if he writes something unfavorable after the first trip.
(I will say that my limited tasting of 2010 wines either in barrel or bottle has borne this out–I’ve found them to be juicy, but flabby and lacking in structure. The notable exceptions so far have been the 2010 white wines from Portugal and northwestern Spain–these have been excellent.)
It’s indicative that something is off when growers in smaller stakes wine countries–places where wine is just as important but the commercial implications of vintage ratings are barrel tastings are less substantial–are more circumspect about the vintage. For instance, in talking with wine makers from Portugal, they are making the typical assessment you might make for a good, productive year: it will be a great year for less expensive wines because overall quality was good but higher end releases will be less distinctive because of overproduction. Some wine makers in Central and Eastern Europe are viewing the 2010 vintage as something of a disaster–although they had different climatic issues and the weather was far from perfect, but their willingness to be more forthright is refreshing.
And when all the column inches on the 2010 vintage have been written and the dust settles and these wines are actually released on the market, I think the consumer consensus will be simply that 2010 overall was a great year for value and mid-priced wines from Western Europe but there’s a lack of distinction among premium selections. Stick to drinking cheap with your 2010 wines and you’ll definitely be rewarded.
In the end, that’s what most of us–myself included–drink more often than not anyway, so maybe this will be a great vintage after all.