It’s that time of year. As wineries start to pick their grapes, we’ll be hearing reports about the quality of the harvest. Although vintage reports and their accompanying charts do carry some value, they really don’t do anything useful for most of us heading to our local shop or restaurant on any given night and purchasing a bottle of wine.
A vintage rating is just an opinion about the growing conditions affecting the grapes in a particular year. When we hear about a “great” vintage, that usually means that the conditions were favorable over a large area for the growers to harvest ripe and healthy fruit.
In a “great” year it’s fairly easy for everyone to make a good wine. In a “bad” year it just means that things are more difficult. The truth is that good winemakers usually make quality wine every year, barring a complete disaster. What does change is the style of the wine. One year the wine might be fuller or leaner, have more structure in terms of drying tannins, or have lower acidity and a softer mouthfeel. In that sense, every year is different.
The information on a vintage chart is useful when you are collecting wines and cellaring them for aging. It’s not just the quality rating but a judgment of whether the wines will age more slowly or more quickly in a certain year. This information is important when you are dealing with an older wine or planning to keep something for a decade or more before drinking it. Outside of cellaring, a lot of this doesn’t matter, as the consumer is at the mercy of what is currently available on the shelf anyway. In this case, who made the wine is much more important than what year it’s from.
Quality wines will express their place of origin and the character of a specific vintage. This is a good thing. Cabernet sauvignons from Bordeaux and Sonoma do not taste the same, nor should they. The same holds true for pinot noir from various locations around the world, whether from a village in Burgundy, Santa Barbara or New Zealand.
A little secret is that you can find great values buying an “average” or “mediocre” vintage, especially from quality properties with good track records. You might even get a more precise feeling of place than in super-ripe vintages. Although usually rated very highly in the press, wines from these years can be overripe and lose their individuality.
My advice is to not get overly wrapped up in the vintage, but focus on who made the wine and which vineyards the grapes are coming from. It pays to find wineries that take the necessary steps in the vineyard to ensure harvesting ripe, clean fruit and making good quality wine every year, even if the wines are a little different each vintage. In that sense, the winemakers say that “wines are like photos of your children; each year it’s obviously the same person but also each year they’re a little different.” The variety is part of the fun and the experience, so enjoy it.
Michael Amendola is wine director at The Village Wine Merchant in Sea Cliff. Learn more about wines at www.villagewinemerchant.com.