Vintage Variation

What is it good for?


Well, to start with, it makes life exciting for both producers, sometimes dangerously so, as well as consumers. One of the huge fallacies of the 100-point system, for example (though any rating system is equally incapable of quantifying a vintage), is that a vintage is something that is ratable using an uninformative absolute scale.

Vintages certainly can be described as difficult or easy, opulent or lean, but to say that one vintage is simply better than another is, as a general rule, foolish and myopic. Why is a vintage considered better simply because it produced wines with more fruit and opulence? You got me, but that certainly seems to be the rule of thumb when trying to encapsulate a year's worth of weather, farming and winemaking in some easy-to-digest, and particularly unsatisfying, score.

Vintage variation is awesome and one of the features that makes the wines of Oregon so fascinating. As many consumers note, wines from regions with consistently fine growing regions have evolved into rather monolithic and profitably consistent products, but is that good? Is that fun? Does that really help the consumer?
Willamette Valley Pinot Noir Vintage Guide

Click to see our slideshow: Willamette Valley Pinot Noir Vintage Guide

All interesting and complex questions worth exploring. To begin with, I think we should take a look at what makes a vintage "great" and why that can be unhelpful. In general, a vintage is prematurely determined to be great because the growing season was great, allowing wines to concentrate sugars, polyphenols (the flavors and aromas of wine), tannins and acids, sometimes in balance but very frequently not.

History has shown us that sometimes conditions that allow for "perfect" fruit don’t always translate into the "perfect" wines. 1985, in both Bordeaux and Piedmont, was hailed as a great growing season. The wines that vintage produced certainly are fine indeed, but have they really proven to be better than other, more difficult vintages? No, in fact, the opposite is true.

Some will argue with me, but I believe that having the vines under stress during the growing season tends to make for more interesting, though less opulent and fruit-driven wines. It really all boils down to what you want to get out of that glass you're drinking. I value transparence in a wine, which, while hard to describe, is the opposite of extreme richness, which understandably creates an opaque wine.

I also value juicy acidity, which sadly can be added to wine, and I say sadly only because this has tempted winemakers to shoot for ever-increasing ripeness at harvest since correction can be made later to things like acidity, which falls in the grapes as their sugars rise. Now, don’t get me wrong, there are many skilled winemakers out there who can deftly use these corrective measures to make fine wines, but the temptation for abuse is there, and we all know how skilled we humans are at resisting temptation.

So, why are winemakers so tempted? For starters, there is the allure of a consistent product. So many of the epicurean products we love have consistency as their strong suit, be it prosciutto or cheddar, sourdough bread or buckwheat honey. Many producers seem to see consistency as something the market demands and rewards. At the same time, and in a distinctly duplicitous way, winemakers want us to believe that wines are ruled by terroir.

Well, which is it? Are wines ruled by terroir, delivering a unique expression of earth, sun and man for each vintage or are they fantastically consistent? That’s a choice each winemaker needs to make, but it can’t be both. If a winemaker makes a choice to produce wine in Oregon it pretty much has to be the first, because conditions simply will not allow for the latter. That’s not to say that each winery can’t have a consistent house style. Quite the contrary. The challenge for winemakers, and most love a good challenge, is to maintain that style while allowing for the broad variations vintages force in to their barrels.

So why is vintage variation a good thing? Simply put, it tells you more about the land and winemaker than consistent wines can ever do. In great vintages it’s relatively easy to make great wine, more difficult vintages help to separate out the masters from the students. At the same time, vintage variation is the single best lesson a consumer has to help understand the concept of terroir: why one vineyard might be better than another and what each vineyard brings to the table.

The concept of terroir embodies many aspects, one of which is that each vineyard, or even plots within a single vineyard, expresses itself with certain identifiable traits as a wine. The reason vintage variation is helpful in understanding terroir is simply because sometimes, in many so-called great vintages, there is so much fruit in the wine that the subtle details of terroir expression can be obscured. And again, I favor transparency in my wines, and this is one of the reasons, though other reasons tend to include transparent wines being more delicate in the mouth, less sweet, less richer, less overtly oaky and, in general, less heavy handed.

So, in a rather roundabout way, that brings me to my point today, and that point is that the wines of Oregon have a compelling story to tell, and one that is often viewed as a flaw by many. The glory of vintage variation.

Not only does this allow for a wonderful array of wine to be produced (no matter how you slice it: vertically, horizontally, or at an a 48-degree slant!), but it also puts the lie to our flippant categorization of vintage. Is a powerful vintage always better than an elegant one? Most of the experts would have you believe so, but doesn’t that really boil down to whether or not you are looking for power in a wine? Isn’t it time for consumers to decide what they want in a wine? The end of wine expert hegemony is on the horizon, and the wines of Oregon are helping to return power to the people.

Case in point: 2007 -- a bad vintage, or so it was proclaimed even before the fruit was harvested by many wine experts. It was simply was too cold and too wet to make good wines, forget about great wines. Guess what? The experts were wrong. Consumers tried the wines and they liked them!

Yes, some are green, and some are abject failures, but those made by masterful winemakers from great vineyards, of which there are no shortage in Oregon, turned out pretty damn well. They are not blockbusters, they will not age forever, they simply don’t satisfy the stilted benchmarks that experts have created for good or better vintages, but the wines are delicious. So much for the experts, and so much for vintage charts.

Speaking of which, I am now going to shoot myself in the foot and introduce my vintage guide for Oregon -- notice I didn’t call it a chart! I hope that this style of chart (OK, it is kind of charty) can help people to understand what they might discover in the various vintages of Oregon. I will use some descriptors that try to add some convenient and easy way to compare styles across vintages but, to be clear here, my intent is not to pronounce which vintage is best and which is worse, though there is somewhat more validity in the latter.

My goal here is my goal every day. It is to help consumers find wines that they will enjoy. I hope the structure of my vintage chart helps in that respect, and at a minimum opens the door to the beauty of vintage variation for some of you!

Click to see Willamette Valley Pinot Noir Vintage Guide

Mentioned in this article


  • ' . . .but to say that one vintage is simply better than another is, as a general rule, foolish and myopic . . ."

    Oh? drink any 1997 California cabs?

    If there is such a (definable) thing as good/great/superb wines then by definition there are good great and superb vintages, not that means that when you pick the grape you know how it will eventually rate. That as we all know is a crap shoot otherwise why would any top rate winery producing age worthy wines sell any of them "before their time"? They don't because they don't want the risk, can't convince their bankers to take the risk. But the prices of the proven best vintages tell you there is a huge difference.

    Mar 16, 2011 at 1:44 PM

  • Snooth User: badbobby
    200769 15

    So 2000 and 2005 Bordeaux were not better overall vintages than 1999 or 2004? 1989 Rhones not better than 1988? If what you say is true, then you won't be needing any vintages on your wine lists.

    Mar 28, 2011 at 12:52 PM

  • Snooth User: Gregory Dal Piaz
    Hand of Snooth Voice of Snooth
    89065 238,748

    First off 1997 California Cabs? Really?

    Secondly, you both miss the point. Please continue to buy only the 'best' for yourselves.

    So today which is better 1999 Margaux or 2005 Margaux?

    Mar 28, 2011 at 1:19 PM

  • Snooth User: badbobby
    200769 15

    I don't buy "just the best" for myself, but I drink and enjoy many different vintages. Don't assume everyone's a snob. While wines can certainly vary greatly from maker to maker in a vintage, and in the rarified air of first growths, fine wines are often produced in difficult years, it is undeniable that some years have better growing conditions than others. This is also true of wheat, peppers, soybeans, corn, coffee, you name it. In my experience, (sadly, my pocketbook does not allow me to encompass Ch. Margaux, so I can't take your bait), I have drunk a lot of both the 1999 and '05 vintages, and I have found the '05s to be more harmonious, balanced, and consistent across the different classes of Bordeaux. This is not to say I haven't enjoyed '99 wines. The fact that I think '05 to be a superior vintage would not necessarily preclude me from buying a '99. Other factors enter in, but vintage must be part of the equation. And just because Bobby Parker likes to judge his vintages by fruit and opulence, don't think everyone buys into that. His opinions and minions have derailed many venerable styles of unique wines.

    Mar 28, 2011 at 3:57 PM

  • Snooth User: Gregory Dal Piaz
    Hand of Snooth Voice of Snooth
    89065 238,748

    Well I just typed up a brilliant response and then had to open a window and boom, all gone.

    So here's the short version.

    If am drinking Bordeaux tonight I'm generally going to be picking a mature, open 99 over a closed 2005. Everyone can tell me 2005 is a better vintage, but that does not make it a better wine today. Even if they both were mature if I was eating something on the delicate side the 99 might still make for a better match.

    Vintage chart and wine scores for that matter, try to state in an objective fashion that one vintage is better than another, when in fact evaluations like this are not absolute but rather are quite personal.

    Those lesser vintages are sometimes better for many reasons, and in some cases are the last vestiges of the many venerable styles of unique wines you mention.

    I love being able to taste the variety that vintages in Oregon and Bordeaux offer from the same plot and same hands.

    Do I need vintages on my wine list? Absolutely.
    Will I use a vintage chart to determine what to order? Absolutely not.

    Now back to work for awhile!

    Mar 28, 2011 at 4:15 PM

  • Snooth User: steve666
    392767 156

    Your new wine rating system that you rolled out a few days back -- perhaps better served by specifying, as you and others do but not strongly, that a wine is too big to drink now, but can be good a few years later, or the transparency/opacity scale. I like concepts of transparency and opaqueness. I prefer opaque wines, I recognize you prefer transparent wines, so I factor that in when I read your reviews. Perhaps you should have a short list of definitions attached to each days article re the terms you use so new readers or casual readers will understand better what you mean.

    Also have heard that it is legal in Italy and France for winemakers to add sugar to raise the level of etoh, but not acids, and conversely in CA is legal to add acids but not sugar.... don't know if that is true or not.



    Mar 28, 2011 at 5:05 PM

  • Snooth User: badbobby
    200769 15

    Any rating system or chart is of course subject to suspicion. As you say, it's opinion. When faced with unfamiliar wines, advice on vintage characteristics can be a big help. Not everyone gets to taste hundreds of wines from each vintage. Charts and ratings do serve to help people find their way. They're not necessarily to be agreed with. And true, the variety in vintages is one of the things that makes wine so fascinating. Your guide on the Oregon Pinots is much more helpful than the numerical charts in that it describes what the vintages effects are on the wines. Essentially we are in agreement.
    People pick their wines by considering vintages among other characteristics. This is why you want vintages on your wine lists, no?

    Mar 28, 2011 at 5:24 PM

  • Snooth User: Gregory Dal Piaz
    Hand of Snooth Voice of Snooth
    89065 238,748

    You got that right

    My beef is with the idea that a more highly rated vintage will always be better. I get to taste a lot of wine so I have a good idea about wines but taking Bordeaux as an example.

    If someone with limited knowledge about Bordeaux vintages is faced with a wine list and a vintage chart they would most likely do a quick computation and buy the best vintage they could afford. That may not be the best wines for that night, and may not be the best wine for their palate. Vintage charts are just another symptom of the attempt to impose one's will on wine.

    Would love to continue this discussion over a glass or two, I'm tasting inexpensive wines from Portugal as it were, always something I look forward to!

    Mar 28, 2011 at 5:46 PM

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