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?
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!