Beginners Corner

Snooth User: Gregory Dal Piaz

What is a good vintage? Getting a head start on Holiday wine buying.

Posted by Gregory Dal Piaz, Nov 12, 2008.

Well starting right here is a great idea!

As we transition into full Holiday panic mode, a lot of people will find themselves faced with the same old questions:

What wines go well with Turkey?
What wines are good choices for the Holiday party?
What wine should I get my Boss/Dr./father-in-law, who is a wine geek, but keep it under $30 please?
What wines should I buy for my son/wife/partner, who is just getting into wine and wants to start a cellar?
What is the best wine in the market today?
What is the a good vintage?
What is the deal with Sparkling wine, is it Champagne or what?

Well to start off this series of preemptive responses I though I'd tackle the thorny question of vintages today.

I can't tell you, in my years in retail, how many times I have been asked the open ended question "What is a good vintage?"

The reason that this is so difficult to answer is that every region, indeed almost every specific vineyard site, has it's own meso-climate which dictates it's specific vintage conditions.

Confusing? Well it's not as bad as all that makes it sound. Vintages are strange and variable creatures that fight reason. We try and classify vintages, assigning each region a number each year and putting them in little orderly boxes on vintage charts but that doesn't tell the whole story.

While we have neither the time nor the space to tell the whole story I would like to hit on a few general points here before providing a bit of a vintage overview of the more significant and vintage variable regions of the world.

First off let's just talk for a moment about what exactly constitutes a "great" vintage. A "great" vintage is generally one that has very ripe fruit, by that I don't mean that the fruit is the intense or concentrated that it can be, these traits are frequently the result of over-ripe fruit. To me very ripe, perfectly ripe fruit yields wines with good alcohol levels, no apparent heat, ample ripe, soft tannins and vibrant acidity all supporting vivid fruit, and it does all this naturally.

A very famous wine writer has recently declared the end of bad vintages. While that in and of itself makes no sense, the weather will continue to try the patience of even the most even-tempered farmer, his point was that there need not be bad wine. With todays technology every element of a wine can be tweaked and adjusted through-out the winemaking process. While this may allow for decent wines to be produced in troubling vintages the simple truth is that if all the elements are correct, balanced, and ripe from the grape juice itself, the final wine will be better than if adjutments are made.

Why you may ask. Well the truth is that the "great" vintages are judged partly on what the wine delivers upon release but a lot of weight is given to what the wine will become. Ageworthiness and cellarability is a major factor in the determination of what constitutes a "great" vintage. While this may not make a tremendous amount of sense, after all most wine purchased in this country is consumed within 24 hours of purchase, it does create opportunity for the savvy shopper.

Another aspect of "great" vintages is consistency. Great producers frequently make great wine in so-called off vintages, hence the phrase "producer over vintage". What makes a vintage truly special is when all producers are presented with the opportunity to make great wine. Now there are still plenty of producers out there who manage to screw things up, some great producers have made clunkers in so-called "great" vintages, but when the vast majority of producers have been able to produce compelling wines that certainly qualifies as a "great" vintage.

So great vintages are balanced, ripe, consistent and age-worthy. What happens when a vintage only fulfills 3 of these criteria? I would say that in all likelihood the first of these to drop would be age-worthiness or consistency. Once we find that a vintage has produced wines that are, for the sake of discussion, consistent, balanced, and ripe yet lack the tannin for serious aging, or lack consistency across the full range of producers, we would find that this vintage would probably be classified as "very good".

It is an unusual situation where a vintage that produces wines that may deliver more immediate appeal on release is judged to be "less good" than a vintage that may be difficult at best on release but may deliver more profound experiences in the future. Unusual yes, par the course as well. This is where the savvy shopper can begin the exploit the prejudices and bias inherent in the arbitrary classification of vintages by a small group of palates.

The "very good" vintages often out-perform more highly regarded vintages among wine drinkers. Those who judge wines tend to admire wines as much for their potential as for their performance. Those who drink wines have more immediate concerns. There in lies the rub, and the fundamental flaw in the vintage chart. Those who write it and many who use it are in fact at cross purposes!

Now what happens if we drop another criteria from our assessment, what is a vintage that is ripe and balanced yet lacks consistency and cellarability? We would find a merely "good" vintage. While this may be an accurate over-view of the vintage in a very general sense, the mere lack of consistency would seem to indicate that perhaps some producers made "very good" or even "great" wine, and as often as not that is the case.

These merely "good" vintages offer even greater opportunity for the savvy shopper. They are vintages that wholesale and retail buyers generally buy based on the quality of individual wines, but then find difficult or impossible to sell based on the broad brush assessment of the vintage. the wines of a good vintage, even the best wines of a "good" vintage are usually relegated to the sale pages as consumers anxiously await the next "great" vintage, the next must buy "Vintage of the Century!!".

Now if we drop yet another criteria from our package we end up with a vintage that is less than "good". Here we have reached the point of diminishing returns. If in fact the collective palates that be have determined that a vintage is less than good odds are that a majority of the wines will turn out to be duds. In truly bed vintages the best producers will declassify much of their production either bottling it all under their least prestigious labels or selling it off in bulk to be sold as someone else's product.

There are so many values in "good" vintages that, while I am not averse in following a trusted palate's recommendation in a bad vintage, there is very little incentive to dig through disappointing vintages in search of a gem or a value.

So just to recap

Great vintages are ripe, balanced, consistent and age-worthy. Due to their consistency lesser producers and less well regarded vineyards often produce results above their reputation and are worth searching out but a rising tide lifts all ships and wines from these vintages tend to be more expensive.

Very good vintages generally lack either consistency or age-worthiness, though less ripe vintages are often deemed less good than their riper peers. In very good vintages wines can often be friendlier and easier to drink than in the very best vintages though finding the best wines and values can be more of a challenge.

Good vintages are hard sells. they are usually full of values as retailers struggle to sell the wines. In a certain way it's less disappointing to shop through the value priced selections of a good vintage in search of gems since the price of entry can be so much lower than better vintages.

If it's not good why bother? Only on the recommendation of someone you trust and who knows your palate, otherwise see above.

One last word on vintages . While important, vintages are not universally crucial. While every region can have a bad vintage now and again, many regions offer impressively consistent quality. In fact certain vintages are almost universally either good or bad so if you don't want to have to remember specific information for every region a simple go to guide would be:

2006 to soon to tell as many regions are only just releasing their wines over the next year or two
2005 was pretty good to spectacular the world over
2004 was god to great, but variable
2003 was good but variable
2002 was very variable
2001 was very good at least and better in most regions, if I had a "go to" vintage this would be it
2000 was good to great but a bit variable
1999 was very good to spectacular and a close runner up "go to" vintage

I will work an getting a region by region vintage primer together to help guide the search for "vintage values" but let me end with this final thought. Anything I can put together is only a general guide and I hope this helps you approach wine buying and wine drinking with an open mind. Stocking one's cellar with only the "greatest" vintages tends to be an inefficient allocation of assets and robs one of the excitement of discovery and exploration than can only come from exposing one's self to the vagaries of vintage variation. And besides those "great" vintage only obscure terroir anyway! But that's another discussion entirely!


Reply by Philip James, Nov 18, 2008.

Greg - those vintage summaries are global? Ive had great experiences with '00 and '03 in particular, and while '05 was lauded in many places (Bordeaux etc), it was darned hot in California, so people should be prepared for some way overripe fruit from there.

Reply by Adam Levin, Nov 18, 2008.

Interesting analysis of different vintages. Thanks!

Reply by Gregory Dal Piaz, Nov 19, 2008.

Yes they are Global and as such are by definition that makes them inaccurate however, Californians are used to the heat. While not the greatest vintage ever, 2005 produced an array of successful wines that I would classify as pretty good to excellent. I'm working on a vintage chart that will go into more detail but even there one runs into the same trouble. One meso-climate will be very successful one year while the neighboring region has issues. Vintages are a very tricky thing!

Reply by oceank8, Nov 20, 2008.

For those with iPhone, I found an easy app for this. It is called Wine Wintage Card for $1.99 it simple gives smilie faces to tell you if vintages were good in varies areas between 1998-2007. Not a lot of info for those of you that know all this but I can never remember, so now I have easy access to it at all times!

Reply by AngelBoy, Sep 16, 2009.

I have a Joliesse California Chardonnay (Select) 1996 Vintage. Is it still good? thanks.

Reply by Natalie Kronick, Sep 16, 2009.

I've had a LOT of luck with 2002 Pinots out of Oregon and also the 2006's.

As for wine and turkey... well I'd go Riesling (dry or sweet depending on the accompaniments / sauces) or a Viognier from CA. I had VMR from Black Chook (Viognier, Maursanne, Rousanne blend) out of Australia which was quite fantastic during Thanksgiving 2 years back.

There are some AMAZING Spanish wines from Rioja / Riebera from 1999, 2001, 2002 and 2003 vintages. I especially am a fan of the 2003 Marques de Vargas. OMG, I can taste it now....I'd have the same answer for the 'wine geek gift under $30' question.

Reply by Gregory Dal Piaz, Sep 17, 2009.

Hi Angelboy.

12 years may be a bit too long for such a wine but there's only one way to find out.

It may not be great but it can't hurt trying it.

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