The Boston Phoenix
October 22 - 29, 1998

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The dating game

How important is a wine's vintage?

Uncorked by Thor Iverson

I was cleaning out my wallet the other day and found the tattered remains of a yellow card. "What's this?" I wondered, squinting at the faded lettering. As it turned out, it was a vintage chart from Wine for Dummies. I remembered clutching it on my early trips to wine shops, afraid that in my naïveté I'd screw up and buy something horrible. I also remembered the surreptitious way I used to slip it out of my pocket at restaurants as I nervously scanned the wine list. I smiled, chuckled at myself, and threw it in the trash.

Wine lovers are obsessed by many things, but they get really nuts when it comes to vintage. Vintage -- nothing more than the year in which the grapes were grown and harvested -- has become an oenological shibboleth, separating the vinous nobility from the untouchables. Otherwise-reasonable people will turn up their noses at reliably great wines because they're from "a bad year." They don't know what they're missing.

The wine press doesn't help, either. All the major wine publications regularly print rundowns of good, bad, and indifferent years for different countries and wine regions. I remember carrying three of them with me on a trip to France: the Dummies card, a similar tri-fold card from the Wine Spectator, and a photocopy of Robert Parker's comprehensive chart from the Wine Advocate. I didn't know all that much about wine, but by God I had reference material.

So did all that data help me? Not too much. I was able to make pretty good use of a limited budget on that trip, and the vintage charts probably saved me some money. But I unquestionably make better wine choices now than I did then, and I consult vintage charts no more than once every two months.

"Sure," you might be saying, "that's because you've memorized the charts." Well, no, I haven't, though I do remember a very few things about a few wine regions. Most people I've met who have memorized vintage charts aren't really wine lovers at all; they're collectors who care primarily about wine's prestige value. Instead, I've learned to make vintage work for me as a wine drinker.

So what is a good vintage? Usually, it's a year where everything works in the winemaker's favor; the grapes are flawlessly ripe at harvest; there's no unwelcome rain or rot; and fruit, tannin, and acidity are in perfect balance. A bad vintage is often the result of bad weather or freakish calamities (like disease or insect invasions) during the early spring or at the harvest. And in between the great years and the disastrous years there's a vast middle ground.

The combination of weather and location also plays a role. Dream-climate regions like California, Chile, and southern France rarely have to worry about vintage. Sure, some years are better than others, but disaster rarely strikes (even in the age of El Niño). Borderline-climate regions -- most of the rest of the winemaking world -- are much more vintage-sensitive.

But in both kinds of climate, agricultural and winemaking skill can make or break a wine. Winemakers in cool climates have to coax and cajole their grapes to ripeness, battle dire fall weather to complete the harvest, and carefully nurse the grape juice through a tricky series of manipulations to produce good wine in less-than-good seasons. Poor winemakers from these regions (Germany, Burgundy, and Oregon are classic examples) tend to produce plonk in such years.

Those in trouble-free areas have the opposite problem: happy vines make lousy wine (to produce high-quality grapes, vines must struggle). The effects of the too-pleasant climate must therefore be counteracted at every step. Vintage isn't so important when buying wine from these areas, but the producer's ability is.

In both cases, however, it's clear that the skill of the producer is more important than the vintage. The greatest and most famous wineries of the world ensured their reputations by making good to excellent wine in years when their neighbors struggled. A reliable producer is money in the bank, vintage charts be damned. As many a wise wine lover has noted, "there are no great vintages, only great wines."

It's also important to remember that different vintages have different uses. Take Bordeaux: the greatest vintages of the last two decades are '96, '95, '90, '89, '88, '86, and '82. When you go to a restaurant with a good selection of Bordeaux, it's these years you're likely to see (at suitably outrageous prices). And you'll see a lot of big spenders ordering them.

But you can enjoy a good snicker at their foolishness, because few of the wines from those spectacular vintages (with the exception of some '82s) are even close to ready to drink, and anyone who buys one is getting a pale shadow of what the wine will become at maturity. The savvy wine lover will select something from a so-called off-vintage -- perhaps an '87 or an '81, or even something from allegedly lousy vintages like '91, '92, and '93 -- from a reliable producer. These wines will be cheaper, they'll be mature (or close to it), and they'll be a much more pleasant match for good food, good times, and good company.

Just a few nights ago, for example, I enjoyed a 1987 Guigal Côte-Rôtie Côtes Brune et Blonde ($35), an incredibly balanced bundle of black olives, herbs, earth, and berries that still has many years left in it -- and 1987 is considered only a mediocre year for this appellation. The night before, I drank a 1991 Selig Muscat d'Alsace Shoenenbourg Grand Cru ($15), a mineral and petrol version of this usually floral wine, and perfectly mature from a terrible vintage in Alsace. And I didn't expect much from the 1993 Domaine Pélaquié Lirac ($5.99) -- '93 was a miserable year in the Rhône Valley, Lirac is a very inconsistent appellation, and the price seemed to indicate that someone was dumping a dog. Nevertheless, it was a shocker: fully mature, spicy, and earthy, with black cherries, mushrooms, and a good tannic and acidic structure. I bought a case.


Save the date: Tuesday, November 17th. Yup, it's time for our fall Uncorked wine tasting. We had such a great time at the last one that we had to do it again. Details are still being worked out, but the venue is all set: Cosmopolitan, located at 54 Canal Street in Boston. Join us, taste some wine, meet some people, go bungee jumping . . .

Thor Iverson can be reached at wine@phx.com.


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