Monday, November 22, 2010

What Makes a Good Vintage?

Thanks to my then girlfriend, now wife BrooklynLady, sometime in 2004 I rediscovered wine. I had no idea, really, of what it was that I liked (and I'm still figuring it out). I mostly bought daily drinking wines, but I also made the occasional purchase of a special bottle, something a bit more expensive. I didn't yet know where to look for meaningful information about wine, but I wanted to spend my money wisely.

One of the things I used was a vintage chart. I still have it, actually.

Think about it - there are so many bottles on the shelves, so many choices on auction sites. How can some one who is serious about getting into wine, and on a limited budget, sort through it all? The vintage chart is such a helpful tool, like a cheat-sheet. Before buying a special bottle I always made sure that the vintage received a high rating on my sheet. And if it got a low score, or if the vintage wasn't listed on the sheet, I would pass.

I know now that this is an absurd way to buy wine - to think about wine, even. But that's only because I now know enough to understand how much I don't know. When you're starting out, a vintage chart helps to make sense of the enormous set of wine choices. Then you learn aphorisms like "good producers make good wine in all vintages," and perhaps you focus more on terroir and producers. And one day you spend $75 on a great producer's villages Burgundy from 2004, and you realize that it might be true that good producers make good wine in all vintages, but there are better ways to spend $75. It's all part of learning about wine. I won't understand the mistakes I'm making now for a few more years.

I think about vintage now when I buy a special bottle of wine, but I think about them according to my own taste and experience. Because I am attracted to wines made in a lean and graceful style, I find that I prefer wines that come from quiet vintages that don't attract attention. For example, I really like the Loire red wines from 2007. This was a typical year with a typical set of problems, and no one declared it to be a blockbuster vintage. 2005, on the other hand - a vintage of the decade. I would bet huge sums of money that I will prefer the 2007's in 15 years, but time will tell.

I don't know a lot, but I'll tell you this: when it comes to "great vintages," it's better to decide for yourself. And who cares if you wind up liking a vintage that the critics deride? You'll enjoy your wine and pay less for it too.

I was reminded of all of this the other night when I had the good fortune to attend an amazing wine dinner at Alto put together by the inimitable Levi Dalton. You may have heard about this, as my pals at Do Bianchi, McDuff's Food and Wine Trail, and Rockss and Fruit were also in attendance and have already written a bit.

We drank Nebbiolo made by Peter Weimer of Cascina Ebreo in Novello. His flagship wine is called Torbido!, although it is made in a place and in a style so that would normally be called Barolo. We drank several vintages of Torbido!, beginning with the first ever vintage of 1997, and including 1998, 1999, 2000, 2001, and 2004. We also drank the 2002, although it was released as Limpido!, not Torbido!

Jeremy Parzen of Do Bianchi told me, "Peter Weimer allows the vintage to express itself, he doesn't force the wine to become something it isn't." Drinking these wines, then, was an amazing opportunity to learn something about vintages in Barolo. Which ones would I prefer?

Take another look at the vintage chart. 2000 and 1997 are rated as essentially perfect vintages. Everything, in fact, with the exception of 2002, is supposed to be very good. My experience was a bit different.

I liked most of the wines very much, although there was one that I found essentially undrinkable. That was the 1997. To me, it was a shapeless wine with no focus, and the fruit had an oxidized character. It had no energy, and seemed out of balance to me. I would drink the passable 2002 over the '97 every time. But there were at least two other people at the table who preferred the 1997 to any of the others.

I did like the 2000, the other blockbuster vintage according to my chart. It was not as profound as other wines on the table, but it was balanced and somewhat expressive, and entirely drinkable. I didn't like the 1999 so much at first, as it had a diffuse and overripe character on the nose that was very similar to the 1997. But I came back to it later on and it was truly a lovely wine - good energy, clean ripe fruit, good acidity, and quite harmonious. Jeremy said that it was the most classically styles of the wines, and I think I understand what he meant. My personal favorite was the 1998. I loved the pungent truffley aromas and the fine grained tannins, the intense and yet graceful character of the wine. The 2001 was clearly a beauty, but like the 2004, it was showing only a little bit of itself at this early stage of its life. Who knows what they will become?

This was a solid reminder for me that regarding wine vintages, as with most everything else, I'll always be happiest when I do my own thinking.


Anonymous said...

Well said, as always, BG. No one writing today has a more fiercely independent palate or expresses the complexity and contradictions of wine more candidly, I think, than you. Chacun a son gout!

Weston said...

hmm reminds me of tasting Tuscany 06 v 07 and being told 07 was the a superb vintage, and well I loved 06 10x more

Adam Japko said...

This is such an honest and practical, yet advanced sensibility. Thanks for laying it out. It made me think of two things. First, how disappointed I was with so many of the over ripe Chateauneuf du Papes from 2007, when I tasted a bunch in their early stages at a tasting in what is claimed as one of the top vintages of the century. The second thing I thought of is that just as with any wine advisor, critic, or writer, relying on their recommendations and thinking about vintage is no different than any other element of their critical thinking, including tasting notes. For me, I try to find the handful of wine buds and writers that my palate *mostly* aligns with and then more comfortably weigh their advice disproportionately to other opinions. That, for me, is also an ongoing process of years of learning. BTW, thanks for being one of those writers.

Lowelife said...

Nice one BG.

Looks like a wine spectator vintage chart you have there.... therefore a James Suckling chart in the case of Italy.
The recently retired Suckling doesn't know what ethereal . light or feminine mean.
So he rated the bombastic 2000 and 1997 over the lithe 2001 and 1999.

But you're SO right about picking your preferred...I much prefer the" washout" of 2002 over the White heat of 2003. There are quite a few Piemontese 2002 bargains out there now.

Happy thanksgiving

Do Bianchi said...

it was so cool to get to taste older Nebbiolo with you man! One day, we'll get to Langa together!

The American wine press take on 2000 and 1997 was one of the most egregious misinformations in the history of American wine consciousness. Offensive really: ask any great Nebbiolo producer what she/he really thinks of those vintages and how the American wine press ignored the vintages that the Italians view as classically expressive of their appellations. Oy...

One of these days, when you guys can come to Texas, we'll break out some old Produttori del Barbaresco.

Have a great holiday... and thanks again for everything!

TWG said...

Seems like vintages have less importance than previously. As many have suggested it's probably more of a "stylistic" difference with good winemakers.

Iron Chevsky said...

Agree with your approach. Especially when it comes to Piedmonte, I don't quite see eye to eye with the critics. That said, don't dismiss good wines just because they come from highly acclaimed vintages that you may not necessarily like in general. For instance, even though 2000's are a bit overripe, some 2000's are great!

In Burgundy, I find that vintages are even more important that producers. I see average producers making good wines from average vineyards in good vintages (like 2002 and 2005), and good producers making poor wines in bad vintages. 2007 that you mention is a challenging vintage - high-acid, thin wines, but of course there are some great exceptions.