Most bottles of wine are marked with a year, or “vintage”. Was this a “good” year or mediocre? Should I really care about the vintage? Does it matter?
The reality is that wine vintage doesn’t matter in many cases, maybe in most cases. But in some situations it can offer a lot of insight.
First, for starters, the vintage of a wine is the year that the grapes were harvested, not bottled and sold. Once the fruit is picked, the juice then goes on a journey which will result in it being available to you the consumer at some later time. For the northern hemisphere, this means that you could see a white wine in the year following its harvest. Many red varieties and a few whites like Chardonnay will improve with some cask aging and bottle aging before being sold. For example, the Domaine Serene 2008 Evanstad Reserve Pinot Noir (a red wine) was not released to consumers until May of 2012, three and a half years after the grapes were harvested. Usually Cabernet wines are kept the longest in bottle before release.
Where Vintage Doesn’t Matter
The first surprise is that for a lot of winemaking regions, the vintage doesn’t factor in to the quality of the resulting wine. This is because for many parts of the world, the climate is too dry during the growing season and the vines must be irrigated to produce fruit. When you have irrigation and plenty of sunshine at work, there is practically no year-to-year variation. For places like the Walla Walla region of Washington State and a lot of the warm-weather California grapes like Cabernet, there really are no “good” years or “bad” years.
This can be a good thing for the consumer. If you find a producer you really like, the major variation for these wines will be in the technique of the winemaker rather than in the growing season. This means that if you find a wine producer and you like their product, you can pretty much guarantee that they will produce a consistently good product. Any change between years is likely due to a change in winemaking technique. This really simplifies the complexity of choosing a wine to buy.
Another place where vintage doesn’t factor in to a buying decision is in white wines such as Pinot Gris, Reisling and Chardonnay or in rose’ wines. This is because white wines really should be consumed within no more than a couple of years of their harvest. I have made the mistake of keeping a rose’ or white too long and the taste was nothing like what I was expecting. Instead of being bright and fresh, the wine was flabby or sour. These wines simply don’t improve with bottle age, so the adage should be “drink up!”
So why even put a vintage year on bottles of wine where it doesn’t matter? Partly this is because there is a tradition and expectation of vintage wine being better. Also, it’s an easy way to know how old the wine is. Red wines from Napa, Italy and Bordeaux will usually improve with bottle age. And whites or rose wines will sour with bottle age. So the year is a good way to know if you have a red that is too young or a white that is too old.
Where Vintage Matters
I was having dinner with a group of business associates and I suggested some wine from the wine list. The restaurant had bottles from two different vintages of one of my favorite Oregon red wines, Belle Pente Estate Reserve Pinot Noir. The years were 2007 and 2008, so we got a bottle of each. Now this was the same vineyard, same winemaker, same method and just one year of difference. We held a glass from each year side-by-side and from the very first you could see a dramatic difference. 2008 was heralded by many critics as the best vintage of the decade for Willamette Pinot. 2007 got slammed as a terrible year because of being a very cool and rainy year. So the 2008 wine was quite a few shades darker than the 2007 wine for one thing.
This lighter shade usually means that the hotter 2008 season produced a grape with a lot more fruit intensity when the grapes were harvested and the cooler 2007 had less intensity available. This is a factor often called “extraction” and is under the winemaker’s control as well. The 2008′s were considered a good wine to store away for future drinking because the wine would grow more complex and interesting over time.
But is the 2008 wine really better than the 2007? A lot of people are finding that the lighter 2007′s are tasting really good right now and although they might not have the extreme cellar life of the 2008, they are really a fantastic wine. In fact I have read some that advise people to drink their 2009′s now (another “hotter” year) and save their 2007′s and 2008′s for another year.
So for Willamette Pinot’s, I think the vintage matters a lot. For you as a consumer, it can help because knowing a little about the general quality of the year helps you choose one wine over another. For example, I will more readily try an unknown 2008, just because of the reputation of the year. That doesn’t mean they are all superior, but it’s a clue. For example, I have had a couple of really great 2006 wines, from Belle Pente and Amalie Robert, so it makes me feel like this was a pretty decent year. But from another of my favorites, Atticus, 2006 was not a good year because their estate vines were too young. The vintage is not a perfect indicator, but it is a clue.
This is why my personal cellar definitely reflects this bias in terms of vintage. Here is the distribution of Willamette Pinot vintages in my collection:
Everything above appears to apply for Pinots from the Burgundy region of France. There are some years which appear to be qualitatively superior to others. I just don’t have enough personal experience to judge here.
Best Vintages for Willamette Pinot
I have formed a few opinions on the good years in Willamette. Take it with a grain of salt since this is based on my own palete and yours may be different.
- 2006 – good extraction and intensity. I have a few of these I am very happy with so if you can find any, it’s probably a good bet to grab them.
- 2007 – cool year and very light extraction wines. These are actually tasting very good right now in spite of the initial bad press.
- 2008 – Vintage of the decade, high extraction and complexity. These wines are in general excellent to cellar and drink for a very long time, but you can drink them today and really enjoy them. I have read some collectors who suggest that these could use some additional aging time to reach anywhere close to their full potential. So I’m still trying to hold these rather than drink them.
- 2009 – Hot growing season, so the extraction level is high in general, with perhaps less cellaring potential. These are good to drink now while you are waiting for your 2007s and 2008s to mature.
- 2010 – Another cool growing season. A local distributor has been spreading his opinion that this year will be terrible because he hasn’t tasting any 2010′s that he likes. I personally like the 2010′s I have tasted from Ayres, Penner-Ash and Grochou Cellars, but I have also tasted a lot that I really don’t like, so this may end up being a loser year… or maybe better than I think. Anyway, buyer beware in 2010. Taste it before you buy it is my advice.
- 2011 – Who knows? Another extremely cold and rainy summer, but a late outbreak of sunshine before harvest may make this terrific. Barrel samples I have tasted are actually better than some of the 2010′s which are in the bottle now, so there is potential.