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Does Vintage Still Matter?
By Michael Franz
Sep 2, 2014
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In one sense, it seems like “belaboring the obvious” to claim that some years are better than others when it comes to wine.  Talk to any older wine aficionado for ten minutes and--just as surely as the sun rises each morning--you’ll be forced to endure an encomium regarding the greatness of the 1961 or 1982 Bordeaux. 

Such gushings about past glories tend to be pretty tiresome, and downright irritating if the guy (invariably, a guy) also tells you how little he paid for the wines.  But still, there’s a lot of truth in what’s being said:  The 1961 and 1982 red Bordeaux really were incomparably better than the same wines from 1960 or 1981.

However, a lot has changed during the past three decades, and grape growers and winemakers are now much, much more adept than their forerunners at dealing with difficult growing seasons.

Two generations ago, vintners were largely like poker players in a simple game of stud:  You got five cards, and that was it.  Maybe you got good cards, or maybe you got bad ones, but you certainly didn’t have many options--because you couldn’t draw from the deck.

Today, vineyard managers can draw all sorts of cards from the deck to deal with a wide variety of weather-related problems.  Similarly, once the fruit has reached the cellar, winemakers can add acidity, tannin, enzymes or pigment to make up for any shortcoming in the grapes provided by a particular growing season.  Even subtraction has become possible:  Techniques are now available for lowering acidity levels if Mother Nature didn’t get the fruit sufficiently ripe, and if she was overly generous with sugar in a hot year, one can likewise reduce alcohol levels after the fermentation.

As a consequence, it is indisputably true that vintage matters less than it did in earlier eras.  The ups and downs of wine quality from year to year have been reduced greatly by recent advances in technology and expertise. 

Want to put this to a test?  Try some wines made in northern California from the 2011 vintage.  Many producers lamented the harvest as a disaster, and they did so “on the record” to wine journalists right after the harvest--even though they’d ultimately need to sell the resulting wines.  Nevertheless, it turns out that vast numbers of delicious wines were made despite the crappy cards dealt out in 2011, and I can attest to that personally, having tasted hundreds of them while judging three wine competitions in California this year.

It would be overly enthusiastic to declare that advances in technology and expertise have recently rendered bad vintages impossible.  Yet, wine production has changed so dramatically that we can indeed say this:  It isn’t quite true that genuinely bad vintages have been rendered impossible yet…but we’re getting close.

This is a development of genuinely historic proportions, and no careful observer of the global wine industry with any historical sense would deny that it is a Big Thing.

However, all Big Things threaten to eclipse slightly smaller ones, so an equally important thesis of this column is that the greatness of truly great wines remains--as much as ever--a function of vintage conditions.

This enduring truth was recalled to my attention in Italy in May, when I tasted hundreds of wines from the 2010 vintage in Barolo.  This vintage is definitely not the only evidence for the thesis I’m asserting here, and I’ll say something about Champagne from 1996 in a moment, but the 2010 Barolo wines offer a great case in point.

To put the point in context, it helps to know that Barolo has enjoyed utterly unprecedented good fortune in recent years.  For a full century prior to 1996, Barolo was the single most inconsistent of all the world’s regions that are capable of making great wine.  However, in an astonishing turnaround, Barolo turned out sensational wines in 1996, 1999, 2001, 2004, and 2006, as well as excellent ones in 1997, 1998, 2000, 2005, 2007, 2008 and 2009.  Barolo from 2003 were just okay, and the wines from 2002 were almost all very bad, proving the aforementioned point that truly horrible vintages remain possible.  But considered in historical context, the past 15 years in Barolo have been a Golden Age that shines so brightly that no comparable period of time looks like silver or even bronze.

And yet, even in the glare of this Golden Age, the 2010s remain strikingly brilliant.  As I wrote shortly after returning from Italy in May, the vintage produced an abundance of wines that seem almost perfectly ripened.  I meant something very specific by this suggestion of something close to perfection:  Wines that are open, expressive and generous in aroma and flavor, but still marked by fresh acidity and appropriately firm tannins to balance the natural sweetness of the fruit. 

Another hallmark of 2010 in Barolo is that the raw material provided by the growing season could produce excellent wines in either a “traditional” or “modern” style.  That is to say that the wines are ample enough to support a significant dose of new oak as in “modern” renditions, but also aromatic and flavorful enough that they don’t need oak to seem complete or convincing.  When blind-tasting the wines in May, I found plenty of 2010s with overt oak that were extremely successful, yet I found even more wines that were made with a very light touch in the cellar that were fantastic.

Almost no matter how the wines were crafted, the 2010 Barolo are gorgeous, thanks to an amazing purity and proportionality.  These descriptors show up again and again in my raw notes from five days of blind tasting.  Are there exceptions?  Of course there are, as some producers got greedy and over-ripened their fruit, resulting in raisiny flavors or volatile acidity.  But wines of this sort are conspicuous by their rarity in 2010, with the norm being wines that are sweet but still fresh, with beautiful symmetry between fruit, acidity and tannin.

There’s a sort of inner magic to these wines, and it is obviously traceable to the year in which they were made.

The same is true of vintage Champagnes from 1996.

Despite its fame, Champagne has historically been a bad place to make wine.  There are two ways to prove this point quickly:  The region is so lacking in sunshine and warmth, and so prone to autumn rains, that it rarely produces fruit that is sufficiently ripe make table wine without bubbles that is even drinkable.  The fact that virtually all of Champagne's wine is sparkling is proof of how dicey the region’s weather is.  Moreover, the fact that the vast majority of sparkling Champagnes need to be blended from multiple vintages to produce a consistently good product is an equally telling indictment of growing conditions in the area.

All of this notwithstanding, Champagne managed to make superb single-vintage wines in 1988, 1989, 1990, 1995, 1996, 1997, 1998, 1999, 2000, 2002, 2004...as well as in other, more recent years that are still a little too young to judge.  Viewed in historical perspective, this is yet another Golden Age.  But to my taste, the wines from 1996 are uniquely spectacular even amidst this embarrassment of riches.

Ever since they were released, they’ve shown an uncanny combination of full, rich ripeness and unbelievably energetic acidity.  Almost all of the vintage-dated wines from Champagne show this same uncanny combination regardless of the “house style” of the particular producer.  They show differences, to be sure, but they still cluster together very closely.  The “signature” of the vintage is indelible, and the particular growing conditions of 1996 trumped all other variables.

As an indicator of what I’m trying to convey about the almost otherworldly uniqueness of these wines, I can’t resist quoting a review of 1996 Krug from Stephen Tanzer’s International Wine Cellar.  I started publishing wine articles 21 years ago, and over that entire span, I’ve never quoted another writer’s review, but this is so illuminating that I’ve got to break the streak:

"Light gold. Remarkably perfumed nose projects an exotic bouquet of deep, leesy yellow fruit, minerals, honeycomb, smoked meat and flowers, with Asian spices building expanding in the glass.  Almost painfully concentrated, offering a surreal parade of orchard and pit fruits, smoked meat, toasted brioche and marrow braced by intensely salty, stunningly incisive minerality.  Imagine a Frankenstein's monster of Chablis Le Clos and Clos Ste. Hune--but one with perfect balance, of course--and you get an idea of what I found in my bottle.  The energetic, stony character builds exponentially on the finish, which didn't seem to, well, finish.  The best analogy I can come up with for the intensity, focus and clarity of this Champagne is liquefied barbed wire.  Utterly hallucinatory and one of the most amazing wines I've ever been fortunate enough to drink."

I’ve got nothing to add to that, so let’s wind this up.

Despite the amazing advances made recently in overcoming bad weather to produce good wine, there’s no question that vintage still matters decisively when it comes to making great wine.  Granted, this isn’t welcome news for the type of wine consumer who’d rather not deal with the complexities of learning which years were excellent in the world's many growing regions.  But for those of us who really love wine, tracking vintage quality in important regions around the world remains an important task--each and every year.

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Comments or Questions?  Write to me at michael@franzwine.com