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Do Vintages Still Matter?
By Michael Franz
Apr 4, 2017
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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--especially Pinots and Cabernets. 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 in the past few years. Sure, the wines were notably leaner than normal, but that actually made them more like their European counterparts, and consequently better than normal in the opinion of plenty of wine writers.

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 is evinced by plenty of examples, but I’ll pick just three, considering the first in detail, but then tacking on two more.

The fact that certain growing seasons still produce wines that truly stand head and shoulders above others was recalled to my attention in Italy almost exactly three years ago, when I tasted hundreds of wines from the 2010 vintage in Barolo.

To put this example 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 18 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 three years ago, 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 early May of 2014, 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 could be said of true of vintage Champagnes from 1996, but two more recent examples will serve my purpose just as well: Napa Cabernets from 2013 and Chablis wines from 2014.

The Napa Cab example is illuminating because swings in quality from year to year are really pretty minor in most North Coast appellations in California. “Bad” years are rarely bad by Bordeaux standards, and excellent years are not all that different from one another. However, 2013 was such a special year that the Cabernets really stand out.

To be clear, they aren’t that much “bigger” than the Cabs from other good years. Rather, it is their proportionality and the inner harmony of their structural and flavor elements that is exceptional. That is to say, they show aromas, fruit character, acidity and tannin that all seem just right in terms of their prominence relative to the other elements in the wines. Moreover, this is true not only of the high-priced examples, but also in most of the Cabernets priced in the more moderate range around $35 to $45.

One last point derived from this example in relation to my broader points would be this: Just when the 2011 Cabernets make it seem that downright bad vintages are vanishing as a continual threat, the 2013 Cabernets show that truly great wines are still the result of exceptional years.

My last example is 2014 Chardonnay-based white Burgundies, especially the wines of Chablis. My colleagues Ed McCarthy and Michael Apstein have already written about these wines from this vintage here on WRO, and I don’t differ with a word they wrote in earlier columns, so I’ll be brief about this.

2014 Chablis are the most exciting wines of their type since 1996, and though marvelous wines were made in some other vintages (such as 2008), almost anybody who tastes the 2014s would find them striking. Many of them are relatively lean in body, but they are highly expressive, with spectacular minerality that marks their aromas, mid-palate, and finish. Almost electric in their acidity profile, they are eye-poppingly exciting to taste, and to employ the boxing cliché that they “punch above their weight” only comes close to conveying how uncanny their character can seem.

Two proofs that something bordering on magical happened in Chablis in 2014 are that the wines are excellent at all levels (straight village level, Premier Cru or Grand Cru), and that almost every producer turned out terrific wines, though they derived fruit from notably different vineyard plots in the appellation, and then employed notably different techniques when making and ageing the wines.

* * *

What's the upshot? Vintage matter less than ever to the quality of most wines, but it remains as important as ever when it comes to making truly 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.