Saturday, September 04, 2010

What Makes a Vintage Great?

I'm not so much concerned with what happens in the vineyard or in the winery in this blog. What I mean is what does it mean when you here someone say a vintage is great? What does it mean when the wine critics call a vintage great?

On almost every front the 2007 vintage in California has been called a great vintage. I think that's right, especially in the context of what people usually mean when they say that.

2007 was an easy year. That made it a great year. The weather, the seasons, everything you need to go right in a year went right. That meant it wasn't particularly hard to bring in great grapes and because the grapes were so good it wasn't hard to make good wine. The praise that often gets used is, "A rising tide raises all boats".

That's exactly what a great vintage does. Everyone succeeds and everyone makes wine above their normal level. It means the great sites and winemakers will make exceptional wine. It also means wines and sites that may usually be average will perform much better. For a consumer it means you can go out and buy just about anything from that year and it will be good.

Those type of years are really a boom for most wine drinkers because every choice they make will be a good one. For serious collectors it can actually be a bit of a draw back. That rising tide also means rising demand and that can mean rising prices. That happens in Bordeaux every time they have a good vintage and often people who would like to buy the wine get priced out of the market.

2008 was a totally different year. It was hard from start to finish. There were issues with almost everything you could image (except mildew) and extra work was required all year long in the vineyard and then again in the winery. On top of that yields were painfully low, often off up to 75% from 2007 at some sites.

So that makes it a bad vintage right?

I actually think 2008 is a better vintage than 2007. But there's a huge qualifier on that. It's not a vintage where all boats rose equally. It was the exact opposite in fact. Those growers and wineries that did the extra work, took the extra care and had the extra focus made fantastic wines. I've heard from many, many winemakers that they think the 2008 wines are the best or some of the best wines they have ever made.

If a winery couldn't, wouldn't or didn't understand how to deal with the year, they struggled to make decent wines. A lot of people picked way too early and made lean tannic wines. Some didn't modify their winemaking enough to deal with the small berries and high solid to liquid ratios at crush and made hard over extracted wines. Many struggled with the low yields and had difficulty handling the smaller lots from individual vineyards. You'll see a lot of wine in 2008 that is going to be AVA labeled instead of vineyard labeled because producers didn't have a plan to deal with the very small quantities they were forced to deal with and had to blend together lots.

Because of those yield issues there was very little quality juice available on the secondary market. Don't expect to see great second label wines in 2008 or great wines from those wineries that buy in juice rather than process grapes. It's going to be a bad year for the bulk blenders as well. 2008 will not be a year you can go to the supermarket and pick out any bottle.

That's why 2008 is never going to be called 'great' by the press or critics. It wasn't great for everyone. I think all the vintage charts you will ever see will rank it below 2007 and 2009. For the fine producers though that's just not true. I think every wine we made in 2008 was better than the same wine we made in 2007. If you think I'm just hyping the vintage I have to sell, I'll tell you I have almost as much 2007 left as I have 2008 still to sell. I also have much more 2009 in barrel still but I think 2008 is better than 2009.

I've heard that same thing from other quality producers I've talked to and in other wines I've tried. My advice is to skip the closeouts, bargains and blenders in 2008 and concentrate on those producers you know make great wine. Their wine is going to be very special.

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