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Defining A Vintage's Quality

Photo by: Greg Gorman

Posted: Sep 5, 2006 2:43pm ET

In California, vintners are on the final approach to harvest, for what has been a very mixed and trying year.

As my winegrower friend C.J. predicted in April, it has been an expensive year to farm, with an abundance of spring rain and a late, uneven grape set. Then there was a record-breaking heat wave in July. (Look for our site's harvest coverage, coming soon.)

But anticipation is high for a prosperous vintage. By several accounts, it’s a very healthy sized crop, and many vineyards, as of last week, still needed to be thinned yet again.

I enjoy this time of the year, when the grapes are crushed, not least because of the vintners’ enthusiasm.

Time was a vintage's quality could be grouped into one of four categories, based on an old European model.

Great: You know what that means. When I started writing about wine, the term “fine” was used as well (hence the expression fine wine), an indicator, in those days, that meant complex and long-lived. Now it also means rich and concentrated.

Good: For early- and easy-drinking wines, and now perhaps more of a euphuism for mixed quality.

Fair: A year in which the wines were ordinary, or "serviceable," as they used to say. Serious collectors ignored these wines.

Poor: A rainy washout, with dreary, dilute wines.

Thanks to modern viticultural methods, the poor category has largely been eliminated, and we rarely see so-called fair years either.

That's why pinpointing a vintage’s quality has become dicier than ever.

Vintners are usually the first to declare a vintage a great year. They, after all, are working directly with the grapes and young wines. But they’re hardly impartial. Their livelihoods are at stake.

Critics are left to use their sources in the vineyards and cellars as a gauge for quality. But that too has its limits.

My rule is to absorb as much input as possible and listen most carefully to those whose advice is reliable and usually spot-on.

But I always wait until I try the wines before passing judgment. To judge a vintage before it’s been tried spoils all the fun. It’s better to let the wines do the talking and, frankly, they can often surprise you.

Brian Loring
Lompoc, CA —  September 6, 2006 1:25am ET
I agree that vintners are often some of the least reliable people to ask about a vintage. We have so much invested in selling the wine, that it can be difficult to admit any shortcomings. But I do think it can backfire on winemakers if they over promote a vintage. Afterall, if the wines can't live up to the hype, people are going to be more unhappy than if you were just honest with them in the first place. I always worry about trading short-term sales for long-term success. That why I put the following in our recent mailer:

2005 - The vintage of the century?
You¿ve heard all the hype - what¿s a confused wine buyer to believe? Should you back up the truck? Should you blow your next decade¿s wine budget now? The best advice we can offer is... relax. Maybe Bordeaux had a once in a lifetime vintage, but here in California it was more or less business as usual. Granted, we didn¿t have a late season heat spike like in 2004 - which means the alcohols are down a bit - which is probably a good thing. Because of the growing season, the wines aren¿t quite as "big" as our previous vintages, but that¿s a relative thing given our traditional Loring style. All I can say for sure is that 2005 will be regarded as the greatest vintage ever between 2004 and 2006. I¿ll stake my professional reputation on it.
Adam Lee
Santa Rosa, CA —  September 6, 2006 8:13am ET
Brian,I also find myself overly negative about an upcoming vintage at this time of year. Our 2005 Pinots are bottled so I can't really worry about them. Just about all the thinning that can be done in the vineyard has been done. And all I can do is take samples and watch the weather and worry. So I find myself worrying about everything and thinking that everything that can go wrong will go wrong! I see potential botrytis here and sunburn problems there. But, in all reality, if the weather holds out it could be a superb year. But only if the weather...
J E Shuey
Dallas, TX —  September 6, 2006 9:40am ET
The critics are a part of the hype too.Go back and read the stories about the great 2002 California Cabernets, and then tally the %-age of wines costing over $100 that only scored in the 80s or barely saw 90.2002 was, in fact, a mixed year...but you'd have a hard time figuring that our based on the headlines and magazine covers.
Jeremy Craig Cpa
O'Fallon, MO —  September 6, 2006 12:41pm ET

James, Thanks for the blogs, they are a great read. A question, has technology reached a point that there can be a good technology vintage versus a natural vintage or does mother nature still rule in the final tally?
James Laube
Napa, CA —  September 6, 2006 1:27pm ET
Jeremy, there are some real advantages that technology can provide (and perhaps the winemakers who hang out here can elaboarate) but I think the essense is that it's still farming and what nature gives us the same way that football boils down to blocking and tackling. Things such as the spinning cone or concentrators can make a dilute wine more concentrated or elimiate minor flaws or high alcohol, but it will only concentrate what's there. That said, there are still plenty of wines with high VAs and Brettanomyces, the latter being one of (if not the) most dangerous, so technology isn't solving everything.
Jeffrey Ghi
New York —  September 6, 2006 1:55pm ET

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