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.