Poor Wine Vintages Can Make For Excellent Drinking Opportunities

As featured on Wine Express Expressions Blog

If you are like most wine collectors and consumers, you tend to be a little skeptical and even pessimistic about purchasing wines from those less than optimal vintages. And why wouldn’t you… poor wine vintages seem to be all you hear about, maybe even more so than when there is a fabulous vintage. When the growing season is cold, damp or experiences late season rain or hail, it can certainly affect the grapes grown that year. But does that mean that all wine from a less than stellar vintage is going to be subpar? Absolutely… not! 

The difference is all about development. In the best of vintages, the fruit become fully concentrated in the grapes which leads to higher sugar levels. These wines will typically have a higher alcohol, as there is more sugar for the yeasts to consume during fermentation leading to the byproduct of alcohol. And because the fruit is so concentrated, they will tend to lead to denser wines. Tannins also develop more intensely leading to darker colored wines (for reds) as well as ones with a bit more backbone to them. And in those optimal vintages where there is enough of a temperature range, so the mornings and nights are much cooler than the days are, the acids will develop properly as well. In a nutshell, great vintages lead to wines with higher levels of all the structural components. 

On the contrary, cool and wet vintages can lead to grapes that experience a slower, or potentially lack of, development. Fruits may not reach their full concentration levels and tannins may get stuck in sort of a ‘green’ level. Less fruit will also lead to a bit lower alcohol levels, while the acidity in can still remain high, as cooler climate wine regions are often known for their bright and refreshing high acid wines. But, just because all of these structural levels are not ramped up, does not necessarily mean that the wine it leads to will be of poor quality… it just means that it probably will not age as well as those better vintage wines will. 

Don’t get me wrong, there is a lot of not so great wine from poor vintages… no doubt about it. But the better wine producers know exactly how to take the fruit that is provided from that harvest and coax out the best qualities from those grapes to craft the best wine possible from what mother nature has provided. Not only that, sometimes waiting for these fabulous wines from the best vintages to age and evolve until they reach their peak can be a little… well… exhausting. Additionally, these off vintage wines can offer a serious value to their prime vintage counterparts. There are some folks that would rather not wait to enjoy a recently purchased wine, and some that simply may not have enough time left to enjoy the results of a perfectly aged 2009 Bordeaux or 2007 Napa Cab.  

I had my family over for a pre Thanksgiving meal last year, since we would not be spending the holiday together. I had a bottle of 2014 Domaine du Pegau Chateauneuf du Pape in the cellar for a few years and was waiting for a Thanksgiving bird and the right company to pop it open. 2014 was the epitome of a poor vintage, sandwiched between some fabulous ones in the Southern Rhone.  But with Pegau being one of the best and most consistent CDP producers in the region, I was willing to take my chances. While the wine was certainly on the lean and delicate side, it was drinking just beautifully in its infancy! Lovely black fruits, black pepper spice and dried herb aromas gave way to this amazing marzipan and olive tamponade character on the palate with a finish that I can still taste if I think about it. The acidity kept the structure in perfect balance while the tannins were smooth as silk making a perfect pairing for the bird and all the trimmings.   

Would this wine have aged much longer? Probably not without losing too much of the fruit, so we caught it right in its prime. Most importantly I was able to share it with my parents who both really enjoy a great Chateauneuf du Pape. I had no regrets about opening this wine early since it was with people who really appreciated it. That right there, is reason enough to grab some great wines from not so great vintages and open up something special with those that you love while you still can!

Wine Ratings vs. Vintage Ratings

Wine Ratings

If you are familiar with wine ratings in general, you already know they are often used to try and communicate to the consumer the quality of a specific wine or vintage. However, ratings are in no way a clear indication that you are going to enjoy a wine. Many wines will have varied ratings from numerous wine publications and media outlets, meaning there is no science to this but more of an art.  For example, the recent 2013 Gary Farrell Russian River Selection Pinot Noir recently received a 95 Pt Rating from one highly regarded wine publication, and an 89 from an equally highly regarded wine publication. A 6 point differential is a pretty big spread! That being said, wine reviewers are judging wines on overall quality, aging potential and any flaws a wine may have. So ratings are probably still the best overall indicator of quality. However ratings can come in a couple of different forms, either on the wine itself or on an overall vintage from a specific location.

A wine rating is pretty self-explanatory.  A wine is sampled (hopefully in a blind tasting) by a reviewer and that reviewer determines the score on the 1-100 scale (or 1-20 in certain publications like Decanter) based on appearance, aromas, palate and finish. The higher the score, the better the wine (theoretically). Often a reviewer will specialize in rating a specific region(s) so that they can really focus on the intricacies of the different wines they taste. However, it is important to remember that since there are so many wines in the world, not all of them get reviewed.

However an entire wine region is also rated by many publications on the overall quality of the juice being produced from that particular year from said region. Moreover, there is much research during the growing period of each vintage in every important wine region to make some early predictions on how the vintage should fare. For example, the 2013 vintage in Napa was being touted as one of the greatest vintages since the iconic 2007 vintage, so it was no surprise when Robert Parker gave that Napa Vintage 2013 a 98 Point Rating. That is not to say that every 2013 Napa Cab is a 98 point wine. More that with the overall quality of that particular vintage, the level of quality in wines produced within that vintage should be higher than most other vintages.

Can bad wines be made in good vintages? Sure… Can great wines be made in poor vintages? Absolutely! 2000 was notoriously one of the best vintages Bordeaux has ever seen, yet it was equally bad in Burgundy. Yet I have tasted a number of 2000 Burgundy wines that showed as much delicacy and elegance as form the highly acclaimed 2009 and 2010 vintages. And remember, a rating is still just one person’s evaluation and opinion. The best way to find out which wines and vintages are best suited for you and your palate is to keep trying new and different wines from different years. If you find a professional wine reviewer that has the same palate as you do, than you probably want to watch out a little more closely for his or her wine and vintage ratings as you may find some of your new favorite wines by doing so.

Cheers!

(This post was also featured on Wine Express with a few edits for their needs, take a look below!)

Wine Ratings vs Vintage Ratings

Check out these Summer Whites and “My” Malbec

While the weather around here is still way too cold to be considered Spring, it will be warming up soon. I mean, it has to right?? I recently hosted a couple of virtual tastings for two white wines that I am already stocking up on for this Spring/Summer. Both lend themselves to lighter fare (fish or poultry) but can also be enjoyed on their own as refreshing summer sippers. Best of all, they are fantastic values!

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I also co-hosted a video with my colleague Erika and we tasted this killer Malbec which happens to share my name… The Marshall! It’s made from extremely old vines that grow in a small single vineyard within Mendoza. It’s a big, soft and spicy red that will pair perfectly with just about any meat you intend to throw on the grill this summer. Check out the videos below…

Enjoy!

Belle Ambiance 2013 Pinot Grigio, California

Kunde 2012 Sauvignon Blanc, Magnolia Lane, Sonoma Valley

Bodegas Goulart 2010 Malbec, The Marshall, Mendoza

My Favorite Italian Wine Under $30!

Below are my tasting notes on the Taurasi DOCG 2008 Donnachiara, just love this wine…

This has to be one of the most well-structured and balanced wines at this price point. The complex dark fruit is delicately layered over both clove and dark brown spices while maintaining the earthy undertone. The acid is present and the tannins are firm yet supple giving it just a beautiful mouthfeel. It finishes dry and long leaving behind the fruit dusted with hints of bitter dark chocolate.

Fun Facts:

Taurasi is one of Italy’s great wines and yet it is still undiscovered by many wine lovers. Only a handful of wineries produce this high altitude red, and Donnachiara is one of the newest. The vineyards are family owned and have been for five generations but the brand new, very modern winery was just established in 2005. Aglianico vineyards slope down the steep hillsides in this mountainous region of Southern Italy.

Campania, where Taurasi is located is drenched in sunlight but the high altitude tempers the climate and extends the growing season, allowing the grapes to develop ideal balance of sugars, acids and tannins as well as take on complex flavors.The wine must be aged for three years before release by DOC law and Donnachiara ages this 100% Aglianico Taurasi in French oak barriques for 12 months adding layers of flavor and dimension.