In the first place, ‘vintage year’ is whatever the opposite of oxymoronic is, since technically, every year is a vintage year.
In Oporto, however, certain vintages may be ‘declared’—meaning that, in the spring of the second year following the harvest, Port houses determine whether or not their then-barreled wine has the potential to be ranked among the 2% of ports outstanding enough to wear the coveted ‘Vintage’ label. In general, this happens about three times per decade, and although such declarations are the decision of each individual shipper (and the Port/Douro Wine Institute), it’s a ‘see-and-be-seen’ party with most top houses following a collective lead.
Equally, in popular parlance, if you see an ad for ‘vintage’ French wines, chances are you’ll find selections from 1970, ’71, ’81, ’95 or 2000—and you probably won’t see much Châteauneuf-du-Pape, 2002.
In both cases, the word ‘vintage’ has usurped itself, narrowed its own definition to indicate a given year of exceptionally high quality.
Usually, however, the importance of the bull’s-eye on a label tends to exist in proportion to how lousy the weather is in that locale: Generally—but hardly exclusively—vintage is more indicative of quality (or lack thereof) in appellations farther north. Technology has managed to pick up some of the slack, and in Germany—so far from an optimum wine growing climate that vineyards are often planted on terraced slopes to pick up reflected sunlight from the Rhein River, vintage is as important as—and often indicative of—sweetness (or ripeness) levels. In the late 20th century, a land reform policy called Flurbereinigung sought to replant and reshape these hardscrabble vineyards, and new roads were built to help with the difficult task of harvesting grapes growing at a forty-five degree angle. Advanced irrigation and drainage techniques have also been a shot in the arm for such wines, and as a result, vintage may matter somewhat less today than it did 1975.
Still, when it rains from May to August, all bets are off.
Global warming hasn’t hurt things either (yet), allowing—or forcing—earlier harvests (up to 20 days in Alsace and Australia) and permitting places like England and British Columbia to become rational players on the world’s wine stage.
Even so, when all’s said, when everything has been homogenized, commoditized, controlled, steam-rolled and computer-cajoled, when it comes to vintages, there’s good old reliably unreliable France.
But Is The Hype Worth The Hoopla?
Roman Weil, co-chairman of the Oenonomy Society of the US and Professor at the University of Chicago, performed an interesting, if ultimately meaningless experiment using experienced wine drinkers tasting a vertical line-up of wine from four to 17 years beyond their vintage, and discovered that even the best could not distinguish wines from so-called good or bad vintages.
Except for those from Bordeaux.
Guigal Hermitage from Northern Rhône ran a tight second, but Burgundy, for some reason, was not part of the experiment—although it is traditionally supposed that whereas Bordeaux displays the largest variance among vintages, Burgundy has the largest variance within a specific vintage.
This all may seem a rather round about way of getting to Vintage 2009, which Pichon-Lalande’s winemaker Thomas Dô-Chi-Nam called, “My best harvest ever,” and Christian Moueix (Établissements Jean-Pierre Moueix; Decanter’s 2008 ‘Man of the Year’) said, ‘I have never seen anything like it in my career…”—but we’re not there, even yet.
That’s because there has been a lot of recent speculation—some of it spurred on by the Weil study—that the best thing a vintage-chart-carrying wino could do to lighten up the wallet is tear it to shreds—and possibly lightening things up further by spending money on wines from some of Robert Parker Jr.’s ‘black’ vintages, which are almost always less expensive.
Because another discovery of Weil’s tasting was that, although a greater percentage of tasters were able to identify the differences in ‘excellent’ and ‘appalling’ Bordeaux vintages, nearly half of those preferred the wine from the lesser year.
But I Digress…
Vintage, of course, can be thought of as a snapshot of an entire growing season, not just conditions at the time of harvest. Early disasters, like frost at bud break, may wind up being to a vintage’s ultimate advantage if the resulting, smaller crop is more concentrated. In general, even former New York Time’s wine columnist Frank J. Prial—one of the earliest critics to write an obituary for the vintage chart—said (using a vintage simile), ‘…Bordeaux weather is as risky as a dot-com stock.’
2009: French Wine’s Most Elusive Quality—Consistency
Let’s tiptoe through the tulips of Loire and Rhône—although both experienced a good vintage with occasionally stunning examples to be found, the 2009 season did not raise the bar in these regions as it did in Burgundy, and especially, in Bordeaux.
A deep-serious winter, where temperatures dipped below 10°F, lay a fit foundation for the growing season, although hail in the early summer pretty much ruined it for large areas in Menetou-Salon and Coteaux du Giennois. Areas that were untroubled by these storms enjoyed a long, hot summer, and the the Sèvre et Maine produced a few truly mouthwatering Muscadets—Michel Delhommeau ‘Harmonie’ and Sauvion Sèvre et Maine are examples, though most are now sold out. Sancerre and Pouilly enjoyed warm weather through October, although some of marginal producers made wines that were shy of acid, the better growers offered wonderfully rich wines. The best fruit, arguably, was the chenin blanc, where a fair autumn in Vouvray, Montlouis and Anjou resulted in dry wines of great concentration and depth, along with some outstanding demi-secs.
Southern Rhône: Persistent midsummer heat led to some heavily-extracted, high alcohol wines, and for Châteauneuf-du-Pape, overall precipitation was said to be the second lowest since de Gaulle was in office. Although there was some light, relieving rain in September, most winemakers chose to pick early to avoid a chance of mildew. Gigondas and Vacqueyras, with moisture-retaining soils, did very well, as did the villages at higher elevations.
Northern Rhône: An interminably wet winter left plenty of reserve moisture in the vines to counteract a steamy, but nearly rain-free August; this was followed by some serendipitous late-month sprinkles that allowed the ripening fruit to retain its natural acidity. The resulting wines are focused and textured with super structures, but such poetry pales in comparison to Hermitage heavy Jean-Louis Chave, who remarks, ‘The sun is within these wines…’
Ten years after Domaine de la Vougeraie was formed, winemaker Pierre Vincent believes that in 2009, he’s found his dream vintage. ‘You can taste the characteristics of each terroir,’ is his Yogi Bera assessment, considering that terroir is something you’re supposed to taste, even in off years. Nonetheless, the local superstition (much like our own President-elected-in-a-‘zero’-year-dies-in-office myth) suggests that vintages ending in ‘9’ are often destined for greatness: 1899, 1929, 1949, 1959, 2009… The weather was certainly Burgundian supreme, at least from mid-May onward. Early hail affected Morey-Saint-Denis and the southern end of Gevrey-Chambertin especially, and there was some worry that the prolonged flowering cycle in Côte d’Or might equate to uneven ripening, although this, apparently, did not happen. August, which local vignerons believe to be the most important month for creating must weight, was ideal—dry and warm, but not sweltering, with a steady north wind to remove any threat of mildew from a couple of July showers. Harvest began in the first week of September, and continued through to the end of the month, when the later-picked grapes of the Côte de Nuits were nearly all in. By all accounts, the wines were beautifully balanced, with unaggressive tannins, early malo to mellow the acid, and number a few dazzlers from top estates: Domaine du Comte Armand Auxey-Duresses, Domaine Georges Mugneret-Gibourg Vosne Romanee, Domaine de la Vougeraie Gevrey-Chambertin Les Evocelles. As in Bordeaux, however, the true strength of 2009 is seen in the more humble appellations, which have turned out some remarkable product.
Robert Parker Jr. has famously declared 2009, ‘…unquestionably, the greatest Bordeaux vintage I have ever tasted…’, and he festooned an unprecedented 18 wines with his maximum bequeathal: 100 points. None of the big boys scored less than 98. Not only that, but the consistency of the appellation’s offerings trickles down through the classified growths all the way to the petits vins and the sort of generic Bordeaux you can pick up along with your Lunchables at Pay Less Food. This remarkable scenario came after a spring where rain and hail caused some craws to curdle. But the weather settled down and the Bordeaux summer was long and hot—but not too hot—and was able to draw from the high water table to counteract the dry August. As in Burgundy, September rain made sure everything remained suitably hydrated prior to harvest, which happened around the third week of that month. Of equal importance, the dry weather during vendange allowed a serenity of labor, permitting pressure-free pickers parcel-by-parcel prerogatives so that each plot was brought in at optimum ripeness. In all, it is a vintage that lends itself to every superlative that the region can produce: Seamless, opulent, rich and decadent.
France, Vintage 2030: The Stuff of Which Dreams Are Made
That is, if you don’t mind nightmares.
The 2008 International Conference on Climate and Wine made it clear that, if current trends continue, traditional French varietals/appellations will cease to exist within thirty to forty years. Rhône may take the path that Castilla-La Mancha seems to be on, ending up a desert; Burgundy will be too warm for pinot noir, and should consider laying in some cabernet sauvignon; Bordeaux will have a climate that resembles Valencia, and may have a future in grenache and syrah.
The only bright spot on that horizon? Harvesting will be cheaper. 2030 roughly parallels the date of the first Zombie Apocalypse, and by then, Frank J. Prial should be ready to return to the world of wine in an auxiliary, hands-on capacity.
…If we can get him to convince the rest of the Walking Dead to chip in, we should be golden.