Wine Question: Does Vintage Matter?

May 6, 2010

I've been a little fatigued with the recent parade of "best-ever" vintages in Europe, especially Bordeaux. First 2000, then 2003, no, wait, 2005, and now, 2009. So four of the best vintages ever in the last 10 years? Please. The flip side to this is an aversion to vintages without the hype, which means you get great deals on Bordeaux from less-celebrated vintages. (My advice: snatch up all the 2001s you can.)

I thought about highlighting one of the unheralded vintages in Bordeaux, but to challenge myself and the preconceived notions about certain vintages, I decided to sample a wine from the Barolo region of Italy's Piedmont from a year considered disastrous: 2002.

Not only was 2002 a cold and rainy vintage, but hail devastated the vines (and grapes). Many top producers didn't even make wine. Those that did, for the most part, took all of the grapes from their best sites and, instead of making single-vineyard wines and/or reserve wines, put them into a "regular" Barolo.

So how did this wine taste? It wasn't bad at all; actually, it was pretty nice. Though it wasn't without flaws: it definitely lacked fruit and was a little too dry. (I can't believe I am pegging a beverage made from fruit as "lacking in fruit." Not to mention calling a liquid "too dry." Welcome to the convoluted world of wine writing, where logic is a major casualty.) I will say it was more an exercise in evaluating a vintage based on what was in the bottle, rather than being in lockstep with the press and critics.

So does vintage matter? Well, yes. Especially where unpredictable, cataclysmic weather events (such as hail, excessive heat, frost) occur. Not so much, however, in arid lands that have predictable weather and irrigated soil. (Examples: Washington and Argentina.) The point of posing this question is to make a request to those who buy wine to enjoy in the present or the future: do not get too caught up in the doom-and-gloom or hyperbolic praise about the quality of a vintage.

One more note about Barolo and Italy's Piedmont: most wine nerds, when asked what region outside of France they hold nearest and dearest, would probably say Piedmont. Whether the grape is Dolcetto, Barbera, or Nebbiolo (the grape of Barolo), some of the most exquisite reds can be found here. Seek them out! Just, uh, not the 2002s.

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Jameson Fink is a wine buyer at a bustling grocery store in Seattle’s Capitol Hill neighborhood. He moved to Seattle from Chicago (where he dabbled in the restaurant and wine industries) five years ago to pursue a full-time career in wine. He’d rather be drinking Champagne and eating popcorn right now.



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