Drink More Wine: Vintage finds

When Mother Nature gives you great grapes, pay attention.

click to enlarge Certain vintages shine when nature cooperates with vineyards. - Ethan Prater via Wikimedia Commons
Ethan Prater via Wikimedia Commons
Certain vintages shine when nature cooperates with vineyards.

Wine is a living thing. It’s not Coke that is formulaic and exactly the same from batch to batch. It evolves in the bottle.

We are, however, able to produce wines of remarkable consistency, a glorious boon for consumers. There is little totally undrinkable plonk on the market. Make no mistake, though — you get what you pay for. But quaffable bargain wines abound.

Even with the advent of modern technology that allows winemakers to manipulate their harvest from year to year, bottles of wine reflect the growing conditions from a particular season. The farmer’s goal is optimal ripeness, but Mother Nature dictates what happens to the grape clusters. Did the vineyards get enough sun? Was there a cold snap when the berries were young? Did heavy rains close to harvest swell the grapes and dilute their juice?

In the case of premium wines, a great vintage also means higher prices, but rewards us with long-term ageability. In some lesser years, a few vineyards manage to pull off a wine that exceeds the score for the vintage as a whole, producing a standout wine that is a real bargain because it’s from a vintage deemed less desirable, and therefore cheaper. This is why it’s good for you to establish a relationship with a wine merchant who understands your palate and can direct you to the less obvious choices than prestige wines from superb years.

Grand cru vineyards will always be expensive, but lesser-known wines from a great vintage can produce bargains, and some real sleepers, as wines excel their normal pedigree. For example, 2000 was rated as an outstanding year based on expert barrel tastings, so I went all in with a group of family and friends to buy some Bordeaux futures (you pay upfront and take a gamble that the bottled wine, when released, will match the barrel samples in quality.) What might normally be ordinary wines taste as if they were twice the price. In this instance, we each got a mixed case of wine for less than the cost of a bottle of fine cuvée. After the wines were released to us after a long wait in 2003, there were many pleasant surprises. I chose to drink them (somewhat) slowly, to age the wines a bit, and just drank my final one last year.

Vintage charts and apps are available online, giving you the freedom to check on specific years from a certain region. Wine Spectator is my handy reference. Since weather varies, a great year in Bordeaux may not be stellar in Burgundy. Vintages are more important as you look for more exclusive wines. Makers of large production bargain wines are usually able to maintain a level of consistency. One vintage might mean fewer cases and slightly lesser quality, but Washington State’s Chateau Ste. Michelle or Rosemount Estate in Australia, for example, are remarkably successful at annually turning out drinkable, affordable wines. Sometimes, though, when nature cooperates, a particular vintage excels, so it’s good to pay attention and look out for those special years. Taste broadly and often, compare and learn. 

About The Author

Jon Palmer Claridge

Jon Palmer Claridge—Tampa Bay's longest running, and perhaps last anonymous, food critic—has spent his life following two enduring passions, theatre and fine dining. He trained as a theatre professional (BFA/Acting; MFA/Directing) while Mastering the Art of French Cooking from Julia Child as an avocation. He acted...
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