Monday, April 9, 2012

Rant: Give Me The Lesser Vintages

"Great vintages are all well and good, but harsh vintages are wines too."
--The Drops of God, vol.3

Wine regions loudly proclaim their best vintages, and in recent years, you probably have heard much acclaim for a number of different vintages. Some go so far as using extreme superlatives, such as "one of the best vintages of the century." The wine media helps to spread the word about these "great" vintages, recommending that consumers purchase wines from these vintages. You can get very jaded with all the hyperbole.

Based on this hype, wine consumers may seek out the best vintages at wine stores and restaurants, often ignoring wines which come from "lesser" vintages. You can find plenty of vintage charts, telling you which are the "best" and "worst" vintages, with the implication that you should only select the best. But I think too many people, to their detriment, are ignoring the so-called "lesser" vintages.

In my prior review of The Drops of God, vol.3, I mentioned that the topic of vintages played a significant role in the plot. In essence, the book recommended lesser vintages, even indicating that they might possess an advantage over great vintages. "The chosen few grapes that survive such harsh years have a vitality hidden deep within that the grapes of great vintages lack." Do you believe that to be true? I think there is truth within that quote, that a grape that can persevere and thrive during a harsh vintage is deserving of great respect. During a great vintage, the grapes have it easy, and don't have to work as hard to become what they need to be. I think the struggle though can lead to a greater character within the grape.

It is certainly much easier to make great wine with great grapes, so that even a less skilled wine maker can produce excellent wine in a great vintage. The true challenge of the skill of a wine maker though is during the lesser vintages. That is where experience and skill matters the most, where a master vintner must confront greater obstacles in his path to creating an excellent wine. How does he overcome the adversity? A lesser wine maker may not possess the experience to handle the difficulties of a tough vintage. So the true test of a wine maker is not the great vintages, but what he does during the lesser ones.

A wine does not have to be perfect to be compelling, interesting or desirable. "A mediocre vintage can still be augmented by an 'individuality' unique to humans and produce a wine that may be imperfect but charming, like people themselves." In a lesser vintage, a wine maker may produce less wine, but what is produced has the potential to be extremely interesting and delicious. It may also have the advantage of being much less expensive than a wine from a "great" vintage. In comparing the value of wines from different quality vintages, you may find that the lesser quality vintage provides a far better value.

My point is that lesser vintages should not be dismissed out of hand. They can offer much to a wine lover, especially if the wine maker is highly skilled and experienced.

Do you tend to neglect lesser vintages? Do you feel only great vintages make worthy wines? Or do you revel in finding excellent wines from lesser vintages?


Fred Minnick said...

I think a vintage celebrates the winemaker as much as the grape. You point this out, but we also talk about the grape not the winemaker. You and I experienced this first hand on our Bordeaux trip. A winemaker will be mere acres apart, but one's tastes better than the others. Is it the microclimate of a .002 degrees that makes the difference or the winemaker's ability to blend wines? I say it's the winemaker. And for this reason, I think we should always play up the vintage. 2007, for example, crappy year for Bordeaux. Yet, I've had some special 2007s and I know it's because a winemaker mastered the best wines he had to use.

Jason Phelps said...

There definitely is some merit to this idea. It is well understood that grapes do not produce their best fruit when lavished upon. Water and pest management are key to keeping the plant healthy, but also thriving and reaching for stronger and deeper roots to draw strength from.

When the weather imposes serious challenges it is likely well made wines from those areas will have some additional potential because of the struggle.

I am looking forward to reading Drop of God Vols 1 and 2 on my upcoming vacation.