Aspen Times Weekly: A Vintage Year | AspenTimes.com

Aspen Times Weekly: A Vintage Year

by Kelly J. Hayes

"What's the vintage?" It's a frequently asked and very legitimate question. And the vast majority of wines, with a few exceptions (non-vintage Champagne for example), list the year in which the grapes in the bottle of wine were grown right on the label.

But is vintage something that should matter to a wine drinker? Well, yes and no.

Let's start with the yes. In certain years, specific regions have been blessed with perfection. Perfect sunshine, perfect moisture, perfect winds. And the wines made in these regions in these vintages have been deemed exceptional.

For those who love the wines of Bordeaux, the years "1961" and "1982" make them drool. While the wines of the 2010 Bordeaux vintage still need some time before they are optimal, they too will one day be one of those vintages that people talk about with wonder and glee. Prefer Burgundy? The 1998s and 2010s are touted as being excellent expressions of the region.

“It used to be that winemakers labored to turn bad grapes into OK wines. But today the sophistication and technology of the wine industry have evolved to the point where even in bad vintages there are enough good grapes to insure that what goes into the bottle is quaffable.”

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But because these vintages are so highly touted, the prices for those wines already are in the stratosphere. A year designated as a great vintage in an iconic region of the wine world translates into pure gold for the producers and distributors of the wines. It sets collectors in motion and the prices are driven up for decades to come.

Perhaps even more importantly there are certain vintages to be wary of. Years in which rain or hail or mildew conspired to make the grapes less than ideal. If somebody is suggesting that you plunk down some serious cash on a couple of cases of Burgundy from 2007, for example, you may want to do your homework first. Consider what British wine expert Jancis Robinson had to say about the vintage: "A dank summer led to rotten Pinot Noir grapes and the need for extremely strict selection. The vintage is unlikely to notch up record scores." Ouch.

Perhaps you are offered a bottle of 1975 Domaine de la Romanee-Conti Grand Cru, from the Cote de Nuits region of Burgundy. Wine-searcher.com lists wine shops around the world that will sell it to you for anywhere from $6,700 to over $13,000 a bottle. And yet Robert Parker's vintage chart rates the 1975 Cote de Nuits vintage as "appalling," giving it 50 points on a 100-point scale. So for these wines and those who pay top dollar for them, vintages are vital.

But to the average drinker, not so much. It used to be that winemakers labored to turn bad grapes into OK wines. But today the sophistication and technology of the wine industry have evolved to the point where even in bad vintages there are enough good grapes to ensure that what goes into the bottle is quaffable.

That is not to say that there are not better years for the Oakville Cabernet Sauvignon that you love and that you should not pay attention when you are paying $100-plus for your wines. But if you are drinking California Zinfandel or New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc, for example, made by a reputable producer, chances are good that the variations in the wines by vintage will be more reflective of the subtleties of the vintage rather than the quality of the grapes.

A red wine made by the same producer from the same region or vineyard from a warm vintage may be bigger and jammy-er than one from a cool season that may show more austerity. But whether this is a good or bad thing depends on the palate of the taster. Today there are fewer variations in the quality of winemaking as producers have the ability to coax the best from the grapes before bottling.

So what about the 2015 vintage? Well, in California, and indeed in the entire West, the big news was just how early everything ripened. In the Santa Barbara region the harvest began in August and just about everyone was done picking by mid-September. In Sonoma, sparkling wine producers cleaned their Chardonnay vines by the end of August. And in Oregon, the earliest harvest ever was the result of some hot days in the summer sun.

While yields, that is the number of tons of grapes harvested, were down considerably in the Napa and Sonoma regions — especially from the last two years — both Oregon and Washington enjoyed bountiful years.

The talk is of a "new normal" where climate change has instituted early ripening of grapes in the western United States. We shall see.

But for now, look forward to another year of great wine.

Kelly J. Hayes lives in the soon-to-be-designated appellation of Old Snowmass with his wife, Linda, and black Lab named Vino. He can be reached at malibukj@aol.com.

UNDER THE INFLUENCE

Alma Rosa Winery Vineyards 2013 Pinot Noir Sta. Rita Hills

Last week I mentioned I was looking forward to tasting some Pinot noir at the Denver International Wine Festival, and lo and behold my first stop was Alma Rosa. This wonderfully intense ruby colored wine was deep, dark and delicious. It hails from a number of certified organic vineyards in the magical Sta. Rita Hills appellation and is a great wine with food.