Tuesday, September 29, 2009

The Noble Writ: The Myth of the "Great" Year

Posted By on Tue, Sep 29, 2009 at 12:44 PM


Time to decode and deconstruct another term that gets thrown around way too often in the wine world: the "great" year or vintage.

In the early days of my fascination with wine, I marveled at connoisseurs' ability to rattle off all of the "great" years for the world's "great" wine-producing regions. As with points, though, it's very easy to transform "great" to "best" and quickly decide that -- given limited time, budget, liver and brain cells -- "great" should mean "only." This is especially true when vintage rankings are reduced to a handy, wallet-sized chart summarizing some critic's take on all of the world's "important" wine regions.

This path is unfortunate for several reasons.

click to enlarge Even Bordeaux covers a lot of ground. - USER "LARROUSINEY," WIKIMEDIA COMMONS
  • User "Larrousiney," Wikimedia Commons
  • Even Bordeaux covers a lot of ground.
First, what do the wine press or merchants mean when they coronate a year as "great"? Generally, in a "great" year the grapes were able to get really ripe. Once upon a time, in areas that are traditionally somewhat marginal climates, like Bordeaux and Burgundy, this used to mean something. If you were looking for wines to lay down in your cellar for decades, choosing from a "great" vintage for these purposes made some sense.

But these days just about everything gets ripe just about every year no matter where you are. What once was rare and therefore "great" is now ordinary, if not slightly disappointing -- and what is now "great" would have been incomprehensibly ripe. If, like me, you're not into super-ripe wines, a "great" year is nothing but a warning to proceed with caution.

The second problem with vintage generalizations is the scope of the summation. California had a great vintage in 2007? That's about 525,000 acres of vineyard spanning some 450 miles from Mendocino County to Santa Barbara, populated by 2,843 producers. Obviously, claiming that such a monstrous, diverse area was uniformly "great" is ridiculous.

Bordeaux? Sure, it doesn't cover as much distance as California, so the climate may be more uniform -- but there are still some 10,000 producers in the area and 300,000 acres of vineyard! The potential exceptions so completely overwhelm any potential utility as to render vintage generalizations the vinious equivalent of a good bleeding by leaches.

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