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Originally published Saturday, July 16, 2011 at 7:04 PM

Wine Adviser

Rating vintage ratings; not high

Unless you are purchasing very specific, investment-grade wines as futures, in which case you are more or less stuck with the guesswork of the experts who preview the wines pre-release, there is little to be gained by slavishly basing purchase decisions on vintage ratings.

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WINE COLLECTORS often become obsessed with the significance of vintage. It starts with Bordeaux, where the quality of the most recent vintage is assessed by a throng of international critics who taste barely fermented wines out of barrel in the early spring. Robert Parker, the eminence gris, sets the bar with his scores and notes, and prices rise (or rarely, fall) accordingly.

Over the past few decades, the one-two punch of wine scores and vintage assessments has led to an uneasy amalgam of the two: the vintage rating. All the major wine publications, along with many bloggers, newsletters and wine books, publish such ratings for every significant wine-growing region in the world. Should you pay attention?

The answer is, probably not. Unless you are purchasing very specific, investment-grade wines as futures, in which case you are more or less stuck with the guesswork of the experts who preview the wines pre-release, there is little to be gained by slavishly basing purchase decisions on vintage ratings.

Why?

First, these ratings are inevitably generalizations. It's a truism that in every so-called poor vintage someone made great wine. The reverse is also true. In every year hailed as a "vintage of the century" someone managed to mess things up. So the individual producer, and his or her track record, trumps vintage.

Then there is the matter of site selection. As every gardener knows, even in your own backyard there can be huge differences in the way plants respond in a given year. The type of plant, its location relative to the sun, the nature of the soil in which it grows, and many other factors determine how successful it will be.

Here in Washington, the impact of vintage on wines certainly influences style, but not necessarily quality. Wines should reflect the particulars of the vintage. If they don't, the odds are that they have been manipulated to such a degree that they have more in common with soft-drink manufacturing than artisanal winemaking.

When I posted some thoughts on vintage ratings on my blog earlier this year, Trey Busch of Sleight of Hand Cellars offered his thoughts on the 2010 wines that were just finishing up fermentation in his cellar.

He wrote that "calling a vintage can be difficult, to say the least. For 2010, many people here in Washington state said that it is identical to 1999. Low alcohol, high acid. I find the wines I have in the cellar are much more varied than that blanket statement. I have a cab franc from Yakima that could easily be from Chinon, at 12.5 percent alcohol and racy acidity. But I also have merlot from Red Mountain and Walla Walla at 15.2 percent alcohol, cabs at 14.2-15 percent, syrahs from 13.9-15 percent, etc. Our state is too big to give it one rating."

I agree. And I think the same applies to Oregon. The national wine publications dumped on the 2007 vintage in Oregon. By which they meant the 2007 Willamette Valley pinot noirs, conveniently ignoring all the other regions and wines made in our sister state. But even in the Willamette, an admittedly difficult vintage produced more than a few excellent wines.

With older wines, the value of vintage when predicting drinkability really becomes guesswork. So much depends on provenance. How and where has the wine been stored? Did it suffer heat or cold damage during shipping? Did it get stuck with a bad cork? What are your personal flavor preferences? No vintage chart can answer those questions.

The revised second edition of Paul Gregutt's "Washington Wines & Wineries" is now in print. His blog is www.paulgregutt.com. Email: paulgwine@me.com.

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About Wine Adviser

My column is all about sharing the joy of exploring all the world of wine. I want to guide people to make inspired choices, and encourage them to try as many different styles of wine as they can. I will always seek out the best wines at the best prices. Wine Adviser runs on Sunday in Pacific Northwest Magazine.
paulgwine@me.com

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