The red grapes have begun to come into their wineries in Bordeaux over the last week or so, setting new records for earliest picking dates. As with any year, and especially in extreme cases like this one, the winemakers and proprietors are inevitably asked to compare this vintage to a previous one. The drought followed by heavy rain, and hail damage in Sauternes and St. Estephe have brought a unique set of challenges. Reflecting on these conditions, and hearing the winemakers do their best to make predictions brings to mind so many different thoughts about how we like to categorize wine (or anything for that matter) absolutely, the vintage chart being one of those easy to understand methods for cutting a whole group of wines into a mold. With the early harvesting in 2011 I am first reminded of the 2003 vintage. However, that year dealt with heat and water stress in the middle of summer rather than the beginning. Even though this years wines won’t have some of the baked character of 2003, the early picking dates do provide a unique opportunity for those who are trying to achieve ultra-ripeness. Perhaps those extra few weeks of hang time in the hotter days of September are worth more than they would be in October. Some vineyard managers have commented that 2011 will have lower alcohol and higher acid than previous vintages. Usually this is a red flag for the modernist, since it sounds like there is already marketing of a poor vintage going on. Perhaps this year will be a real contrast in styles between the more classic and modern wines, a situation that leads to good debate, especially in today’s political wine market.
Vintage charts have been around for a long time in one way or another, but they have certainly culminated in a ways in the chart provided by the Wine Advocate, Robert Parker. It is a brilliant essay of information, providing a colourful, well laid out definition of the vintages of the world’s most important wine regions. While I tend to eschew a chart like this that only gives me loose information on one man’s opinions, and not even necessarily on the specific bottles I’m interested in drinking, there is some value in these charts when put in the right context. Take the rhone chart for example. When I first started drinking red wine, I was attracted to rhone wines because of their bold flavours, fair prices(this has changed) and interesting packaging. If I had to choose between an 07 Cotes-du-Rhone and an 06, I would see that the 07 was rated higher as a vintage, 98 vs 90, and buy that one. Inside I would likely find the wine with bolder flavours, higher alcohol and some big ripe fruit flavours. In this case the chart served me well. Now that I feel that my palate has matured a bit and I’ve developed my own sense of taste I would more likely buy the 06 hoping for more elegance and spice in the wine. I would feel that the 06 would have a more rhone-like flavour. I might be wrong, of course, but that’s how I would base my decision. For every 07 rhone I’ve had that gushed with pure fruit I’ve had 2 that had some awkward baked fruit character and hot tarry finishes. The vintage chart from Parker is still useful to me today in a sense that now that I know what the critics’ taste buds are headed, I can use that information to my advantage. I now know that 2000 and 2007 were likely the hottest, ripest years in the southern rhone.
This all begs the question, what is the category for a vintage chart? Is it for what wines drink the best this year? or what wines have the best potential in the future still? Or merely what years had the most ideal weather? Trying to combine these is harder than it sounds and I commend those who’ve made the effort in serious publications, even if they sometimes serve more to feed the marketing machine than the actual consumer. If I was to craft my own rhone vintage chart, it would have to be relative to my own wine cellar. This means how likely am I to have wines from that vintage in my own cellar. In this case, 1998 would have been a 9 or 10 out of 10 just a few years ago, but now I find these wines to be out of balance as they age and have consumed most of them, so now I would probably give it a 6 or 7. 2001 would definitely be a 10 out of 10, as would 2007, but for different reasons. 01 because those wines have aged so well and if I saw one in a store I would be anxious to scoop it up. 07 because the best ones are delicious right now and I’m still curious about their aging qualities. My vintage chart for Bordeaux would likely feature highly on the just released 2008 vintage, because some of my favourite wines are actually cheaper than they have been since 1999 and I like the style of the wines. Of course, if you ask me in a year from now all of these numbers might change. Hence the ever shifting wine world and my palate that gets dragged along with it.