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How Important Are Vintages?

 A lot of people out there are obsessed with vintages. There are lots of forces at work here.

First, there are the wine geeks who have nothing better to do than sit around debating the merits of, say, 1989 Bordeaux versus 1990. Engaging in these discussions would seem to these folks to be a good way to demonstrate knowledge and experience.

Then there are the journalists. "2010 Barolo" or "2005 Burgundy" make for great magazine stories. They then get an assist from the professionals who have to sell the wine. Vintage hype has a way of getting out of control, pushing up prices and blinding people to much better values lurking just around the corner.

Finally there are the casual wine drinkers with just a little too much knowledge. They vaguely hear somewhere that 2009 was a great vintage in Burgundy. Perhaps thanks to the vintage hype mentioned above. And then they walk into our shop and assume that we are trying to rip them off by selling them something from 2010. Happens all the time.

All these forces combine to exaggerate the importance of vintages. Take the example given above, 1989 versus 1990 in Bordeaux. I used to be quite confident in my assessment of these two vintages and the differences between them. That was until I participated in a blind tasting of both vintages and found them remarkably hard to tell apart. And I wasn't the only one.

To be fair, those were both big ripe vintages with a great reputation. There are other times when vintage difference is profound. From 2003 to 2005 Burgundy had three very different vintages, and experienced drinkers are unlikely to mistake them in blind tastings -- at least not very often.

But those were 3 extreme vintages. And I think that's where vintages really matter: at the extremes. A truly legendary vintage produces many great wines, and you should always invest in these (though not exclusively; legendary vintages require the most bottle aging and you will need some wine to drink before they are ready!). A lousy vintage -- 2002 in the Southern Rhone say -- should generally be avoided, but often provides incredible values from producers who bucked the trend. But the vast majority of vintages fall somewhere in between. It is in this large middle space that we should probably all chill out a little about vintages.

It wasn't always thus. Weather was vastly more important a generation or two ago when we did not have the viticultural skills and technology to achieve grape ripeness under virtually any conditions. Even simple things like improved weather forecasting permit us to time harvests better. Mechanical sorting tables ensure that fewer unripe grapes make their way into the vat. So most good, conscientious producers make good wine virtually every year. There will be variations in acidity, fruitiness, structure and so forth -- but just enough to keep life interesting.

In Burgundy, after the crazy three vintages of 2003, 2004 and 2005 you had three more vintages that were far more similar: 2006, 2007 and 2008. None of them were famous vintages. None of them had obvious qualities that could consistently be picked out in blind tastings. Today, most Burgundy drinkers would be pleased to drink wine from any of the three. There are tendencies -- 2008 is the most acidic, 2006 the most tannic, 2007 the most forward -- but there is enough variation that these can be considered general rules of thumb only, and none of these factors are so extreme that they offend ordinary palates.

So here's my advice on vintages:

1. Buy the legendary vintages; they are truly special.

2. Buy from ordinary vintages as well. They will be ready to drink long before the more famous vintages.

3. When a vintage is truly lousy, look carefully for secret bargains but otherwise avoid.

4. Those extremes aside, buy regularly from your favorite producers and don't worry too much about vintage variation.