Timing, as the saying goes, is everything. The art of doing the right thing at the right time is often a result of intuition and experience. Good timing is also often ruled by the unseen forces of luck and fate, which have made themselves known to us throughout human history (not too long ago we thought the earth was flat). Fate, luck and good timing are what prompted me talk about vintages in today's post.
We all know that vintages can make a difference in taste, even if we're not sure how. In truth, a lot of us somehow have that knowledge branded in our brains. Sometimes we care about it even when is not really a factor. How have we learned about different years and their reputations? Most likely, it is because somebody reliable told us, "this vintage is good," or "this vintage is not so good." Since we cannot be present for every harvest of our favorite wines, we are left to trust wine professionals and friends. But how do those people define a great year, or an okay one, or a bad one? Here is where one can take a million different roads, depending on who he asks... and where he asks.
Take, for example, the 1997 vintage in Italy. In Montalcino, the general consensus is that 1997 was one of the best vintages of the century. In Barolo, the vintage was also good, but experts will tell you that wines from 1997 will not last as long as wines from 1996, which happened to be a very poor year for Montalcino. How does one define a great vintage? Is it better when a year is hot or cold? Rainy or dry? Sunny or cloudy? There's no way to make a determination with a universal rule; such a thing doesn't exist. The answer lies in a single word, and is as easy as it is complicated --
I asked my teacher, the master winemaker Roberto Cipresso, what balance means, and if he could define a common rule for it that was valid all around the globe. He said that balance in viticulture has to do with the tangible factors of sugar, PH (acidity) and tannin (antioxidant), and the intangible factor of timing. In an ideal year, with a regular season cycle, there is an even maturation of the grapes, and the three tangible factors will be evident in the fruit. Of the three Roberto told me that the tannins are the most important. This is because the maturation of the tannins can be extremely variable, where sugar and acidity can be more easily managed, and will result in fewer surprises in the bottle. His words showed me, literally created an image, of what this all business was about. "Tannins will give me a good indication of how the year was," he told me, and he began to describe some of the specific indicators. "When the seed is red and crunchy, when the skin transfers the color to the pulp when you lightly touch the grape, or if I chew the skin for few minutes and the tannins are not bitter - these are all really good signs." Those qualities, matched with a balanced PH and an agreeable level of sugar (so as not to have a wine with exorbitant alcohol content) makes a great vintage.
After that conversation with Roberto, I had a vocabulary for defining a "good" vintage. Then, I asked myself: what does "great" vintage mean, and does every grape need the same weather and season to meet those requirements? Let's start from the second question: the answer, frankly, is no. Vines adapt to their environments, and have been proven to do so quickly and efficiently. A balanced year for Burgundy, Barolo or Montalcino will have unique characteristics, as will the grapes for all of the different regions of the world. Just because all grapes are similar doesn't mean that each vine has the same optimal environment. To me, that would be like saying that every child should be raised the exact same way, regardless of advantages or shortcomings. It's just not true.
The first question needs a little more articulation to the answer. "Great" is a value judgment, and since we have an idea of what "good" vintage is, we're obviously looking for something... well... better. For this reasoning, I return to the idea of time: more time makes a greater wine. Generally speaking, a "great" vintage translates into wines that have a notably long aging potential (buying a wine that has many decades of longevity is a good investment - vintage is often an excellent indicator of a wine's lifespan). Technically speaking, a wine will live longer when the fruit goes through an even maturation. This is a rare occurrence, and the result is a well-balanced wine that will develop evenly, elevating the wine's overall structure. Evenly developed tannins (neither to ripe nor too green) will also preserve longevity, as well as the acidity. There are, of course, a number of vintage exceptions to the rule that equates greatness with longevity. 1990, 1997, and 2000 for example, were all fairly warm years, but the vintages are almost unanimously described as "great." This may be because the wines were exemplary of their appellations, or perhaps because warmer vintages tend to be more approachable at an early stage of life, and the wines' great qualities were more immediately evident. Whatever conclusions we draw, we must remember that we are judging with a lot of subjectivity, and that no vintage is universally "great."
By the same token, no vintage is universally "bad." I think it is worthwhile to look especially at the wines from great producers in difficult years. Here are a few reasons why. Primarily (and most importantly, I believe) a man's hand can take action to deal with the problems that derive from unfavorable weather. This means that a skilled and experienced "vignaiolo" can develop the ability to manage his vines, and after careful supervision of his cellar, great wines can still emerge. A good winemaker can (and often will) downgrade the wine, using the best juices for what would be considered a "lesser" label. For example, in Montalcino in 2002 (a generally poor vintage), many great Brunello producers used all of their fruit to produce only Rosso di Montalcino, which bears a shorter aging standard and fewer fermentation requirements.
Remember: don't dismiss a "bad" vintage too hastily - you could be missing out on a great opportunity!