One of the difficulties for the disciple of wine is reconciling the tension between a reputedly 'off vintage' with a truly great wine from that vintage. Part of the interpretive greyness comes as a result of the conflicting agendas of the various participants. A Rashomonesque nature enters the reports in that a grower/producer will offer a different interpretation than a critic, and a critic a different assessment than a merchant.

Some of the rhetoric surrounding questionable
foggy and rainy autumn vineyard with leafs changing colorvintages includes "young drinking", or a "true [insert appellation here] lovers' wine". Producers speak of wines that are "focused and pure" or "classic expressions" when the fruit fails to achieve the ideal ripeness for richer, longer lived, more structured wines. In the hotter years, the self-proclaimed traditionalists speak of "those who knew how to handle such ripeness" followed by proclamations about their avoidance of chaptalization or acidification. It is astounding to hear from so many producers who apparently do not make adjustments in these particularly challenging growing seasons. In many cases, the critic's definition of an "ideal" growing season is different than that of a producer. Further to this, a critic's long-range assessment will sometimes miss the mark, as some of the vintages touted to be more age-worthy than others will fall apart faster, while the less reputed ones can soldier on unexpectedly. So who do we believe?

The fact remains that great wines come from mature vines on great sites, and the physical characteristics of those same sites will make above-average-to-great wine in challenging years. For example, if the vineyard in question is slightly elevated on a well-drained soil, a little extra rain will run right off. If that same soil has a high stone content (as well-drained soils typically do), it will retain and radiate any available heat, creating quality wines even in the cooler years. Further to this, skilled vineyard management can minimize the effects of troublesome weather. Leaf thinning can let light or heat in where necessary, and dropping rotting fruit will keep sound what fruit does end up in the fermentation vat. 

In case you're wondering what you're missing, we highly recommend the following:
Chateau de Beaucastel 2008 (agh!) Chateauneuf-du-Pape, France $85.57
The vintage assessments explain that temperature fluctuation and rains throughout the summer and into September caused Grenache to struggle, with potential for rot and mildew. A smaller harvest was compounded by a 'degradation of the health of the grapes', requiring earlier picking. Regardless,
according to Robert Parker Jr. the great Beaucastel is "One of the few outstanding wines produced in this vintage", and gave it 90 points compared to an 85 overall vintage assessment. An immediate assault of game meat, cured meat, dried flower petals, fleur de sel, dark cherry and dark plum, stone and minerals as well as wet leaf aromas demonstrated what an impressive wine was promised. On the palate is was supple, gritty, rich and warm with more dark plum and ripe red berry confiture, tea leaf and twig flavours, with a medium-long finish. Expressing early for what is typically a long-lived wine, one cannot deny its greatness.
Chateau de Beaucastel 2008 Chateauneuf du Pape horizontal bottle

Altesino 2005 Brunello di Montalcino, Tuscany, Italy $57.00
2005 in Tuscany received an overall 91 point rating which is very good, h
owever the consumer is steered away from these beauties as the bracket vintages received 95 (2004) and 97 (2006) points respectively. It is a tragedy to ignore the 2005's and illustrates an inherent problem with the entire practice of scoring. Further to this, the 91 points can be an indication of wines that will deliver soon-after-release or immediate drinking pleasure. Though the weather conditions near harvest were cool and wet with localized hail, the Altesino earned the 91 Point mean rating, and shows gorgeous floral perfume, red and black cherry, leather, dusty earth, chestnut husk and clay aromas, with a jujube/wine gum fruit character charming the whole. On the palate it opens ripe and concentrated, with grippy, fine, dusty tannins, a medium-plus length and more wine gum fruit flavours in the middle.
Altesino 2005 Brunello di Montalcino horizontal bottle
Though vintage assessments largely speak to quality, they should speak more to character and differences of use. And as naive and beyond contentious it would be to suggest all vintages yield equally-good-but-different-wine, the other extreme, that of taking general vintage assessments as absolute and all-inclusive, does an equal disservice to the wine lover in that they narrow the potential for great wine drinking. Different people purchase wine for different reasons. The collectors will want to use the general assessments to hedge their decisions on volume purchases for long-term cellaring and potential return on investment. But that doesn't mean one should completely avoid wines from less heralded years as too many do. The wine-loving wine drinker will not be distracted by the hype or lack thereof, and for their own hedonistic rewards will seek great wine for great wines' sake. So to answer the question of who to believe? Well, the only answer is "yourself".

-Matt Browman


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