Does vintage matter?

Making a date with great wine is easier than you think

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Let's say you're in a restaurant. You scan the wine list and decide on a bottle of the Chateau St. Jean Merlot 1996. The waiter goes to retrieve it, only to come back with an apology: "We no longer have the 1996. The vintage has just changed, and we'll be updating our wine list soon. Would you like the 1997?"

How many people do you think say no? In my experience, not many. Most people who are in the mood for a 1996 Chateau St. Jean Merlot ― or want to try it for the first time ― are willing to take a chance on the 1997.

Which brings us to the question, Just how much do vintages matter anyway? Lots of us have a vintage chart crumpled up in our wallet somewhere that we rarely ― if ever ― use. Should we pull it out more often?

At the risk of seeming sacrilegious, I say no. Though traditional wine wisdom has it that vintages are something to be concerned about, current reality suggests otherwise.

Consider the reason behind vintage labeling in the first place. The premise was that, as a rule, the weather was not on a grape vine's side. Historically, in certain years bad weather led to wines that were disappointingly thin, and listing the vintage was a way of alerting consumers. Such wines would generally be less expensively priced. People would drink the poor vintage until a better one came along, but no one would buy up cases and cellar them away to age.

The winemaker played a very small role in this yearly drama. No matter how talented he or she was, nature had the upper hand, the final say. From both the winemaker's and the wine drinker's standpoint, vintages had to be accepted for what they were. Some were poor, some were good, most were somewhere in between.

In the last 20 years, however, the picture has changed. Winemaking technology and viticultural science have advanced to such a degree that talented winemakers can sometimes turn out fairly delicious wines even when nature is working against them.

This is not to say that wines taste the same every year. They clearly do not. But vintage variations are often differences of character, not quality. For example, in a hot year, many wines will be packed with big, jammy fruit flavors. In a cool year, they will be more austere, lighter-bodied, and possibly more elegant. Are any of these qualities terrible? Isn't it theoretically possible to like both kinds of wine?

Unfortunately, the press routinely assumes that for all wines and all wine drinkers, greatness comes in one form: bigness. But that is simply not true.

There is another problem. A vintage is evaluated and categorized by the media when the new wine is tasted in the spring, six months or so after the harvest. Wine, however, changes over time. Often a vintage is deemed magnificent at first, only later to be declared not as good as originally thought. So what is the point of memorizing the pluses and minuses of vintages if the pluses and minuses change?

The only sensible approach, then, is to have an open mind. Take the vintage charts with a big grain of salt. Remember that wines evolve, and one-shot vintage proclamations are entirely too superficial. A talented winemaker can surprise us even when nature has challenged him or her.

When we recommend wines at Sunset, we do list the vintage dates, and the brief descriptions of the wines reflect the vintages named. However, if you can't find the vintage listed, by all means try another one. An enormous part of the joy of wine is in the discovery.

SUNSET'S STEAL OF THE MONTH:  Hogue Cellars Pinot Gris 1998 (Columbia Valley, WA), $8. Bold and peachy. A refreshing change from Chardonnay.


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