The V Word

20131028-152054.jpgWhen I first started getting interested in wine, I remember hearing the word vintage bandied about but never really sure that I knew what it meant. I knew that there were ‘good’ vintages and ‘bad’ vintages from watching James Bond, who I remember commenting on a bottle of Dom being ‘a good year’ in one of them. As I began to study wine more in depth, I would very quickly learn that ‘vintage’ is both fascinatingly helpful and utterly useless information when it comes to tasting wine unless you know what you’re looking for…

20131028-152032.jpgWhen I first started working here in the Okanagan, as a cellar dude for the ’07 crush, I was always curious about what the wine makers and vineyard people thought of the vintage. I asked them questions about it all the time and tasted as many grapes as I could to assemble an early composite of the vintage’s potential, at least in my own mind. The grapes tasted fabulous to me but I’d had little experience with so many different varieties at the time so I never trusted my own opinion. As for the weather, I assume that it was a pretty good summer because, during lunch breaks, I was the only guy sitting in the sun. As a recent transplant from the coast, sunshine was a precious commodity that I had not had much of in seven years so I was making up for it. This was reaffirmed when a co-worker of mine said, “You know, I’m getting kinda sick of summer.” That’s when I knew that I’d made the right choice to move to the Okanagan.

Wine is made once a year. This tiny fact is sometimes greatly overlooked by the wine-purchasing public out there who may consider wine to be a manufactured beverage akin to beer, booze, or cola. They assume that when a winery runs out, they just go and make more wine. Before I was able to drink, I had no idea how truly natural wine is and I’m pretty sure that I wasn’t alone in this thinking. If I hadn’t been asked questions about this from multiple customers over the years, then I would likely have never written this paragraph at all. Unfortunately in our modern culture, the detachment from the natural world around us has broadened to such a degree that we assume everything that humans use must be manufactured by humans as well. I believe this detachment has lead us as humans to justify the abuse of our environment (resource extraction, pollution, etc) for economic benefit. What does it matter if all the bees are mysteriously dying when I can still buy honey at the supermarket?

“Peaches come from a can.

They were put there by a man

in a factory downtown.”

Peaches, by Presidents of the United States of America

But that’s another discussion for another blog. Suffice it to say that not all people are on the same page about how wine is created. So here’s the short – short version;

Grapes grown on vines in vineyards and are harvested once a year in the fall. The grapes are pressed and fermented (a natural process involving yeast, just like bread) into wine which is bottled and then sold. The vintage on the label is the year that the grapes were picked.

Hopefully most people know that the weather can change quite a bit from year to year. Sometimes it can be extreme (hot and dry or cool and wet) or more moderate. Weather can have an effect on the quality of the grapes for that year’s harvest, although the extent of that influence is up for discussion. Sometimes the weather gets particularly nasty, as it was for the end of the summer here in the Okanagan Valley. I saw waves of thunderstorms, hail, unusually high winds, and annoyingly wet weather. It isn’t unusual to have some wet weather in the spring and fall but this year felt particularly violent. How can weather affect the vintage and what does it mean to you when you purchase wines in the years after when the vintage

There is a saying in the wine industry where you can be sure that the absolute best vintage at a winery is the one that they are selling you. Wineries will never tell you that this particular year is a ‘bad’ vintage because that is bad sales and marketing mojo. There are key words that some wineries will use to describe vintages that are not exactly stellar. “Challenging” is one of my favorites. “Difficult” is another key word. Then there are various summations of the weather – Hot, Cool, Wet, Dry – sometimes with their appended durations – “a short, cool vintages” etc. I find it extremely interesting how some wineries (and wine writers) categorize vintages and how important it is (or not) to a particular winery and their portfolio.

20131028-152046.jpgSo a vintages was long, hot and dry. So what? What difference will that make to the wines produced in that year? Will anyone remember what the weather was like 2 years after and how that will impact the flavor of a wine? Unlike what David Suzuki says, I believe most winery owners, wine makers, and vineyard workers are more aware of the changes in weather patterns from year to year because of the threat of variations in the vintage. They collect this information fastidiously because it can be used to promote their products in good years, or excuse the differences in lesser years. It is in their best interest to be able to recall a season’s meteorological mood.

Do all wineries even want their portfolio to reflect the qualities of the vintage? From my experience, the larger production a winery has, the more they will want to suppress vintage variations, which is easily accomplished with the right winery gadgets and processes. These are generally medium to large production wineries who’s survival depends on selling a lot of wine. Other wineries, usually smaller producers, either want the vintage’s qualities imbued in their bottles or do not have a choice because they lack the expensive equipment and resources to limit the vintage’s influence. These smaller producers are left with more risk when facing a ‘bad’ vintage while the larger producers are able to ride out a bad vintage with less variation.

The trick is knowing what you, as the consumer, prefer.

In one of my all-time favourite podcasts from Grape Radio, Wine importer Terry Theise, when asked about the vintage variations of grower’s Champagnes on his portfolio, said (approximately – I’m going to paraphrase this) that the people who want consistent, predictable wines are the same people who buy Bud, Miller, and Coors while the market for his wines are for people who prefer single malt Scotches and micro-brews. Terry Theise doesn’t draw a judgement of any kind either way but as an importer of small, terroir-driven producers, his market obviously requires more of the latter. Personally, I don’t have a problem with either side of the debate although I myself find it more interesting if the same wine tastes different each year.

The biggest problem with vintage is that I think that there is a disconnect between the consumer’s perception of the v-word and the industry’s. If you, as a wine drinker, want to open up bottles of wine that are consistent, predictable, and always to your taste, my advice is to look for the larger wineries on your wine tour or at the liquor store. You will get more enjoyment out of more wines with less risk of finding something that isn’t to your taste. If you love the challenge of exploring and want to taste different things in every bottle of wine, I think you will enjoy the smaller boutique producers. You will enjoy the thrill of finding something new and will taste some truly astounding creations but you might run into some wines that fall short. Whatever your preference is, take the time to appreciate and remember to trust your own opinions.

Cheers from wine country!