Finding Good Wines in Bad Vintages
WHAT MATTERS MORE, producer or vintage? It’s one of the questions that oenophiles often ask themselves—and one another—when considering whether to buy a particular wine. Can a great producer overcome the odds of a poor vintage or will a year of bad weather trump even the most talented woman or man?
My friend Alan, a knowledgeable if somewhat frugal oenophile, believes that no vintner can fully overcome the effects of rain, heat, hail or drought. He would rather buy a wine from an unknown producer in a great year than chance a bottle from a well-known vineyard in a bad vintage, which he believes is never a great deal. (He doesn’t buy the wines of great producers in great vintages since they tend to cost more than he’s willing to spend.) However, Alan conceded that his is the minority view and that wine professionals—especially sommeliers—tend to have faith that top winemakers will turn out a great bottle even in the worst years.
Was Alan’s assessment of sommeliers accurate? I asked Belinda Chang, wine director of the soon-to-open Maple & Ash restaurant in Chicago. Ms. Chang, who has worked in top restaurants in San Francisco, Chicago and New York, declined to answer specifically but told the following story instead: While recently dining in Del Frisco’s steakhouse in Chicago, she overheard the sommelier suggesting a bottle of Napa Cabernet from 2011—a widely panned vintage—to a group of men. Ms. Chang said the men, who had been checking vintage charts on their phones, were horrified that the sommelier had the “temerity” to suggest such a thing. “They all looked at her like she was on crack,” she said.
Ms. Chang has tasted 2,000-plus wines in recent months in the process of assembling her wine list. She tasted vintages bad and good and found worthy wines in both, including a 2011 Napa Cabernet and some wines from other so-called “appalling” vintages like the 2008 Rhône Valley and 2011 Bordeaux.
Of course, for the majority of wine drinkers, the greatness of a particular vintage is often beside the point. As Gerald Weisl, proprietor ofWeimax Wines & Spirits in Burlingame, Calif., said, most of his customers aren’t looking for the very best vintage but simply “a bottle to put on the dinner table.”
But for those who do want the best, he doesn’t necessarily steer them to the top years. Mr. Weisl, who has discovered plenty of good wines from shunned vintages, said that critics are often too narrow in their criteria for what makes a great vintage and perhaps unreasonably dazzled when lesser producers do a better-than-average job in a good year—or, as he put it, “when people who rarely make something interesting manage to make something worth drinking.”
The wines of so-called great vintages are often quite ripe and sometimes even overripe, he said, citing 2009 and 2010 in Bordeaux—both very warm (aka ripe) years that critics deemed noteworthy. There are virtues to be found in wines from less warm years, like balance and approachability, he added.
Chris Adams, CEO of Sherry-Lehmann Wines & Spirits in New York, a leading Bordeaux retailer, has also found good value in Bordeaux’s off vintages, particularly if drinkers are looking for wines to drink rather than collect. Mr. Adams said there are some “charming” wines from bad vintages like 2002, 2004 and 2007 that are pleasurable, if not necessarily “intellectual.” Additionally, Bordeaux from weaker years can cost 30% to 50% less than wines from a great vintage, he noted.
I decided to try answering the producer versus vintage question myself. I focused on some famous names from famous places in vintages that ranged from fairly subpar (2012 Bordeaux) to truly horrific (2008 Rhône) and somewhere in between (2007 Rioja, 2013 Oregon, 2013 Loire and, of course, the 2011 Napa). I selected some wines myself and for others sought the advice of a few trusted retailers before sharing them with friends.
I brought my first group of “bad” wines to taste with Charles and Kareem Massoud of Paumanok Vineyards and Alejandro Parot of Laurel Lake Vineyards on the North Fork of New York’s Long Island. The first wine we tasted, the 2012 Château Malartic-Lagravière Pessac-Léognan Bordeaux ($40), was far from bad. In fact, it was truly impressive, with silky tannins and a rich mouth feel. “I’d pay $50 or $65 for this wine,” declared Kareem Massoud. Although the 2012 Left Bank Bordeaux were largely regarded as disappointing, this wine was definitely the exception.
Alas, the next two, both 2008 Rhônes, didn’t rise above the challenge of bad weather. Although made by top producers Domaine du Pegau Châteauneuf-du-Pape and Domaine Yves Gangloff La Barbarine Côte Rôtie, they fell short of a better-vintage ideal. The wine from the former, one of my favorite producers, was dominated by a funky earthy note. The wine from the latter, an up-and-coming producer, was well made but a bit thin. And at $80 and $85 a bottle, respectively, neither was a great buy.
The 2011 Napa Cabernets were all impressive. The Neyers Ranch-Conn Valley Cabernet Sauvignon ($55) was ripe, lush and well balanced, and the Dunn Vineyards ($90) was outstanding, with remarkable depth, concentration and richness. Randy Dunn has long been one of Napa’s best producers, and he did a terrific job in this difficult vintage. The Lyndenhurst ($75), a Cabernet from the famed Spottswoode Winery’s second label that I tasted later, was pretty, with lovely aromas of red fruit and spice made in a forward, drink-now style.
There were other noteworthy wines from difficult years. The 2007 CVNE Imperial Gran Reserva Rioja ($50) was concentrated and lush with a smoky, savory note. And the 2013Ken Wright Cellars Pinot Noir ($30) from Oregon was suave and stylish with a beguiling aroma of red fruit and spice—reinforcing the winemaker’s reputation as one of the region’s most talented.
I brought my last “bad” wine, the 2013 Domaine Huet Clos du Bourg Vouvray Sec ($30), to my favorite BYO restaurant, Divina, in Caldwell, N.J., where chef Mario Carlino is a keen oenophile. The Loire Valley has had a string of bad vintages; 2011, 2012 and 2013 were full of wind, rain and hail. The 2013 was particularly singled out as an “annus horribilis” by some critics.
But the Domaine Huet seemed no worse for the weather. A deep gold, it was an intensely rich and honeyed wine with a firm mineral core. “I love that wine,” said Chef Carlino as he stopped by our table. In fact, he’d just bought a case of it for himself—and a case of the 2012. Did Chef Carlino know that they were both very bad vintages? He did not. Nor did he care. “I just love the wines,” he said.
Mr. Weisl is equally vintage-blind when it comes to wines that he likes. When customers ask if a particular wine is from a good vintage, he tells them that he doesn’t know “how the vintage rated on someone’s vintage chart” but that he can vouch for the quality of a particular bottle. Perhaps that’s the easiest—and maybe even the cheapest—way of answering the question of producer versus vintage: Find a retailer or sommelier whom you can trust.
Teague, L. (2015, September 24). Finding Good Wines in Bad Vintages. The Wall Street Journal. Retrieved http://www.wsj.com/articles/finding-good-wines-in-bad-vintages-1443106874