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Defining Good Vintages Just Got Harder

By Stephen Eliot

Vintage in California has always been a bit hard to assess generally and even more difficult yet to delineate with much localized specificity for the simple reason that the state’s grape-growing territory is vast and, unlike the traditional districts of Europe, there is no strict segregation of grapes to this or that place. As such, regional homogeneity simply does not exist. Yes, Napa Valley has embraced Cabernet as its own, and Pinot Noir seems to flourish in Santa Barbara, the Santa Lucia Highlands and along the cooler North Coast, but there is still enormous diversity of varieties and styles to be found in most every district, and a new generation of winemakers seems more than ready to make sure that our choices increase.

We have had a couple of highly acclaimed harvests in a row following a couple of difficult ones before that, but as we taste through the wines of the widely praised 2012 vintage, I am beginning to think that, just maybe, trying to expound on the specific traits of the good years is a far harder task that defining what the bad ones are about.

It is easy enough to talk about the limits inherent in a cold and wet year, but with vintners now picking at every conceivable brix level with some aiming for high acid and low alcohol and others pursuing richness and sheer opulence, just what is it, other than unwelcome rains, that could possibly be deemed as bad? Ripeness per se is no longer the grail sought by all, and I wonder if hostile weather will ultimately be seen as the single trait that convincingly differentiates one harvest from another.

In simpler times, it seemed that vintage left an indelible mark, but years like 2012 and 2013 have allowed winemakers to go where they will. Is it possible, given the many philosophies of just what “good” means and how it is to be achieved, that when we look back from a ten-year perspective we will be unable to characterize either harvest as being anything more than “pretty darn good”?

Failure might be seen as being the results of a problematic year in the vineyard, but real success, it can be argued, may depend far more on people than a fine vintage. There are those, of course, who would maintain success is not relative and that it can only be achieved by adhering to specific standards and rules ranging from minimalist, wholly “natural” winemaking, native yeast, low-alcohol, et al., but these are not functions of vintage as much as of intentional growing and winemaking choices. A sumptuous, fully ripe Cabernet or a leaner one that plays to the grape’s herbal side will be equally praised and viewed with contempt depending on whose opinion you seek, and you are almost certain to find both versions in any so-called good year.

Now, don’t get me wrong, I am thrilled by what we see coming our ways from the last two harvests hereabouts, but, as good as a great number of the wines are, there are no specific and immutable traits that I can comfortably ascribe to vintage in the way, for example, that is not hard to do with the wines of Bordeaux in 2009 and 2010.

Here at home, specific year-to-year differences, such as they may actually exist, are a bit easier to see in the wines of smaller, comparatively homogenous districts and easier yet in those from a single producer, but it strikes me that talking about vintage traits in a broad provenance can only be done in very general terms. And, if “good” is all that a given year has to say, well then “good” is going to have to be quite good enough.


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Defining Good Vintages...
by Thomas Taylor
Posted on:6/26/2014 9:21:23 AM

I'd be delighted to think of a good year just as you stated your view of the two most recent vintages, "...but years like 2012 and 2013 have allowed winemakers to go where they will", and "...specific year-to-year differences, such as they may actually exist, are a bit easier to see in the wines of smaller, comparatively homogenous districts and easier yet in those from a single producer...".

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