Sunday, January 26, 2014

Understanding vintage

Let's pretend I'm a teacher, and I'm giving you a pop quiz to start the new year off right. One question, multiple choice.

Choose the phrase that best defines "vintage" in wine:
a. "This is really old"
b. "This is really rare"
c. "A panel of experts agreed this is very good"
d. "The weather was great that year"
e. A, B, and C

If you answered D, you're right. "Vintage" refers to a single year of (good, we hope) weather in the vineyards, rather than to old age or to special-ness per se. In fact, in previous centuries when almost no wine had any keeping qualities at all, to declare a vintage meant to warn people that a certain year had been unusually bad, and that the wine of that year would turn to vinegar even faster than usual. (I am almost sure this reference comes from Hugh Johnson's Vintage: The Story of Wine, but of course now that I want it, I can't find it there. However, his chapter "Jug and Bottle" explains why wine spoils and why it could not be aged -- except possibly in the cold cellars of the Rhineland -- before the invention of glass bottles with cork stoppers.)

The mental picture of vintage as a beautiful sunny day therefore, as opposed to a mental picture of it as a grande dame in pearls, only became clear to me as I was reading a local newspaper article about wine this weekend. The food columnist wrote about Champagne as a New Year's Eve tradition, and as I read, I thought I had caught him out in a major error. My smugness radar went off and I was all set to fire off a chiding, sympathetic, deeply polite letter to the editor about it. Then I did a little research -- just to be absolutely sure, you know -- and learned that the columnist was actually perfectly right in his information, as far as he went. So I kept on reading, eventually did fire off a complimentary letter to the editor on her staff's explanation of the topic, and by the end of the morning was able to look up from my books, blink a little, and say to myself, Oh. So that's what vintage means ....

A vintage, a wine made from grapes all grown and harvested in one season of fine (we hope) weather, is something that some growers "declare," with equal parts trepidation and delight I would think, after watching the sun and the rain, and the flowering and fruiting of their vines all year. If the weather conditions have matched what their experience tells them is needed to make a great harvest, if the grapes taste right and the final product seems as promising as it could be, then they say, "keep all this juice together and see that it is unmixed with anything else. Label it with this year. This is a vintage."

Now, any bottle of inexpensive wine in the grocery store, and any bottle of expensive wine at a chic downtown shop, is going to have a year stamped on its label. I'm no longer drinking Frontera Chardonnay 2006 (Concha y Toro, Chile, $4.99), and have moved on to Frontera Chardonnay 2007 ($4.99). These wines were made from grapes grown and harvested in the years displayed, but I don't think the good people at Concha y Toro have gone to the trouble of declaring a vintage in either case. The trepidation and delight of that task has the most meaning for winemakers who routinely make very complex, blended wines of high quality, namely Champagne and port. If you look at the vintage charts at the back of Ed McCarthy's and Mary Ewing-Mulligan's Wine for Dummies (2003), you will see that every year is a vintage year for every major wine region, whether in France, Italy, Germany, Spain, or California. That is to say, alongside every year is a code indicating whether that vintage is considered Outstanding, Excellent, Very Good, and so on, all the way down to Very Poor. (Watch out for a 1991 Pomerol-St. Emilion, a red Bordeaux, primarily made of merlot -- both Very Poor vintage and probably too old to drink!)

The only regions/categories in the charts that show up with the mysterious letters NV applied to certain years are Champagne and Vintage Port. NV means non-vintage: the weather was not good enough for the growers to say "keep all this separate: this will be a fine wine." No vintage port was made in 2001, 1999, '98, '96, '95, or '93; no vintage Champagne was made in 2001, 1994, or 1992. Of course, "ordinary" Champagnes and ports were made in those years. On the other hand, there were great port vintages in 1977 or 1970, and great Champagne vintages in, among others, 1964 and 1961. I seem to recall Sean Connery's James Bond instructing the girl, at some point, on the proper way to drink a "Dom Perignon '61." He was right. He also knew something about too much Bon Bois in his Cognac, but that's another story.

The reason the weather can be watched and vintages occasionally declared for Champagne and port is because those wines are labor-intensive, high quality, usually very uniform blends to begin with; grape-growing conditions are so difficult in chilly, chalky Champagne, for example, that the place has only ever been able to make a palatable wine by blending dozens of different barrelsful together year after year, letting it all sit, and hoping for the best. When it began to fizz as well, dedicated Champenois winemakers like the monk Dom Perignon slapped their foreheads in frustration. Over time, they learned to turn the fizz to advantage, and the whole world's definition of a celebration expanded accordingly. Still, under these painstaking conditions, a really distinctive single cache of grapes is worth celebrating, and the only criterion possible for such distinction comes from a year of delectable weather.

Well, there is one other criterion. That is, only rarely mind you, the vineyard from which the grapes were harvested. Mysteriously, some vineyards just seem to produce glorious grapes, and the wines they make are kept apart from mere blends in any year. In The Wine Bible Karen MacNeil writes of a four-and-a-half acre plot called Clos du Mesnil, belonging to the Krug Champagne house. This plot has earned enough attention to be enclosed by a private wall since 1698. "The vineyard produces wines of such unique and extraordinary flavor that Krug feels it would be almost sacrilegious to blend it with other wines." By the same token, some ports are not only vintage -- remember the mental picture of a year of great weather -- but "single quinta," made of grapes from only one port estate (quinta).

But this leads us to one final, delicious complication. The thing about ports and Champagnes is that the non-vintage blends, the "ordinary" product, is the point of it all -- the point of the work, the expertise, the care and experience, the point of each harvest itself. A little of every year's harvest, both port and Champagne, even a little of the vintage years, is held back to contribute to the blends of the future. Those single-quinta vintage ports may not, as a matter of fact, use the grapes of the best harvest, but only of a good one. Taking off the best of a vineyard in the best year is taking off too much from the future's needs. And where Champagne is concerned, wine writers say that it takes more skill and judgment to create a non-vintage champagne than a vintage one, precisely because in making his ordinary multi-blend the winemaker is balancing the effects and characteristics of up to sixty different wines, all from less than par years, poured into one vat. It's up to him to anticipate future flavors and to create something that will maintain his "house's" reputation and please its loyal customers years hence, after the bubbles have started. The winemaker dallying about with superb, vintage-weather grapes has it easy by comparison.

And -- more deliciousness -- Jancis Robinson writes that in "some circles" in Champagne it is even considered "poor form" to make a vintage bubbly at all. In these circles, vintage is considered, yes, "an ambitious style that tends to cream off the best grapes and diminish the quality of the non-vintage, 'proper' Champagne" (Jancis Robinson's Wine Course: A Guide to the World of Wine, Abbeville Press, 2003, p. 176). "And the proliferation of luxury, prestige, or de luxe cuvees [blends] since Moet's hugely successful Dom Perignon was launced in 1937 has tended to cream off the finest produce of the top rated villages in the best years." In other words ... it's vulgar.

I'm not sure if there is a comparable school of thought in Portugal, but its attitude does begin to make some sense. A year's worth of splendid grapes lost to one prestige vintage, when they all might have contributed to making all the "proper" blends just that bit better, does look a little splashy, doesn't it. A little selfish. But just think what this does to our smugness radar. Good heavens, let us understand this. Dom Perignon as loud and arriviste.

It's almost too much to take in, without a good stiff drink. Blend what you like.

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