As the new year turns, amid the journalistic farrago of year end summaries and photo spreads, with world crises recapped, celebrities remourned, and cartoons reprinted, I always look forward to the year's first issue of the Wine Spectator. This issue contains the magazine's updated "Vintage Chart," the key to ordering well at a restaurant.
I quickly put the chart into my wallet and toss out last year's out-of-date one. The size of a large business card, the Wine Spectator vintage chart unfolds like an accordion. Its six pages of data-crammed grids include lists of the major wine regions of the world and scores (on a scale of one to 100) for each year with a note to "drink or hold" (in other words, enjoy it now or bank it and let it appreciate).
The Wine Spectator chart is the best of its kind, mainly because it is the most comprehensive. Even a wine expert who tracks these things might not remember, as he scans a wine list, what conditions were like for French Alsatian wines in 1996. (Good: The cheat sheet hands out a high "92 Drink/Hold.") Or whether to order that underpriced Barolo 1994? (No: The Piedmont region in 1994 gets a lousy 77.) Taillevent, a superb restaurant in Paris, supplies its own chart for patrons, and even includes a line on tiny Jura, a region on the border between France and Switzerland. Even if you don't know what Jurançon is, go ahead and order it if the restaurant's chart has it in its very best year of the decade. (Actually, be careful because some Jurançon is dessert wine.)
Vintage charts are a great idea because they isolate the most important variable in the making of wine: the year. The best way to find a good, underpriced wine is to look for a type of wine you like (Bordeaux, California cabernet, pinot noir) in an excellent year (click here for an annotated list of grapes and varieties). Even if you have never heard of the producer, the chances are it's pretty good. In general, prices follow name brands not years, so you will find bargains as well. And if the winemaker is half decent, in a great year he will have done well. So a 1990 Bordeaux or Burgundy is likely to be first-rate if made by a respectable, even if unknown, winemaker. Similarly, 1994 was a balmy year for California cabs: You simply can't go wrong if you order one or even purchase it in a shop that stocks selectively. (Note re buying wine in restaurants: You're also relying on the restaurant's screening system. There are truly awful winemakers who could make plonk even in the best year. But few restaurants carry such wines.)
O bviously, year isn't the only determinant. The region, the grape variety, and the winemaker's skill have an enormous effect on wine quality. The French tend to talk lyrically about the terroir, the characteristics given by particular climate and soil, while Americans worship winemakers instead, turning them into celebrities. But by concentrating on nature rather than nurture, the French are probably closer to the truth than the Americans are. At the end of the day, wine is an agricultural product. Just as the year to year quality of oranges, potatoes, and tomatoes is determined primarily by the weather, so it is with grapes.
The comparison isn't perfect because wine is not simply an agricultural product. Grapes must be pressed, fermented, blended, and aged to make wine, so it's better described as a semi-processed food product--one whose quality is shaped as it sits and decays in vats, barrels, and bottles. I say semi-processed because wine is not the mass-produced, machine-made, processed food that orange juice is, so the winemaker cannot interfere as much with the process. Consequently, a bad year, with some exceptions, means bad wine, whether at Château Lafite-Rothschild or at Gallo. Cabernet sauvignon in a bad, that is, excessively cold, year tastes acidic, weedy, and vegetal. Pinot noir simply tastes thin and fruitless. Chardonnay is a hardy grape, which is why it is so widely produced all over the world. You're unlikely to get something really "off" when you order a glass of Chardonnay, which explains its ubiquity on wine lists.
Of course you can compensate for weather--within limits. Just as in a good year you can do well easily, in a bad year almost nothing can make a first-rate product. Winemakers who make fine champagne, special Napa cabernets, and single-vineyard burgundies do not make their best wines--say Stag's Leap Cask 23 or Vintage Bollinger--in a bad year. At the great Sauternes vineyard Château d'Yquem they make none of their legendary wine if the weather has been particularly bad--a crippling financial decision, less and less likely to be made as the old standards of the owner, the Comte de Lurs-Saluces, are replaced by those of management gnomes.
What makes a good year is a very complicated matter, since different grapes and regions are best served by different weather conditions. In general the fruit should form in good-sized bunches on the vine, ripen at a reasonable pace, and be plucked when fully ripe. The great enemies of grape growers are extremes and sudden change--fluctuating temperatures, sudden rainstorms, heat waves, flash frosts. (In fact, even the banalities I've just written are actually the subject of intense controversy.) It's a complex grid, too complicated for the average imbiber to chart for himself, which is why you should celebrate every new year with a nice bottle and the Wine Spectator cheat sheet.