In praise of the unsung vintage.

March 17 2006 5:07 PM

Odd Bottles

In praise of the unsung vintage.

Illustration by Nina Frenkel.
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The wine business has its own version of March Madness—one that, like this year's NCAA Tournament, extends into April. Starting in mid-March, hundreds of journalists, retailers, importers, and collectors descend on Bordeaux for a first taste of the vintage harvested the previous autumn. While there is usually an air of excitement surrounding this rite of spring, expectations have never been higher: Before the cabernet sauvignon and merlot grapes were even plucked from their vines, 2005 was being hailed as a vintage for the ages.

Nor has the buzz been limited to Bordeaux. There's been lots of happy chatter in Burgundy, the Rhone Valley, Beaujolais, Portugal, Germany, and parts of Spain and California. It is too soon to know whether this potential greatness will pan out, but one thing is certain: If the hype is justified, prices are going to be stratospheric. There is already talk that the 2005 Bordeaux wines will be the most expensive ever. The upside? For every blockbuster vintage, there's another vintage that gets overlooked, and now is a fantastic time for the thrifty oenophile to stock up on wines from unsung years. Indeed, with the wine market increasingly prone to what might be called selective irrational exuberance, the buying opportunities have become all the juicier.

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It used to be that there were good vintages and bad ones. These days, it seems, there are only good vintages and better ones. Thanks to improvements in winemaking know-how and warmer and more consistent growing seasons, it now takes something out of the Book of Exodus to destroy an entire harvest. (In 2002, torrential rains ravaged the vineyards of the southern Rhone, turning the grapes into miniature water balloons. If you've been wondering why those 2002 Châteauneuf-du-Papes are so enticingly cheap, there's your answer.) Short of calamity, however, almost no vintage is without virtue.

Yet, as the qualitative differences between vintages have narrowed, the buzz over particularly promising vintages has grown exponentially louder. The wine trade is partly to blame. A small but astonishingly affluent (and therefore influential) segment of the wine market consists of trophy hunters desiring the best of the best, and winemakers, importers, and merchants naturally want rich collectors to salivate over any vintage that shows outstanding potential. This task is made substantially easier by the Internet. Come August, wine discussion boards are crackling with chatter, much of it emanating from winemakers and their representatives about which regions may have the most promising grapes. Before the pickers have even set foot in the vineyards, oenophiles in Paris, New York, and Tokyo are reaching for their wallets.

Wine critics help fan the hype. They have books, guides, and magazines to sell, and a banner headline about a banner year is an effective way to drum up business. The urge to exuberate is perhaps also driven by the example of Robert Parker. He made his mark by being the first U.S. critic to extol the 1982 Bordeaux wines; his early enthusiasm for this superb vintage caught the attention of consumers, who quickly concluded his was a palate worth heeding. Ever since, critics hoping to replicate Parker's success tend to shout from the rooftops at the first hint of a great vintage.

For these reasons, the spotlight now falls only on those vintages that show flashes of brilliance. Bordeaux is the perfect example. In recent years, the market whipped itself into a frenzy over the 2000s, the 2003s, and now the 2005s. The last is unproven, the 2003s appear to be less promising than hoped, and while the 2000s seem terrific, we're years away from being able to render a final verdict. In the meantime, the very respectable 1999s, 2001s, and 2002s are being ignored. They may not deserve equal time, but they deserve better than they are getting.

The silliness becomes even more apparent when you look at specific wines. Take LeovilleBarton, one of the great names in Bordeaux. The 2001 can be purchased for around $45. By contrast, the 2003 has hit the market at $110 to $150 per bottle. Is a price spike of that magnitude justified? Having tasted both, I don't think so. And what does the world's most influential palate say? Parker gave the 2001 92 points and the 2003 93-95+ points. Is a potential three-point jump in quality worth paying three times the price of the 2001? Not in my book. (True, the price of the 2003 was probably driven more by the 98 points it was awarded by Wine Spectator than by Parker's score. Even so, the supposed gain in quality hardly seems commensurate with the rise in cost.)

But why bemoan the irrationality of the wine market when you can take advantage of it? The stampede over certain vintages leaves lots of bargains in others. (Bargain is a relative term here; if $6-$10 is your limit, you can stop reading now. But if you're occasionally willing to pay $25 and beyond for a bottle, read on.) Nor are these opportunities limited to Bordeaux. Many Burgundy fans, for instance, are leaving behind the very hyped and breathtakingly expensive 2002s, quietly squirreling away the much cheaper 2001s, which in a number of cases are just as good or better (at least in the Côte de Nuits). Likewise, sandwiched between the highly touted 1997 Barolos and Barbarescos and the even more highly praised 2000s and 2001s, the 1998s and 1999s have gone begging for buyers. Yet both vintages produced sensational wines that are now priced to sell. Then there are all those 1999 Châteauneuf-du-Papes staring out from retail shelves like sad-eyed puppies in a pet store. The '99s have been ignored in the scramble for the more celebrated 1998s, 2000s, 2001s, and now 2003s. But the best '99s are wines of great finesse that pair beautifully with food, which cannot be said of a number of Châteauneufs from the riper years.

Of course, obsessing over vintage tends to obscure the more important issue—who made the wine. Most winemakers, sadly, can't produce greatness no matter how favorable the conditions. Conversely, good winemakers can squeeze decent juice out of even the saddest berries. Given a choice between, say, the 2002 Chave Hermitage (bad year, great producer) and the 1999 Jaboulet La Chapelle Hermitage (great year, formerly great producer in a deep slump), I'm going with the former. There is nothing wrong with drinking labels; you just have to know which part of the label to drink.

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