by Jeff Miller of Artisan Family of Wines (Seven Artisans, Sly Dog Cellars, Red Côte)
I read this post, entitled “Tired”, at Two Dogs, a Flamingo and a Bottle of Wine, which can be found at http://dogswine.blogspot.com/2012/10/tired.html.
This part caught my attention: “Sometimes a wine is very disappointing and the recently consumed Michel-Schlumberger 2007 Dry Creek Valley Syrah, La Source, was one of them. I was very happy with both the 2006 and 2008 vintages of this wine, but this 2007 bottle was tired.”
This variation from one year to the next is a problem that plagues winemakers and wine consumers that doesn’t seem to have a parallel with most other products. Today’s Heinz Ketchup isn’t radically different from one bought last month or last year. Broccoli or Brussels sprouts seem to be pretty similar from one purchase to the next. Some variation, to be sure, but not a whole lot.
But wine is different. You can find producers that are fairly reliable from year to year, but even with them there’s never a guarantee.
I experienced this recently with some Syrah from Breggo, an Anderson Valley producer. We tasted a bottle of their 2009 in the tasting room, and it was one of the best Syrahs I’d ever had. A few weeks later, I tasted the 2008, and it wasn’t even close in quality.
Why is this? Part of the answer is pretty obvious. You can have two very different growing seasons. One year is hot, the next cold. So you get very different fruit.
But that explanation in fact doesn’t explain why there is as much variation as there is. In California, we have had a few abnormal vintages lately, where the fruit was pretty different from the norm. But they’re pretty much the exceptions that prove the rule. Most years we’re pretty consistent in the quality of the fruit we produce. Certainly no year’s fruit is a carbon copy of the year before or after. But the differences usually aren’t night and day. I would put the 2006, 2007, and 2008 vintages of the Michel-Schlumberger in that category. Ditto for the Breggo two vintages. There were variations, but nothing that would explain the major differences between the wines.
Part of the problem, no doubt, is that grapes and wine are a natural product. You can’t really control them quite the way that you can with other products, particularly when you’re dealing with lower production wineries. I do think that Gallo and Constellation can get more uniformity in their products (perhaps not for the better to be sure) more in line with what Heinz gets. That comes from producing millions of gallons of wine, which allows you to get an average across a large number of lots. But with smaller production, you can’t always achieve that uniformity. You’re often dealing with a small number of lots, or even just one lot. So you don’t have the option of blending your way to consistency.
But even if the grapes are pretty much the same from one year to the next, the winemaking can be vastly different. With the Breggo wine, the 2008 (the one I didn’t like nearly as much) was very soft (i.e., low in acidity). I don’t like fluff-ball wines. At any rate, the acidity of a wine is largely determined by acid additions in the winery. So if this year the wine gets a bigger acid add than last year (other things being equal), this year’s wine will be higher in acid, racier.
Oak is something else that can vary a lot from year to year. If a winemaker decides to use a different type or toast of oak, the wine can be very different. Often, one winemaker departs the premises, and another arrives, with a very different styles of winemaking.
Or maybe it’s just a winemaking error. Though an unusual error, if a wine doesn’t get the proper dose of sulfur dioxide at bottling, it can age prematurely.
Or it’s possible that the seeming difference between two vintages is just an off bottle. If the cork in one bottle is substandard, and lets in too much oxygen, that bottle can be a goner, even though the next bottle down the bottling line, with a proper cork, is fine.
At any rate, there’s no doubt that there’s much more variation in the same producer’s wine in different vintages than for pretty much any other product I can think of. It can mean that the consumer is disappointed to find the subsequent year’s vintage isn’t nearly as good. But, looking on the bright side of things, he may find the subsequent vintage much improved. At any rate, unlike Heinz ketchup, it does keep things interesting, which I guess is a good thing about wine.