Making wine is risky business. Not only does it take costly equipment, from temperature-controlled tanks to pneumatic presses to oak barrels; it also includes some high stakes real estate and often-unpredictable biochemical reactions that keep winemakers constantly on their toes from fermentation right through to bottling. The biggest risk factor of them all? Mother Nature. Weather patterns at crucial moments in the growing season can make or break a year’s worth of product (and, consequently, a year’s income). Rainy, stagnant, and other rot- or disease-causing conditions are the bane of the winemaker’s existence. So is hail, which can wipe out an entire vineyard’s crop, as we’ve recently seen in parts of Burgundy. Luckily, years in which it’s difficult to achieve full ripeness (the old recipe for a “bad” vintage) are fewer and farther between than they’ve ever been. That doesn’t mean that some vintages aren’t more or less favorable than others. But thinking about them in sweeping generalizations – like the two below – might keep you from tasting seriously compelling wines.
If the vintage was bad, everyone’s wine is going to be bad.
That’s a little like saying that if a team had a bad season, every player on that team played poorly. Think about it. There are always over-performing players on losing teams, and that’s part of why we continue to root for them. Even if their region experienced subpar growing conditions, great producers still make great wines, hence the maxim “drink producer over vintage.” In this sense, the vintage isn’t bad in absolute terms, it’s challenging. It may challenge the vintner to spend more hours in the field, to prune more rigidly, and sort more severely. Note: the follow-up to the bad vintage assertion is, frequently, “so the only way to save it is by manipulating it.” And sure, while some may turn to Mega Purple, liquid tannins, and other adjuncts, the producers we hold in high regard for their integrity know they have plenty of more natural tools in their toolboxes to use (see above: pruning, sorting; also, destemming, adjusting the blend, judicious sulfuring). Many I know are prouder of the wines they made in a difficult vintage than those they made in near-perfect years due to the harder work involved. If they’re smart about their farming and know how to handle their fruit to get the desired results, they’ll maximize on quality.
There are no bad vintages, only bad winemakers.
It may seem to follow from my logic that if great winemakers can make great wines in bad years that the quality of the winemaking is the greatest determinant of the quality of the wine. Unfortunately, there’s too much grey area here to simplify that much. Even the best producers struggle when the odds are against them, and sometimes certain microclimates are hit worse by inclement weather than others within the same region. Thus, a bad year overall might be a worse year for a select few. Those producers might declassify their cru-level wines to basic village bottlings. That makes for some killer village-level wines that over-deliver for their price. Or, the more challenging vintage might present a lighter, earlier-drinking counterpoint to the previous year’s wine – like 2006 Bordeaux after the glamorous 2005s. It’s important to never discredit these wines, since without less exciting vintages, we wouldn’t have great ones, and lighter bottles give us options that are ready to drink while the more structured ones are best left to age a bit longer. That variety is part of what makes wine so fascinating.
My best advice is to taste as much as possible and draw your own conclusions, based not on how the producer fared despite trying circumstances, but simply on whether or not you like the wine. Dare to seek out a “bad” vintage. You might be pleasantly surprised. At the very least, you’ll save a dollar or two.