What does “vintage” mean anyway?

It’s Fall, so perhaps not surprising that the idea to blog on the “vintage”. But what brought the idea up, actually, were three separate but inevitably related incidents, all of which showed how important — and controversial – each separate vintage can be.

For those who don’t know, vintage — in wine-speak — is both the year and the wine made during that year. It would seem to be a fairly simple concept, right? But instead…well, read on and find out.

What first gave me this idea was a meeting with Vern Siemens, the owner of Mt. Lehman winery in Abbotsford, B.C. I was out there picking up some wine for one of my wine club members (they are going to use his ’09 Pinot Noir as a corporate Xmas gift, a fabulous idea given it is only $15.99). We got to chatting and — again, because it’s Fall — he was saying what a challenge this year was going to be for his wine. All the rain we had in May/June/July set everything back so far that even when it got nice in August, the vines were just so far behind it was tough to get many of the grapes ripe before it started to rain again last month.

But what struck me most about his comments was how much weather impacts not just his wine, but his livelihood. As a winemaker, you wait all year for those grapes to grow, and then no matter what they look like, you have to make wine from them. And then hope it is good enough to sell. Not only that, but for many reds, you have to store them for a year or more before you can even start to market them! Talk about risky overhead!

Fortunately for Vern, he is a great winemaker and I expect will be fine. He was able to buy some grapes from the Okanagan which — combined with his talent — should still produce a good product. But for others? And the folks who will buy their wine? Who knows…

Then, during the week I noticed that the annual “BC Release” was happening in government liquor stores. The wines aside (don’t get me started…way too many $40 +++ wines of questionable quality and value), I noticed in the back of the guide they had produced a vintage chart, going back over ten years and rating the vintages (out of 10). And, much to my surprise, I saw that none had been rated very highly, including 1998 (which most winos I know consider the “coming out” vintage for BC wines).

So I thought…what’s up with that? Right now it doesn’t mean much…virtually all of those wines (with the possible exception of the ’98 Hayman Vineyard Pinot Noir from Kettle Valley) are way over the hill. But how could they have seemingly got it so wrong in the past…and what did that mean for their assessment of more recent (and current) vintages?

Finally, I noticed in my last trip to the government liquor stores the vestiges of the latest Bordeaux release (2008, I believe). Critics had, I believe, said it was a good, but not great year….and yet the prices were still very high (most wines well over $50 a bottle). And yet…even in these unstable economic times…almost all the wines were sold out? Was the vintage that good to risk money on? And how did people know?

So there you go…three vintage stories, all different but related by the subject itself. What the moral is I don’t know, except maybe that weather and other factors do make wine different from year to year…and it is “buyer beware” if you buy it based on someone else’s recommendations.

My advice? Know the style you like…and if you can taste before you buy, do it. Because, ultimately, you are the best judge of what is good, and good value. And it’s way better to know that before you fork out a lot of money on the latest “vintage of the century”.




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