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Saturday, May 1, 2010

Wine Banter: Vintage to Vintage by John Haggard

Vintage to Vintage
Before beginning a topic about vintages, perhaps I should first clarify the term. A “vintage” is the year in which the grapes were grown to produce the wine in the bottle. Around the world, it is common to blend some other berries (grapes) from other vintages or years during the winemaking process. In the U.S., the European Union, Australia and New Zealand, a wine must contain 85% berries from the year in order to be designated a particular vintage. The U.S. rules are even stricter for AVA designated wines, such as wines from one of Sonoma’s 13 AVA’s. A Russian River Valley Pinot Noir, for example, with a vintage of 2007, must contain 95% pinot noir berries from 2007. If these percentages are not met, you will find no year on the bottle, and the wine is oftentimes referred to as “NV”, or “non-vintage”. An NV wine is not an inferior wine. One of my favorite inexpensive Zinfandels has often been Fred Scherrer’s “Zinfandoodle” which is usually always a blend of two different vintages.

Both Port (see my article from December 2009 in the Sonoma County Gazette) and Champagnes have a whole other set of rules for declaring vintages based on the harvest which has to be of the best quality. It is also not done to declare a vintage (millesimé in French) if one had been declared the previous year, no matter the quality of the harvest.

Now to some of my Northern California vintage notes…

Some twenty-five years ago, I had a conversation with one of the Sioux chefs I was working with at the time at the Sheraton Round Barn Inn (David). His theory, which I did not take seriously, was that all even year vintages (’82, ’84, ‘86) with respect to Northern California Bordeaux’s (Cabernet’s etc..) were always better than the odd vintage years. Of course, there is a little more to the making of a vintage than the number of the year and whether it happens to be odd or even.

In recent times, in Northern California, 2005 was a particularly spectacular vintage, however, this was despite weather problems in the month of May where heavy rain, hail and winds battered the blossoms of several varietals which were flowering at the time, thereby thinning the production, which produced far more concentrated wines, and for the few collectors savvy enough to stow away the 2005 vintages in their wine cellars, the benefits are just beginning to show. And then came along the 2006 vintage with rains that arrived out of the North and the subsequent three days of cloudy cool wet windy weather which began to have a negative effect on a number of different vineyards during harvest. Chardonnay was particularly affected as the wet winds began to create site-specific bunch rot. Those who were unable to get their fruit from the vine in time lost a quarter to two thirds of their fruit.

In 2007, a long cool season allowed all varietals the opportunity to show their true varietal flavors upon release, needing less time to age in the bottle and minimal decanting, however with capacity to age – a really elegant year. In 2008 there were three days of frost which created problems for the foliage and the wines from 2008 tend to have sharper red fruit flavors (in the reds) and a little higher acidity for the whites, however there is always an exception to every rule and the expert vineyard managers and master winemakers continue to find ways to produce excellent wines from tough vintages. As in 2007, 2009 is beginning to look like another perfect season. The potential for these 2009’s is even greater than 2007 and possibly 2005.

So, here I find myself now declaring that 2005, 2007 and, most likely 2009 are exceptional Northern California vintages: the odd years. I’m looking forward to my next conversation with Dave.

John Haggard is owner of Sophie’s Cellars, The Sonoma Wine & Cheese Market in Monte Rio, California. Sophie’s Cellars is open 11am – 7pm, closed only on Wednesdays.