Inclement Weather (The Importance of the Vintage Year)

#259 – November 14, 2013

I want to discuss the relevance of the vintage to the wine you are enjoying.  While there is a pretty common misconception in the general wine world (i.e. non-kosher) that vintage wine is better than non-vintage wine, you all know that vintage means nothing more than the year in which the grapes making up any particular wine were harvested.  As with most rules, there are exceptions to this, and many regions across the globe allow a wine to be listed as belonging to a certain vintage even if less than 100% of the grapes come from this vintage.  The United States tends to be the most rigorous in this arena, requiring 95% of the grapes to come from the stated year if the wine is from a designated AVA, such as California’s Napa Valley or New York’s Finger Lakes, or 85% for non AVA-designated wine.  The 85% threshold is also required by Israel, the European Union, Australia and New Zealand, while Chile and South Africa require only 75% of the grapes to come from the stated vintage.  While blending in small vintages from other years shouldn’t be an issue (and is typically done to create a better or more stylistically similar wine), for the kosher consumer there is one area where this can become a real issue – Shmitah.  A number of years ago, Barkan released the inaugural vintage of it Assemblage label with two of the wines coming from the 2008 vintage and one (Tzafit) from the 2009 vintage.  However, the Tzafit also had 5% of 2008 wine in it, rendering it a Shmittah wine and off-limits for many (including Royal Wine, Barkan’s US importer).  As with most things in life – caveat emptor!

Contributing to the misconception with respect to the meaning of vintage is the world of Champagne.  While the non-kosher (and mostly entry-level wine) world is chock full of non-vintage wines, other than a few outliers (mentioned below) within the world of kosher wine, Champagne (and other sparkling wines) is the only arena where non-vintage wine is commonly seen (although as more kosher Port starts to come to market, we are seeing more and more non-vintage Port (or port-styled) wines as well).  Vintage Champagne is superior to non-vintage as it is only produced in vintage years considered exceptional while non-vintage Champagne is made by combining wines of different years.  This process affords the Champagne “house” (producer) the ability to maintain a consistent style from year to year regardless of the year in which it was bottled).  Another difference is cellaring time.  Vintage Champagne is required to spend at least three years in the bottle before release (the vast majority of houses cellar their wines for far longer than that before release) and non-vintage Champagne has a 15-month requirement.  The vintage Yarden Blanc de Blanc is cellared for five years on average before release.  Unfortunately for the kosher consumer, while there is a nice selection of kosher Champagne wines available there is no (and I don’t believe ever has been a) kosher vintage Champagne.

Other than Champagne, non-vintage kosher wine is pretty uncommon.  Binyamin Cantz at Four Gates Winery makes some non-vintage wines from a number of varietals including Pinot Noir and Merlot.  Jonathan Hajdu at Hajdu Winery (f/k/a Brobdingnagian) has non-vintage Carignan and Besomim wines and there are random bottles here and there that are labeled without any vintage specification (mostly entry level wines from producers like Cantina Gabrielle and Borgo Reale), but otherwise non-vintage wine is pretty rare and a non-factor for the kosher wine consumer (which isn’t necessarily a bad thing and is likely a result of lower quantities and a slight snob-marketing factor among the targeted consumer base). The majority of kosher wines you will come across will be labeled as belonging to a specific vintage.

Growing up as a wine lover in Israel, one was historically educated that, unlike the fickle climates of Bordeaux and Burgundy, New World, warm-weather regions such as Israel and California were a lot less susceptible to the variances of mother nature than their Old World compatriots, located to the North.  While rooted in reality, this slight misconception was such an integral part of Israel’s winemaking philosophy that the less than incredible 2002 vintage year was known as “cursed” for many years, despite the fact that a large number of great wines were conceived that year (including one of my then favorite wines, the Ella Valley Merlot).  Wine retailers, importers and distributors are guilty of continuing to push the concept of vintage year not mattering as they need to sell out one vintage of wine before they start putting the next one on the shelves, and convince the consumer that the 2009 Chardonnay on the shelf is just as good (if not better) that the one just released in Israel (hey, it’s aged!) – notice that many kosher wine retailers don’t list vintages on their published wine pricing lists (or worse, make unilateral vintage substitutions at whim).  This unfortunate reality of retailing often results in having the current available vintage being one or even two years behind the vintage currently released by the winery.  While there are some wines that aren’t negatively impacted by this procrastination (typically the better red wines), many whites and lessor red wines being sold are past their prime and don’t “show” as intended by the winery, negatively affecting the wine’s (and winery’s) perception in the eye of the consumer.

Over the years this perception has changed, driven to some extent by opposing trends.  On one hand, the sophistication of the Israeli wine industry has grown (both on the winemaking side and the global consumers of Israeli wine), leading to a greater understanding of the importance of a vintage year and the impact the weather can have on the wines from the specific year in question.  On the flip side, winemakers have a much greater understanding of viticulture these days than in the past, and technology has evolved granting winemakers such a degree of control over the grapes and winemaking process that twenty years ago a Château owner in St.-Estephe declared that there would be no more bad vintages.  Over a decade ago, the New York Times wine columnist – Frank Prial – declared the vintage chart dead.  So which is it, you may ask.  As with most things in life (especially for a lawyer) – the answer is “it depends”.  The advantages in technology have certainly substantially reduced the amount of technically flawed wine being produced, as winemakers these days have far more tools at their disposal to “fix” mistakes, bad fruit or flaws in the winemaking process.  The use of technology starts in the vineyard with ultra-sensitive monitoring devices that allow the winemaker a constant and up close view of what is going on with the vines on a daily basis, but vintage variation is certainly a big part of winemaking, due to the fickle nature of grapes and their development until harvest time.

Weather is one of the most important components in the overall quality of the grapes a winemaker has to work with.  While the concept of terroir literally means “land”, and is generally used to refer to the type of soil in which the grapes are grown, the concept actually encapsulates the grapes entire eco-system, in which the climate plays an integral and very important part (climate is measured in long-term averages, weather is the day to day environment – both are important to grape-growing).  While an in-depth, viticulturally-driven, discussion about the intricacies of photosynthesis, weather, ripeness levels and the timing of harvest is far beyond the scope of this newsletter (if you are interested, this book is great), in general – warm sun during the days helps to ensure that the grapes fully ripen (too hot and they will wither and die) and cool nights assist in making sure that appropriate levels of acidity are maintained.  This mix of hot days and cool nights helps the grapes achieve that magical balance of tannin, acid and sugar required to make quality wine.  Unfortunately, months of perfect growing conditions can be destroyed with a few days of torrential rains or hail in the days immediately prior to harvest –making good vintages hard to predict and the life of a winemaker extremely nerve-wracking.  Conversely a rather mediocre growing season can be saved by a few perfect weeks of weather right before the harvest.  As a result and as alluded to above, the weather is far more important in cold-weather climates, where different years see vastly differing amounts of rain, sun, hail and rapid climate change than most of the warmer, “New World” wine growing regions.  On the flip-side, with the recent technological advances, the best bargains are sometimes the wine from better producers in less than perfect vintage years, where the wines are great without the over-hyped pricing of top vintages (the recent Bordeaux vintages of 2009 and 2005 are hailed as extra special).  Fifty years ago, “bad” Bordeaux vintages such as 2007 and 2011 wouldn’t have yielded much drinkable wine, certainly not the quality (albeit earlier-drinking) wine that was produced, especially by the better châteaux.

While the kosher consumer isn’t as vulnerable to vintage variation for the reasons mentioned above, the last few vintages in Israel (and Napa to a slightly lessor degree) have shown the potential negative impact the weather can have on our beloved wines.  After a very serious run of good to great vintages starting in 2001 and running up to and including the 2008 Shmittah year (which was one of Israel’s best vintages – to be rivaled only by the 2012 vintage), Israel luck hit a brick wall with (generally speaking) the 2009 and 2010 vintages being relatively poor and 2011 being a problematic vintage as well (I take solace in the fact that all my children were born in particularly awesome Israeli vintage years (01, 06, 08 and 2012, although 2006 was less consistently good), making it less of a gamble to cellar wines from their birth years for their future smachot).

Despite the relative and general lackluster vintage years of 209-2011, poor vintage years are sometimes a winemakers time to shine, especially with the aforementioned technological improvements.  Anyone can make good wine in a great year, but it takes serious winemaking skill to make good wine in a poor year.  Mediocre vintage years are the ones when a winemaker’s attention to detail and the “men are separated from the boys”, both in the vineyard and the winemaking process are really brought to fore, with undeniable results.  I believe that the prior long spate of quality vintages allowed less than quality wineries and winemakers to flourish, as their lesser winemaking ability was masked by an abundance of good fruit.  The overarching surprise and disappointment in the recent years from Israeli wines is a direct result of this artificial across the board qualitative increase in Israeli wines.  None of this should take away from the massive actual increases in Israeli wines quality over the past few years, but rather should help the consumer focus on those wineries that are truly deserving of our respect and purchasing dollars.  Generally speaking, 2009 was more problematic for Israel’s Northern wineries, with the Golan Heights Winery and Galil mountain being particularly hard hit (again, relatively speaking), while 2010 was better up North (although still nothing special), with the Judean Hills and Shomron region suffering more.  However, Dalton’s 2009 wines seem an exception to this rule as do Flam’s spectacular 2010 wines.  2011 is a funny vintage, in which the quality was diminished across the board but, to date, a noticeable patter of harder-hit regions had not yet emerged (likely a result of limited data-points as many of the higher-end 2011 wines have not yet been released).  All this said, we can take comfort in the fact that 2012 seems poised to be one of Israel’s best years ever, with the majority of wines and barrel samples I have tasted to date, yielding very impressive results.

The silver lining in the recent mediocre vintages is that the best grapes are typically used for any particular winery’s top wine.  As a result, in years that no flagship wine (such as Yarden’s Katzrin) is produced, the next level down wine is likely to be a relative metzia, as it will benefit from higher quality fruit.  While this doesn’t always play out (and 2009 is a good example of this hypothesis not playing out for the Golan Heights Winery), the “regular” Ella Valley Cabernet Sauvignon is typically better in years in which no “Vineyards Choice” version is produced, while the opposite isn’t always true as vintages in which flagship wines are produced are usually great vintage years, resulting in all of the wines being good.