Vintage Stuff

#144 – October 8, 2010

This week I wanted to discuss the relevance of a vintage year. While there is a common misconception that vintage wine is better than non-vintage wine, you all know that vintage merely means that the wine in question has been made from grapes which were all harvested in a single year. The misconception may arise from the fact that true Champagne is sold both as vintage Champagne and as non-vintage Champagne (identified by n.v.) with vintage Champagne being far superior to non-vintage. Vintage Champagne is made only in exceptional vintage years while non-vintage Champagne is made by combining wines of different years which allows the relevant Champagne house to maintain a certain consistent house-style from year to year regardless of the year in which it was bottled. Vintage Champagne is far more expensive that non-vintage and will typically age for many more years but non-vintage Champagne allows us to enjoy this delightful type of wine without breaking the bank. However, what is true for Champagne isn’t necessarily true for the rest of the wine world; with non-vintage wine having the ability to be just as good at providing a good wine meant for early drinking which is produced around the world with great success.

However, as far as kosher wines are concerned, there are almost no non-vintage wines being made today, so the vintage versus non-vintage debate, while interesting, is a relatively moot point from a practical perspective. The only non-vintage kosher wines of which I am aware are being made by Binyamin Cantz, the wine maker of Four Gates whose non-vintage Merlot is delicious. If any of you are aware of other successful non-vintage kosher (other than Champagne) please let me know.

While vintage versus non-vintage may not be a pertinent issue for today’s kosher wine consumer, the specific vintage plays a somewhat more important role, primarily due to weather. Weather plays one of the most important parts in the quality of a grapes health and the weather in the months leading up to harvest time (in the late summer-autumn) is the most critical in a grapevine’s life. There is a reason that wines from certain regions around the world are deemed superior to others and it doesn’t all have to do with the French’s obsession with terroir. While an in-depth discussion around this is far beyond the scope of this newsletter and my current knowledge, 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 while the grapes develop the right amounts of tannin, sugar, spice and all that is nice. One problem is that a mediocre growing season can be saved by a few perfect weeks of weather right before the harvest and conversely, months of perfect growing conditions can be destroyed with a few days of torrential rains or hail in the days leading to harvest – all of which makes good vintages hard to predict and the life of a winemaker extremely nerve-wracking.

However, the weather is far more important in cold-weather climates (like most of Europe, especially France) where different years see vastly differing amounts of rain, sun, hail and rapid climate change than New World wine growing regions. Even within those cold-weather regions, vintage year carries more weight certain areas like in Burgundy, which grows the fickle Pinot Noir grape than Bordeaux and Sauternes. Even so, vintage is paramount in both Bordeaux and Sauternes as evidenced by the ’61 Château Pétrus or 1921 Château d’Yquem which are two of the greatest wines from two of the greatest vintages of the 20th century. Further diminishing the importance of vintage is the tremendous technological advances made over recent years, which give the winery far more control over the quality of the grapes, irrespective of the weather. Given the fact that the majority of kosher wine today is produced in two New World regions with relatively stable weather – Israel and California, the importance of vintage is diminished even further for kosher wine aficionados.

After all that – is vintage at all important for us – the kosher wine consumers? The answer is yes and for a couple of reasons. First, while relatively consistent, the weather in Israel and California can be erratic at times and both Israel and California can and do suffer from bad vintage years. 2002 was a relatively poor year in Israel and, unfortunately for all the bambinos congratulated above, 2010 is looking to be a particularly bad vintage year in both Israel and California (on the flip-side, I hear Ontario is having a great 2010). The main effect of a poor vintage year in Israel relates to cellaring ability and many otherwise high-quality Israeli wines from the 2002 vintage suffered from a relatively short life (although I tasted the Tabor, Meshcha, 2002 last week and, to my complete shock, it was still glorious) without much in the way of aging capabilities but the actual quality of the wine can be affected as well.

A number of years ago I wrote about the 2003 vintage in and its excellence and the relatively large number of superior wines produced that year by the Golan Heights Winery. At the time, the 2001 vintage had been very good, 2002 had been poor and the 2003 was deemed excellent. Subsequently and perhaps driving my point home, the subsequent vintages of 2004, 2005, 2006, 2007 and 2008 were all also considered excellent and the Golan Heights Winery has continued to produce Katzrin, Single Vineyard and Rom wines with a certain regularity leading me to believe that almost all vintages in Israel are great for the grapes. Some may say that the many additional vineyards that the winery has developed over recent years are the cause, some may point to a growing market for over-priced kosher wines and others may see a growing over and somewhat misplaced use of the word exceptional (akin perhaps, to people throwing around the word genius way too much).

Usually, the best wines from a vineyard go into the best wine of a winery and the next level grapes go into the next series and so on and so forth. Therefore, it stands to reason that the “regular” Yarden Cabernet Sauvignon would be better in years in which no Katzrin or El-Rom was produced ensuring that the best grapes went into it. On the flip side, years in which the Katzrin and El-Rom are produced are usually great vintage years in which all the wines should be good. As with most things in life, it’s probably a little bit of both.

As a repeat of my 2003 experiment from a few years back, I recently had the opportunity to taste the Katzrin (which was 95% Cabernet Sauvignon), the Single Vineyard Elrom and the “regular” Cabernet Sauvignon from the Golan Heights Winery – all from the 2004 vintage which were all amazing and well worthy of your purchase and space in your cellar to allow these wines to mature and come to their full potential. My notes for all three wines are below.

Shabbat Shalom,

Golan Heights Winery, Katzrin, 2004: Long considered the best kosher Israeli wine with the longest cellaring ability, and notwithstanding having such a title recently called into question by the Yatir Forest, Carmel’s Limited Edition, Castel’s Grand Vin and the Rom and Single Vineyard wines of the same winery, this is still a great wine. A blend of 94% Cabernet Sauvignon and 6% Merlot, this is a fruit forward wine with loads of black fruits on both the nose and palate including plums, blackberries and cassis together with coffee and cigars and a touch of spicy wood. Plenty of wood that is matched nicely with herbs and chocolate and tinged with citrus. A long luxurious finish rounds out this deep and rich wine. Perhaps no longer Israel’s star wine but still an amazing specimen and well worth cellaring (mine are still cellaring – this was tasted with ES from his more ample stock).

Golan Heights Winery, Yarden, Elrom Vineyard, Cabernet Sauvignon, 2004: I definitely enjoyed this wine more than the Katzrin. Truth be told, I think the Katzrin needs more time before its ready while the Elrom is amazing now – even though both are good for at least another 10 years. This wine is even more elegant than the Katzrin with great structure and beauty. Blackberries, black plums, cherries and hints of raspberries all compete for your attention on the richly layered nose and hang around for the palate where they are joined by asphalt, cigars and damp forest leaves with hints of black pepper. Another velvety and rich finishes lingers.

Golan Heights Winery, Yarden, Cabernet Sauvignon, 2004: Notwithstanding recent very positive developments at many other Israeli wineries, this wine remains the reigning Israeli champion wine in cellarability. The 2004 is delicious right now but is amazingly still developing and should continue to improve and change over the next 5-8 years (I have become more optimistic of these wines over the years with respect to their cellaring abilities). A very traditional Israeli Cabernet with blackberries and plums on both the nose and palate, accompanied by vanilla, oak and chocolate.

Louis de Sacy, Grand Cru, Brut Champagne, n.v.: One of the things to be wary of when buying non-vintage Champagne is how long it has been sitting around since bottling (the bottles are stamped with a code indicating the bottling time but these are highly secret). I purchased this straight from the cellar of Sherry-Lehman thus guaranteeing myself a good result. Made from a traditional Champagne blend of Pinot Noir and Chardonnay (with some Pinot Meunier thrown in for good measure and character). Nice tangy berries including raspberries with plenty of lime and oranges to go with hazelnuts, some honey and yeasty bread all blend together for a delightful treat that went amazingly well with our celebratory dinner. Tons of tightly wound bubbles that lingered throughout the entire bottle also contributed to making this a wine to which I will return (especially now that my favorite Nicolas Feuillatte is no longer available).