There is no such thing as a "bad vintage year" in the world of California wine public relations. It may have flooded for weeks and hailed on the grapes, but the harvest report headline still inevitably reads, "California Vintners Predict Excellent (insert year) Vintage."
It wasn't until I began working for a French wine importer that I learned the ugly truth about vintages: Sometimes they suck. Harvest reports from the other side of the pond were brutally honest, sometimes reporting "disastrous weather" and "disappointing" fruit quality. Were these French harvests somehow different from the California ones?
Sort of. But let me clarify what I mean by "vintage."
The vintage is the year printed on the wine label, but it means more than that. "Vintage wine" is made from grapes harvested or picked in a single year. A wine's taste, texture, complexity and quality can vary from one year to the next, mainly depending on the weather. In areas with irregular climates and watering restrictions, like Burgundy and Bordeaux in France, vintages can vary quite a bit. For example, a 1997 wine might be bright and fruity, while the 1998 version of the same wine might be earthy, musty and tannic.
So does that mean you have to consult a vintage chart every time you want to grab a $10 bottle of wine from the corner store? Not likely.
In warm, sunny regions like California, Spain and Australia, where the weather is fairly consistent, vintage dates don't matter so much. Due to the lack of weather extremes during harvest, wineries in those areas are able to produce more consistent products from year to year. Unless some kind of natural disaster occurred during a particular harvest (think about what a drought does to your veggie garden), the wine in the bottle is probably pretty close to last year's version.
Though you may not have to worry about vintages in your everyday wine-buying life, there are times when a little knowledge comes in handy. Let's say you want to celebrate with a bottle of Bordeaux from the year your sweetie was born. Before you go dropping a hundred bucks or more on this special bottle, it's a good idea to check if the birth year was considered a good one for Bordeaux. If not, you may be blowing your hard-earned cash on a dud.
Luckily, there are some "no brainer" regions when it comes to picking good vintages. In France's Champagne region and Portugal's Oporto region (where Port originates), a vintage will only be declared in outstanding years. If the wines for a particular year don't meet the highest standards, they'll use them to make non-vintage blends instead. So, if you're buying a vintage Champagne from France or a vintage Port from Portugal, you're pretty much guaranteed quality hooch.
To find out which were "good years" in other growing areas (like Bordeaux), you'll want to get your hands on a vintage chart. Vintage charts can be found in wine books and on the Internet (see www.vintage-charts.com). As handy as they can be, keep in mind that vintage charts aren't an exact science. A good winemaker can usually make good wines even in bad years, and some producers make bad wine even in stellar vintage years.
If you really want to put the vintage thing to the test, head for your local wine store and see if you can find two or three different vintages of the same wine. (You may have to do some searching.) Then taste the wines and see how they compare. You might just be surprised at how different they taste. If not, at least you'll have a good excuse to drink three bottles of wine at once -- and that makes for a very good year indeed.
Tina Caputo is a San Francisco-based wino who supports her nasty habit by writing for several wine publications. Have a wine or wine experience you want to share with us? E-mail corkscrew@ creativeloafing.com, mail Corkscrew at 1310 East 9th Ave., Tampa, FL 33605, or call our new reader feedback number: 1-800-341-LOAF.