When most people talk about an inferior vintage it’s usually the reflection of a critic’s view and not stemming from personal experience or exploration with the wines of that particular year, varietal or growing area.
Unfortunately, many respected critics tend to express their opinions too early without giving the wines of that vintage time to develop. And regretfully, we seldom see a published change of heart as time proves them wrong or misguided.
These negative opinions, based on weather issues and their perceived impact on the finished wine, often appear even before harvest. Others may appear before blending or bottling, long before the wines have had a chance to knit and emerge from infancy.
It’s wishful thinking to believe there is no such thing as an “off” vintage. However, I find “challenging” a better term in the vineyard and winery as some wines and winemakers will meet the challenge by overcoming adversity and others will fall short. Yet, even in those vintages declared as “off,” you will find some stellar wines produced from specific varietals or growing areas that are able to excel despite the problems encountered by others.
2011 was such a vintage in the North Coast. A cool, wet spring was followed by a lackluster summer, and rains returned as harvest approached. The resulting wines were instantly maligned by the critical press, harming the market with broad-brush suggestions for consumers to pass on these wines and wait for the highly anticipated 2012s.
Not necessarily good advice as shortly after release many 2011s were modestly priced and showing quite well for immediate enjoyment and mid-term aging. The stylistic overtones were in the restrained traditional Old World profile rather than the more forward bolder wines we’re used to seeing from the New World. But this is not to say the resulting wines were “bad,” only that they were different.
To confirm this perspective we need only look to the February 2015 Decanter Magazine’s retrospective 2011 California Cabernet tasting of 118 wines. Three highly regarded European wine authorities tasted each wine and all agreed that “2011 was an atypical California cabernet vintage but one not to miss.” They obviously appreciated the more Old World style created by the vintage character.
A few weeks ago, we joined two close friends from Los Angeles for a visit to the picturesque Schweiger Vineyards atop Spring Mountain. Among the many beautiful wines we sampled on the terrace, and later with lunch in the winery, were a trio of 2011s that confirmed my thoughts about off vintages and the fallacy associated with that terminology.
We began our 2011 adventure with Schweiger Cabernet Sauvignon that was an elegant expression of all that Decanter described in their tasting and prompted me to ask if there were other 2011s we could sample.
So next came the Schweiger Cabernet Sauvignon Gate Block (a small vineyard block at the lower end of the driveway) that took the elegance and precision of the first cabernet to new levels of depth, balanced concentration and complexity.
Then we savored the Schweiger Family Cuveé (a cabernet based blend) that could be seen as a great testament to any vintage (let alone 2011) with its subtle interplay of power and grace.
Enjoying these wines triggered a discussion of other so-called off vintages reminding me of how I’ve often related the similar growing conditions, wines and negative critical commentary of 1998 to 2011.
For dinner that night, I brought along a 1998 Araujo Eisele Estate Cabernet that was showing beautifully as it nears the end of its second decade. Perhaps some 1998s, like the 2011s, did not show particularly well in their youth but in many cases (of course not all) the wait has proven itself worthwhile.
The next night, we continued our exploration of wines critics said wouldn’t stand the test of time by looking at a 1989 Duckhorn Three Palms Merlot served side-by-side at dinner with a 1989 Chateau Ausone (a Grand Cru merlot based wine from Bordeaux’s St. Emilion) brought by our LA friends Stephanie and Howard Sherwood.
1989 is considered exceptional in Bordeaux but is among the critically shunned vintages in Napa. Yet both showed beautifully with the Ausone demonstrating the refined unique character of a properly aged Bordeaux while the Duckhorn certainly held its own with a more youthful nose and palate.
It was once said that in California, “vintage doesn’t matter as it’s always sunny and warm.” Now many decades and thousands of wines later, we know this is not the case since we are subject to vintage variations akin to other wine producing areas around the world.
These so-called “off vintages” are best appreciated as examples of diversity. And as consumers, we are rewarded in our ability to take advantage of the “sleepers” out there and pleasant surprises that await.
My July 21 column “Will it be red or white?” sparked several responses including a few short, sweet and humorous notes.
Pablo—My answer to the question “Would you like red or white?” is always “Definitely.”
Michael—I have the waiter open both. The white is refreshing and the red opens in the glass.
Tony—I love a good white wine, but only as I’m waiting to drink my red!