So maybe you'll think I'm a nut, but I spend a lot of time thinking about Al Roker (for those of you who don't watch TV or aren't in the US, he's a weatherman on a major morning TV show here). Not in some untoward, weird, creepy way, but in terms of the dude's profession. Why? Because I think about, talk about, and write about vintage all the time and in case you didn't know, vintage is just the weather in a particular year.
I'm sure that wine snobs would gasp at the thought that their ultimate, snot-ace-in-the-hole -- trying to trip people up by casually throwing out vintage and discussing what a great year such and such was for Bordeaux or Burgundy -- can be boiled down to a jolly, formerly portly, bespectacled man who talks about clouds, sun, and rain all day long, but tough luck on them. I'm here to tell ya, that's all it is.
After all, wine is agriculture. There are specific things that determine quality -- some mainly fixed, some variable.
On the fixed side, in my mind, first and foremost is terroir. It's that indescribable French word that encompasses everything that's inherent in a vineyard. Soil, location, climate, sun exposure, slope of the land, proximity to water, and that special un-namable thing that makes the vineyard (if you want to know more about terroir, please listen to the Wine For Normal People podcast on it)
Also sort of fixed is the winemaking style. The winemaker can determine what the end product tastes like by choosing certain techniques to make the wine fuller and creamier (like malolactic fermentation and sur lie aging, where the wine sits on the dead yeast cells after fermentation which enriches the flavor), or give it new flavors by aging it in certain types of oak (new oak produces major flavor, older oak less so). The proportion of grapes used in a blend can also make a big difference.
Those factors are what they are. Because of that, I'd argue that the wine could potentially taste the same year after year if not for the x-factor. And that's where big Al comes into play.
Let me explain.
Some of you may live in a place where the weather is fairly consistent. It's a rare year where strange things happen and storms and unlikely weather events get meteorologists geeked up for their crowning moment of glory where they get hours of air time talking about lightening, wind, and rain. For example, I'd argue that much of California has this kind of climate.
Others of you live in places where weather dictates your life. I remember when I lived in Boston, snow and rain (for 9 months of the year) meant that some years we barely went outside for months at a time and in other years we were overjoyed that, even though it was 14 below with the windchill, we could brave the streets without snowshoes. The weather people got plenty of air time and they were minor celebrities (no coincidence that all the major US networks have weather people that originated in New York stations -- they have a ton of experience on-air).
So what does this have to grapes and vintage? EVERYTHING. Because in places that are located in active weather zones, each year is a wild card. You never know if you'll have horrible wind while the grapes are being formed that could rip the clusters off the vine and reduce your harvest, or if you'll have torrential rains that will bruise the grapes as they are ripening, or a massive drought that could mean your grapes get burned by the sun.
On a continent that is very far north and surrounded by seas to the north, south, and west, and mountains that form their own weather systems, you're bound to have tumultuous weather annually. And that means that sometimes you'll hit the jackpot and your crop will be amazing, but sometimes it will just suck and only the best winemakers will be able to make lemonade from those unsightly lemons. If you've ever vacationed here, you know that often whatever you packed is always the wrong thing for precisely these reasons: Welcome to Europe.
Elsewhere in the winemaking world, we have weather but it's just not quite as volatile. We've addressed California, but we can hit a few more now. Argentina's wine regions, located very high in the mountains, are dry and escape much of the rain and bad weather it would experience if closer to the coast. Australia is plagued by drought, so they don't have to worry much about rain (even with the recent rains, the wine regions were less affected). A lot is controlled by man through irrigation systems. New Zealand, although it has some funky weather, has placed its wine regions in areas that are protected from nasty sea storms that strike up and hit coastal regions. Chile and South Africa have a bit more variation but are still pretty consistent with weather....certainly more so than Europe.
But even with more consistency, Al Roker still has a role to play everywhere in the wine world. The fact remains that no 2 years are the same for agriculture, including for grapes. You may love a wine one year, only to find that it is horrible the next. Could be that they changed the blend or degraded the quality (a lot of big wineries do this 2 to 3 years after launch on their lower range products, BTW), but for established brands it's usually all about vintage.
You've got to pay attention to that number on the bottle and do a little poking around (I like Decanter's vintage charts)...especially if that wine is European.
I think I've effectively flogged the poor dead vintage horse, so now I'll move on to reviewing the latest release/newest vintage from a California winery that sent me their product last year as well -- Concannon. Let's see if my theory holds that vintage matters less in California...
I'm going to compare wines I reviewed last year with this year's version (which, in full disclosure, where sent to me by the Winery...but as you'll see that makes no difference in my review). Here's a link to the prior post for more info on these wines and my take on them last year.
Wine 1: Concannon Conservancy Chardonnay
Where It's From: Livermore Valley
The Grapes: 100% Chardonnay
Color: A rich straw color...like the shimmer off a gold ring. Let's face it; oak has been here in a big way. Chardonnay doesn't get this dark without lots of time hanging out and ripening on a vine and then aging in some kind of oak to darken it up.
Nose: In contrast to last year, this nose was a lot closer to the taste of the wine. It was a tad peachy but the overall sensation was of limeade or lemonade -- a sweetened version of citrus. There was a touch of mineral/wet rock too and a little whiff of pretty jasmine tea or jasmine flowers. I liked it...but was also curious as to why it didn't smell like oak when clearly, from the color, it had been stored in some sort of oak.
Taste: Ah, and here it is...oak, vanilla, and caramel galore. There was a slight limeade flavor but oak ruled the day, once again. Pretty decent acid made my mouth water, but there really wasn't much to this wine except oak and lime.
Drink or down the sink?: Just like last year, I don't love it, but it's not a down the sink. It's just ok. It's funny because I feel like this is less typical of Livermore Chardonnay, which tends to be oaky and heavy like the 2008 was. 2009 was supposedly a better vintage than '08, which was a small vintage because there was a spring frost and then not a ton of rain (see how important Al Roker is?) so maybe the winemaker decided to rely less on oak (by aging it for a shorter time or using a smaller proportion of new oak, which tends to lend the wine bigger flavor than used oak) and let the fruit do it's thing more. Ironically, even with warmer, more consistent weather in '09, the wine seems less fruity and over-ripe than the '08. All around, I like it better, but if you like a big oaky style, this is more moderate.
Wine 2: Concannon Conservancy Petite Sirah
I talk about Petite Sirah in last year's post, so check it out for details.
Where It's From: Livermore Valley
The Grapes: 100% Petite Sirah
Color: True to Petite Sirah, this wine is black as night. It looks viscous and heavy -- like black cherry jello before it sets. It's so dark that if you swirl it around the glass the legs (which are just alcohol dripping down the glass after the water has dripped down -- the former is heavier so it takes a longer time to get back into the glass) are stained purple. I'd expect brawn from this wine.
Smell: This year's version was like black licorice, black cherry, and black plums. It had a menthol or medicinal note too and big arse oak -- like cedar chips in the closet. The alcohol wafted out of the glass too. Compared to my impressions of the '08, this was a lot less interesting to smell. It was simplistic and not very exciting.
Taste: Black cherry juice or jello came to mind immediately, followed by grape flavored bubble gum and that kids medicine, Dimetapp, that they sell here in the US. It was a touch bitter too. I know the alcohol was 13.5% which is moderately high but not over the top, but this wine hurt to drink. I don't know if it was the acid combined with the alcohol, but it burned from the back of my throat down my esophagus (no I don't have weird issues and no this doesn't normally happen with wine for me, so it was unique to this one!). The tannins were soft but the wine just didn't work. Like last year -- it had no gusto.
Drink or down the sink?: Down the sink. I felt like the wine lacked balance between the fruit and the acid and alcohol. It had little personality and the character it did show didn't do it for me. I've had a few Petite Sirahs in my day, and there are better ones than this for the money.
If you compare this vintage with my notes on the last for the Concannon wines, I think there are two conclusions to draw:
- Wines are constantly changing, however depending on the winery and region, they do have a common thread from year to year -- that's due to terroir and to the winemaking style
- My conclusion about California's consistency holds true with the Concannon wines. I'll need to do the same thing with Europe on the blog, because, although I've never documented it here, I can tell you it can be a wild ride from year to year on the same brand and region. Bordeaux from 2005 and from 2006 are a far cry from each other when you're talking affordable wine
- Al Roker is our wild card...and we're happy to have him around to keep things interesting in wine!