Wine terms: Vintage

There are two things to know about vintage. First, it refers to the year that the grapes used to make the wine were harvested. Hence a wine label that says 2007 means that the grapes in the wine were picked in 2007. Second, in 90 percent of the wine made in the world, the vintage doesn’t make any difference.

This, of course, is not what most wine drinkers — or non-wine drinkers, for that matter — think. We have been taught that vintage is one of the most important elements in wine making, and even people who don’t drink much wine are always asking: “Is this a good vintage?”

Instead, they should be asking: “Is this a quality producer?”

The basics of vintage start with weather. The grapes’ growing conditions are different each year, since the weather is warmer or colder or rainier — all of which affect the quality of the wine, how it tastes, and how long it will age. If there isn’t  enough rain, there is often little the winemaker can do to make up for the difference, and the wine will be different from a year in which there is enough rain.

There are also government regulations regarding vintage and its cousin, non-vintage, which refers to wine made with grapes from more than one vintage. Interestingly most champagne and sparkling wine is non-vintage (which is a topic for another day).

What we need to know about vintage is that there are three main reasons why it isn’t important for most wine, or about 9 out of 10 bottles on store shelves:

• Most wine is made to taste the same regardless of vintage. Producers want the wine to be consistent from year to year, so they try to even out any variations. The best example is $10 California grocery store merlot, which is amazingly consistent not just from vintage to vintage, but from producer to producer. They know what their customers want, and they make the wine that way.

• Technology has changed the way grapes are grown and the way wine is made. Many high-volume producers have high-tech vineyards, with sensors in the ground that track moisture content, temperature and the like. This allows producers to fiddle with growing conditions by changing the amount of water the vines get to account for rain and temperature variation. The goal here, again, is to make sure the wine is consistent from vintage to vintage.

• Grapes today are grown in regions of the world where the weather is almost always conducive to winemaking. In France and Germany, summers are shorter and cooler, and vintage is more important than in California or Australia. The joke among European winemakers that I talk to is that there is no such thing as a bad vintage in California. There are only good vintages and better ones.

When does vintage matter? Generally, the more expensive the wine, the more important vintage is. It’s irrelevant in a $10 wine, may matter a bit in a $25 wine, and comes into play in wine that costs $50 or more. And how many of us drink $50 wine regularly?

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Wine of the week: Francis Coppola Alicante Bouschet 2007

There are two reasons why the Wine Curmudgeon is writing about the Alicante. One is that it ?s quality wine. The other is that I get to tell my Francis Ford Coppola wine story.

This is a very fruity, almost cranberry-ish wine, dark in color and low in alcohol. It ?s quite fun to drink, which is not a way I usually describe wine. In this case, fun means you pour a little, drink it, pour a little, chat, pour a little more, eat a bite, pour a little more. The next thing you know, the bottle is empty.

At $15, it ?s not as inexpensive as it could be, given that the grapes are from Lodi and that alicante, an Italian grape not much known in the U.S., is not exactly cabernet sauvignon. But it ?s still a value, and would pair nicely with almost any holiday meal, as well as red sauces and pasta.

After the jump, my Coppola story:

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Tuesday tidbits 56: Direct shipping, sulfites, wine in a tube

? Direct shipping update: The Massachusetts Supreme Court struck down that state ?s direct shipping law, which will likely give the state ?s wine drinkers the chance to buy wine from any producer in the U.S. Currently, Massachusetts consumers are limited by a direct shipping law that requires out of state wineries to get permits. The state court said was in violation of the 2005 U.S. Supreme Court decision allowing direct shipping.

image ? Wine in a tube: Because I love stories about wine that doesn ?t come in a bottle. California ?s Four Winery has produced wine in a tube ? a 3-three liter box (the equivalent of four bottles) that looks like a cylinder. Currently, the winery only produces cabernet sauvignon, but expects to add chardonnay, merlot, and pinot grigio next year. Price is about $39.

? Wine and sulfites: This may be well be the best explanation I have ever seen for sulfites and wine. It ?s so good, in fact, that I ?m going to borrow it. Sulfites are not some evil additive that Simon Legree-like winemakers toss in to make us sick. Rather, notes Julia Timakhovich. ?Sulfites are a naturally occurring by-product of fermentation, and they are also added to wine after fermentation to prevent the growth of bacteria and make the wine "stable" [so] the taste will not change during transportation and storage, and the wine will be ageable. Pretty much all wine produced is made with added sulfites. ?

Wine review: Veramonte sauvignon blanc 2008

Last night, the Wine Curmudgeon felt like a glass of wine. But it was Sunday evening, and I didn’t want to go through a lot of wine selection foolishness — would it pair with dinner (leftover pizza that I had made earlier in the week), what were the flavors, and all of that? So I pulled the Veramonte out of the wine closet, unscrewed the top, and poured myself a glass.

This has always been quality $10 wine, and the current vintage is no exception. (Thankfully, the Chilean peso has lost much of its value in the past three months, and this wine no longer costs $12). The Veramonte has grapefruit flavor up front, a decent middle and even a bit of mineral in the finish. It’s not as citrusy as a New Zealand sauvignon blanc, and it doesn’t have the tropical flavors of its California cousins.

All of which means it will pair with typical white wine foods, the odd leftover, and you can even drink it while you’re watching television. With an ice cube in it, to boot.

Holiday wine books

image This season ?s wine book offerings seem slimmer than past years, and especially for pretty, coffee table books. This is not necessarily a problem, since pretty, coffee table books can cost as much as a case of well-made cheap wine.

But there are a variety of worthwhile books for sale this year. Among the most interesting:

? A wine bucket ?s worth of wine guides. This category, interestingly, has picked up over the last couple of years. My favorites are Tom Stevenson ?s Wine Report 2009 ($15) and Kevin Zraly ?s American Wine Guide 2009 ($13). Stevenson includes U.S. wine regions, which is one reason why it ?s so valuable. (Full disclosure: Several people who contributed to our DrinkLocalWine.com project contributed to each book.)

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Wine review: Domaine Jaboulet-Vercherre Beaujolais-Villages 2007

image Is inexpensive Beaujolais more than the annual Nouveau release? The answer, thankfully, is yes.

I stumbled across this wine, sold by a reasonably well-known Burgundy negociant, while looking for red Burgundy. Since it was $11, I figured it work as a comparison with this year ?s Nouveau. There was no comparison.

The Jaboulet is typical entry level Beaujolais ? light, fruity (black cherries, perhaps?), low in alcohol and not much in the way of acid or tannins. As such, it ?s exactly the kind of wine to drink with dinner. But it was also a much more interesting wine, at more or less the same price, as this year ?s Nouveau, and didn ?t taste gimmicky. In fact, try a blind tasting, comparing this wine (or any Beaujolais-Villages) with the Nouveau. The difference is easy to spot, even for beginners.

Wine of the week: Meridian Vineyards chardonnay 2007

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Meridian ?s products are almost always competent and value oriented, and you usually get your $6 worth. But they are rarely more than that.

The chardonnay, though, is grocery store wine done at a level that is way beyond grocery store wine. Winemaker Lee Miyamura has accomplished something special with this vintage, producing a stunning wine that offers two or three times $6 worth of value. Look for bright green apple fruit and a rich mouth feel, as well as balanced acid and a finish that many wines that cost $20 don ?t have. There is even an oakiness that tastes like barrel aging, which Meridian doesn ?t usually do (the company uses stainless steel tanks with oak staves or wood chips). 

Serve this to wine snobs, and make them guess how much it cost. They ?ll never figure it out. Meanwhile, you can sip it before dinner, serve it with chicken or seafood, and think about how smart you are when it comes to wine.