Vintage Variation and California Pinot Noir: Is 2009 all it's cracked up to be?

Monday, October 15, 2012

My average ratings from the last five vintages across a couple hundred bottles
How vintage sensitive should we be in our wine purchases?

One of wine's inherent advantages compared to other beverages is that each vintage provides new opportunity for exploration. But winemakers are often tasked with serving two masters: Customers seeking a consistent product year in and year out and those interested in seeing what each vintage has to offer in its purest form.

The best winemakers find a happy medium, producing wines that deliver the house style and are the best possible expression of each vintage. Others take a more dedicated approach on either side of the equation.

The Consumer

One way aspiring wine enthusiasts display their vast knowledge is by memorizing portions of vintage charts from prominent wine publications and ordering wines from "good" vintages while avoiding the "bad" ones. Good and bad are in quotes because true wine geeks revel in understanding and enjoying the differences between each vintage and exploring the way nature shaped what comes to be in their glass.

That said, some vintages are more aligned with what we're looking for than others. So yeah - they're better. At least for each of us.

The Critic

I've often thought about how professional critics determine their vintage ratings. I mean, I know they taste a boatload of wine from each vintage but specifically how do they recognize that one vintage is uniformly better or worse than another when tasting wines from mostly the same vintage?

I imagine it's a combination of expectations set from a variety of inputs, like weather patterns the year the grapes were grown and what winemakers tell them, in conjunction with stylistic traits they detect while tasting - especially in benchmark wines they've tasted over a number of years.

The Vintage

When vintages are good the quality of all wines rise. What this can do, as it did with 2009 California Pinot Noir, is create a sense of invincibility on the part of the wine buyer. There was a point when I didn't think I could open a bad 2009 - even south of $20. I was temporarily lulled into a sense that I didn't need to be selective in the category. That all California Pinot Noir was really good. Even the cheap stuff!

But I found that as I pushed the price points south of $20 things got quite a bit more difficult. Especially in vintages like 2008 and 2010.

So I thought it would be interesting to take a snapshot and see how my ratings of California Pinot Noir tracked across the last five vintages. As consumers, we taste quite differently than the pros. Rather than flights of wines from mostly the same vintage, we bop around and drink from a range of vintages only occasionally doing a side by side comparison of the same bottling from different vintages. I wanted to see if I really did tend to enjoy 2009s more than other vintages, and if so how much more?

Inside the Numbers

Although the magnitude of the swing between the highest and lowest rated vintages isn't as dramatic as I would have guessed it would be, it's likely the affect we see in other ratings comparison studies whereby since such a small portion of the 100 point scale is used small differences have bigger meaning than we might think.

For example, an average difference of 88 vs. 90 isn't a 2 percent difference it's more like a 90 point wine is nearly twice as exciting as an 88 point wine in terms of how we think about it when assigning a numerical rating. More on that phenomenon here.

Putting it to the Test

I had an accidental opportunity to do a comparative tasting between two vintages of Saintsbury Carneros Pinot Noir recently. It's a $28 release price wine from a well regarded Pinot Noir producer. I bought two bottles of the wine thinking they were both 2009s and later discover one was a 2008. I thought this would be a good opportunity to taste them back to back and compare notes. How much better could the 2009 possibly be? A lot better.

Here are my notes:

It's amazing how much better the 2009 vintage of this bottling is than the 2008. Where the 08 is limited aromatically and falls flat on the palate, the 09 has enjoyable classic CA Pinot markings on the nose and delivers vibrant fruit on the palate. 2009 California Pinot Noir is the real deal.


So where does that leave us in terms of my original question, which was how heavily to bias our purchases towards highly regarded vintages? California Pinot Noir vintage variation is nothing compared to Bordeaux, Burgundy or Piedmont for example. But there are some definite differences to be had even in California.

For me, I'll continue to pay attention to the story behind vintages and yes I'll likely buy more heavily in "good" vintages. But good wineries put out great wines even in mediocre vintages so I'll buy even in "bad" vintages from certain producers.

What do you think? How heavily are your purchases weighted towards better vintages?

Lots more to discuss in this area - like price variation according to perceived quality of vintage depending on region - and how to take advantage of this as a consumer. I'd love it if you SUBSCRIBED to The Wellesley Wine Press so we can keep in touch.


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