One of the perks of being a professional wine student (that’s what I’m calling myself these days) is that I occasionally get some wine samples to review. I’m particularly grateful to Smith-Madrone for sending me their Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon each year, because they always give me a little nudge to think about something besides just tasting notes. Today, I started thinking about how each vintage of wine is different (wine people like to call this vintage variation). Because they are different. And that snowballed into some thoughts on vintage charts.
The soul of winemaking is farming. Without grapes, there can be no wine. The success of a particular grape harvest is entirely dependent on the whims of Mother Nature. A spring frost can decimate a vineyard. Too much rain in the spring, and you can lose flowers. No flowers, no grapes. Too much rain at harvest can swell the grapes, diluting flavors. Honestly, I’m surprised more winemakers don’t make sacrifices to Mother Nature. The Ancients used to sacrifice goats to Bacchus with the hope of insuring a good harvest. Why goats? Because goats eat vines. Fewer goats, more vines. I know of a winemaker who spreads gopher ashes over his vineyards, which I guess is kind of like sacrificing a goat.
Mother Nature’s mood swings mean that no two harvests are exactly the same. Wines that are made from the same vines grown in the same place each year are different each year. These little differences from one year to another are one of the things that make wine so damn interesting. But, I certainly can’t remember the growing conditions in Pomerol for 2004, or in Barbaresco for 2012, or in Napa Valley for 2008.
You’d think I’d be all about a vintage chart.
Nope. I don’t stress much about this vintage vs. that vintage. When buying wine, I place more emphasis on my own preferences for particular regions, grape varieties, style, and wineries/winemakers. And honestly, I find vintage charts tedious. If I want to know the particulars about a wine, I can look them up on my phone in about 13 seconds. Vintage charts are so generalized, I feel like I’m reading my horoscope. (Your travel plans are shaping up today, Leo. Be sure to wear pants!) Even worse, they’re woefully intimidating and potentially misleading to someone who is just getting into wine. I still remember the first time I tried to consult a vintage chart (thinking it was some kind of almighty canon), and it made about this much sense to me:
There are exceptions (both good and bad) to every vintage, but that a lot to do with winemaker skill and technology, rather than a “bad” vintage. Great winemakers will always figure out how to make lemonade from lemons.
[Tangent alert]: Vintage is more important if you buy a lot of super expensive wines from Bordeaux or Burgundy, where ripeness can be a real concern every year.
The 2005 vintage in Bordeaux was widely regarded as stunning, perfect even. By contrast, the 2007 vintage was mostly panned as a stinker. Hmmm. To satisfy my own curiosity (and to procrastinate working on my WSET Diploma research paper), I took a quick look at pricing, availability, and aggregate scores of two first-growth Bordeaux wines on wine-searcher.com:
The Château Margaux 2005 is $800 (97 points), but the 2007 is $450 (93 points). The Château Lafite Rothschild 2005 is $1,000 (96 points), and the 2007 is $750 (92 points). I’m not sure I’d call the 2007 vintage a stinker based on those parameters. A bargain, maybe (if I ever win the lottery), but certainly not a stinker.
And that is my very belabored point. One vintage over another isn’t necessarily bad, just different. Unique. Distinct. Interesting.
So what’s interesting about the Smith-Madrones this year? Honestly, as I looked back on my tasting notes for previous vintages, what struck me the most was the consistency. Smith-Madrone wines are different each year, but remarkably consistent in structure and quality.
2015 Chardonnay ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️/92
100% Chardonnay. Aged for 10 months in 80% new French oak. The second I stuck my nose into this glass, I grinned from ear to ear. Because I knew it was going to be an acid bomb. A glorious, mouth-puckering acid bomb. Laced with flavors of yellow apple, lemon meringue, minerals, and chamomile. Elegant and edgy at the same time — kind of like Audrey Hepburn. At 14.9% ABV, I feel like this should be “bigger”, but it’s so well constructed. Gawd, this is good. And, it’s only $34. Seriously. How is this possible for only $34??
My previous tasting notes (brutally summarized):
2014: Bâttonage (lees stirring) = toastier, yeastier.
2013: Clean mountain rain.
2012: Old World restraint.
2014 Cabernet Sauvignon ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️/92
85% Cabernet Sauvignon, 8% Cabernet Franc, and 7% Merlot. Aged for 18 months in 70% new French oak and 30% one-year old French oak. If you recall, 2014 was the year of the Napa earthquake. It was also a drought year for Napa, and according to Smith-Madrone, rainfall totals on Spring Mountain were about half what they usually are. What does that mean for the grapes? Well, it means the grapes were stressed out. And stressed out vines can make great wines. It also means that grapes were smaller, which produced a more concentrated juice.
A gorgeous, deep ruby color. Cedar, blackberry, black currant, garden mint, and a big pile of crushed mountain rocks. The power in this wine comes from its structure. Despite its youth, this is beautifully balanced with beautifully integrated tannins. A dense and elegant knock-out. No doubt this will develop beautifully in the bottle. 13.9% ABV. $52.
My previous tasting notes (brutally summarized):
2013: Cigars and lavender.
2012: Cranberries in a cedar chest.
2011: Deliciously funky.
Don’t sweat the vintage, celebrate it!