In winemaking, vintage usually refers to the year the grapes were grown. So, if you see a wine with a vintage date of 2004 on it, then you can assume the grapes were grown during the 2004 growing season. Now that makes perfect sense, unless of course you are looking at a wine from the southern hemisphere. Think about it….wines in Australia, for example, have a growing season that runs from about October to April. So what year do you use? The year of harvest is what is on the label.
Okay, so we have that same bottle of 2004 Cabernet Sauvignon. All the grapes were harvested in 2004…..wait, not so fast! Most countries allow a vintage dated wine to include a portion of wine that is not from the year denoted on the label. Old World wines (European Union) only requires that 85% of the wine be from grapes in the denoted year. Australia and New Zealand follow the European requirements. In the United States, the requirement is also 85%, unless it is a designated AVA (i.e. Napa Valley or Paso Robles), in which case, it is 95%. In Chile and South Africa, the requirement is less stringent, only 75% required for vintage-dated wine.
So, if you’ve got a bottle of wine and there’s no vintage date (often seen on wine lists as NV – “Non Vintage”), you can assume that the wine was made from grapes of several years’ harvests, or at least, did not meet the minimum requirements. This is a common practice for winemakers seeking a consistent style of wine, often referred to as a “house style”. Champagne is the most common NV wine, as the producer blends many years together, to maintain a certain flavor profile. That is not to say there aren’t any vintage Champagnes, as there are. Wines from the best vintages often sell for much higher prices than those from average vintages. Vintages wines are assumed to improve with further aging in the bottle. This has led to a misperception that any vintage dated wine is of higher quality, and capable of aging. While that would be great to believe, it is simply not true. There are some very poor quality vintage dated wines.
But why should you care about the year?
If you live in California, you know we have a drought, and it has been an unusually warm winter, which has tricked the grapevines into early bud break. As I write this, the weather has turned to heavy rain, and is accompanied by cold weather, creating a much higher risk of frost damage or damage to the vine. Those little buds are very fragile and subject to damage during pruning if they have popped out of the wood. This would lead to a reduced crop, or possibly a poor crop. If you remember the weather right now, when the 2014 vintage is released, you’ll know why it tastes the way it does.
The importance of vintage, however, is often disputed. There is no doubt that cooler regions do see fluctuations in quality, a warmer growing season can produce riper grapes, while a colder growing season might produce lower sugar levels, and higher acidity. Extremely hot growing season can also produce flabby wines. The best example of where vintage makes a difference is Bordeaux. This growing region can easily be influenced by the weather during the growing season.
There is an argument that due to new winemaking techniques and the use of irrigation (particularly in the New World) has created a more uniform style of wine, that doesn’t vary much from vintage to vintage. Some even argue that there is not difference between vintages on New World wines. I am not one of those believers. If you’ve read this blog for a while, you have read about some of the vertical tastings dinners I have conducted, and there is a difference between vintages (a vertical tasting is a series of wines from the same producer, over a number of different vintages, i.e. 2004, 2005, 2006, and 2007 – which would be a 4-year vertical).
Back to Bordeaux….many wine collectors are concerned about vintage, as the best Bordeaux wines will age for decades in the bottle, and actually improve. These wines can be extremely expensive, and you have to have the patience to hold on to them, as well as cellar them under proper conditions. And, isn’t it nice to know the age of the bottle you have in your cellar? Inexpensive wines are typically meant for early consumption, so vintage is probably not as important. But, even with the inexpensive wines, it might be good to know the vintage. If you had that wine before, and you liked it, you can look for it again. If your wine shop is out of that vintage, and you still have one of the older vintages, try tasting them side by side, and see if you can taste any difference, or does that winery make a “house style” that is the same every year?
The importance of vintage is one about which disagreement can be expected to continue. For me, it does matter, particularly for Old World Wines.
It’s that time of year again! No, not the end of winter, but the time to start thinking about attending the Family Winemakers of California event. This year, it will be held in Pasadena, on March 9th. It is your opportunity to taste some of the best wines in California, and meet the winemakers and owner. There will be about 175 wineries, and around 750 different wines, from Napa, Sonoma, Paso Robles, Santa Ynez, Temecula....well you get the picture.
This will be the 11th tasting of small, family-owned wineries from across California. The Pasadena Tasting is open to trade and wine media, as well as consumers. Also featured for the first time will be the iSip Lounge for specially ticketed consumer who want to taste wine retailing for $75 or more.
Last year, I attended the event at the Del Mar Fairgrounds, in San Diego, and tasted about 130 different wines. Note that I said “tasted”, not “drank”…big difference! These events are normally open only to those in the trade, and mainly meant as a buying opportunity for wine shops and restaurants. BUT... this is the 2nd year that they are open it to the public for a few hours.
The past president of the organization, Paul Kronenberg said, “As the region’s largest tasting of California wines, the event gives members of the trade and wine enthusiasts alike the opportunity to taste hundreds of wines coming from California’s small production, family-owned wineries. It’s a great opportunity to taste and discover exceptional and hard-to-find wines while getting to meet the passion-driven winery owners and winemakers behind it, who are committed to the craft of producing quality wines.”. Kronenberg continued, “The Family Winemakers tasting introduces attendees to California’s small, family-owned wineries, the varietals being produced by California wine growers, and the state’s many rich and diverse wine regions. With such a vast selection of wines, I am positive that each person who attends will discover a new favorite.”
According to their website, the Family Winemakers of California Association was established in 1991 in response to a need for public policy involvement for the small wine producers of California. The Association has become a strong force in the wine industry, lobbying for wine producer rights, and has an active membership of over 550 California wineries. Family Winemakers draws its membership from all the wine producing areas of the state, with the largest concentration coming from Napa and Sonoma Counties.
Doors open for the Trade at 1:00pm, then to the general public at 3:30. The tastings run until 6:00pm. The cost of the event, for the general public, is $70 at the door, but I am going to share a way to get in at a lower cost. If you register before March 8th, you can get in for only $60. Tickets are on sale right now, and can be purchased online at the family winemakers website at the advance ticket prices. This year’s tasting will also offer a new iSip Lounge, only open to consumers. There will be 25 wineries pouring wines that sell for $75.00 or more at retail. Limited tickets for this area. First come first served at $80/person (which includes your general admission). There is also a limited offer for admission during the trade segment plus iSip Lounge Reserve area on Sunday (1:00 on), 100 tickets only, first come first served, $100.
Those of you, who can't make the event, can also look for my recap on this blog site, the week after the event. But, who wants to read about it, when you have the opportunity to attend? If you see me walking around (and most likely tasting and talking) introduce yourself, and say, "hi".
As many of you know, I am in the process of writing segments of a new textbook for an international wine education program. Our first course is going through a test run in Madrid, Spain, as I write this blog. We hope to expand to the United States in the next few months. Right now, we are developing the level 1, or introductory course, which emphasizes grape growing, winemaking and explores the noble grape varieties. So, this week, I thought I'd share a very abbreviated version of my discussion on the Sangiovese grape (which runs about six pages in the textbook).
Sangiovese is like a Dickens novel that begins with, “it was the best of times, it was the worst of times”. Sangiovese is the source of some of the finest red wines in the world, but it is also the cheap red wine packaged in a straw-casked bottle (fiasco), which is more popular as a candle holder.
The origin of the Sangiovese name is pretty well debated, but general theory is that it derives from Sangue di Giove, or Sangius Jovus (“blood of Jove” or “blood of Jupiter”), and was given that name by monks in Emilia-Romagna.
Once believed to be a native and noble grape of central Italy, recent DNA evidence confirms that Sangiovese is the offspring of the north and south. The northern grape is Ciliegiolo (“little cherry”). The southern grape is Calabrese Di Montenuovo. It probably originated in the Calabria region before moving its way up to Campania, and eventually Tuscany.
Today, Sangiovese has different names in different regions. The best known are Prugnolo Gentile in Montepulciano, Brunello in Montalcino, and Morellino in Grosseto. All of these are said to be sub-varieties of Sangiovese, all of which fall into two basic categories: Sangiovese Grosso and Sangiovese Piccolo (or Sangioveto).
The primary growing region of Sangiovese is within central Italy, mainly the Tuscany region where the most famous wines are made. Some of the best known regions are found along the foothills of the Appennines mountain range. The Chianti region is probably the best known. Wines may be labeled Chianti or as one of the 8 sub-zones of Chianti. Chianti Classico and Brunello di Montalcino produce some of the best known, and loved wines in the region.
While Sangiovese is the grape that typifies Tuscany, it is Brunello di Montalcino that stands alone as the region which makes 100% Sangiovese. Here the moderating influences of the Mediterranean help create the most intense expression.
Sangiovese is not well travelled in the old world. There are small pockets of growth in Greece and Israel. The largest growing area outside of Italy is in France.
In the new world, Sangiovese has had mixed results. I remember one of the first Sangiovese wines out of California. It was produced by Atlas Peaks (at that time the Tuscan firm of Antinori had a stake in the company). While their initial experimentation may have failed, it did open the door for other producers. Small production remains in California, with growing success, in the Central Coast, Sierra Foothills, and North Coast. There has also been some experimentation in Washington. Chile and, especially Argentina, are showing promise.
Since the Sangiovese grape is thin skinned, it is naturally low in anthocyanins (the natural phenolics that are found in the skin), that give the wine its color. This is why it has historically been blended with lesser-known grapes that can add color, such as Canaiolo and Colorino. The grape also tends to be high in tannin, acidity and aroma. For this reason, Sangiovese has historically been blended with both white and red grapes, to make up for what was missing."Super Tuscan" wines are blended with Cabernet or Merlot.
Sangiovese is the "workhorse" grape of central Italy It can produce everything from everyday drinking to premium wines in a variety of styles. Mostly known as a red still wine, Sangiovese also is used to make rosato (rose), sweet passito, semi-sparkling frizzante and the luscious dessert wine, Vin Santo.
The thinner skins mean that typically, the color is not particularly deep. Traditional expressions tend to be a pale ruby or garnet color, with a brownish-red rim. Acidity is high, and tannins are moderate to high, both of which contribute to the wines aging potential. Alcohol levels are typically moderate, but as riper fruit is utilized, the alcohol levels can increase up to around the 14% range. Aromatics are typically moderate in intensity with a distinct black cherry aroma. This primary fruit aroma is supported by a range of savory vegetal, almost foresty, aromas of dried leaves or underbrush, tea, tobacco, straw—and occasional violet and smoke elements. More modern styles will have notes of vanilla and spice from the new oak. The finish on younger vintages can be somewhat bitter.
In Italy, wine is part of the meal. Sangiovese's high acidity and moderate alcohol makes it a very food-friendly wine when it comes to food and wine pairings. The high acid, makes it an ideal match to all types of food. Almost anything with tomato sauce works well. Tomato-based pasta dishes, pizza sauce, Porcini mushrooms and Pecorino Cheese are perfect with Sangiovese. One of the classic pairings is bistecca alla fiorentina (a huge grilled T-bone steak).