For most wine consumers, vintage shouldn't matter. After all, the vast majority of bottles sold are of the under-$10 variety (the average sale is $6.42, according to Nielsen), where brand is vastly more important than vintage and some wines don't carry a vintage designation. (Watch out, though, for that discounted 2007 chardonnay that's been gathering dust under fluorescent lights for several years. Or Beaujolais Nouveau of any vintage.)
For those of us who deign to delve into the over-$10 stuff, vintages come into play, almost entirely because of the weather. Which, in case you haven't noticed, has been pretty wacky lately. That tends to have effects on agriculture-based endeavors.
"There is global warming, but more than that there is global weirdness," said Mark Vlossak, owner/winemaker at Oregon's St. Innocent winery.
Up and down the West Coast, 2010 and 2011 had cooler, generally shorter growing seasons. That followed umpteen years of temperatures above the 30-year average and preceded a 2012 season that was close to ideal from Southern California to eastern Washington.
"We have never had two years alike," said Ken Wright, like Vlossak a Wisconsin native-turned-Oregon winemaker (Ken Wright Cellars). "I mean, that's farming. It keeps you on your toes. We're not making widgets. You address it with the best information you have."
That bounty of information, and a willingness to share it, means that vintners can cope with the toughest of conditions and produce good wine. So good vintners know what to do in bad conditions, which means, at least for me, brand is more important than vintage at all price points.
"Vintage variation doesn't mean [crummy] vintages and great ones," Vlossak said. "It's about style."
So the 2010 and '11 wines from the West Coast, which had less ripening time, tend to be lower in alcohol and a bit higher in acidity than previous vintages. Veteran California winemaker Jed Steele said that all his chardonnay came in under 14 percent in 2010 and '11. Serge Laville, winemaker at Washington's Spring Valley, said "in 2010 and 2011 you see an alcohol drop in all Washington wines."
The formula has played especially well with white wines from those years, not only for California vintners like Steele who prefer lower-alcohol, food-friendlier wines, but also, and especially, in the Northwest. Oregon's 2010-11 whites are almost universally superb, and Washington's maintain or exceed their usual lofty standards.
For wine enthusiasts, these vintage variations are most welcome. It can be fun and fascinating to compare what different years bring us.
That's especially true with something like German riesling, which strongly reflects the conditions in which the grapes are grown. Importer Terry Theise, who brings in some stellar rieslings (Donnhoff, Muller-Catoir), is particularly adept at characterizing them.
"The 2009s are like one of those cars that's not sexy to drive but operates really well, a Toyota Camry, lovely, unfussy, a classic vintage," he said. "It will never disappoint but perhaps will not curl your toenails like some other vintages. The 2010s are freakishly romantic. They show dark flavors, whereas the '09s show polite flavors."
Like Oregon, Germany and other cooler European regions are especially subject to the year-to-year vagaries of Mother Nature. By most accounts, harsh conditions in Burgundy last year produced historically low yields, and there will be little available on these shores. (With that news and good but not great results in 2011, Burghounds should scarf up the stellar — and different — 2009 and 2010 vintages.)
Winemakers on these shores can empathize. Mike Sullivan of the Russian River Valley winery Benovia said "we cut off half the zinfandel crop in 2010" because it didn't get ripe enough, and while "it was nice to see ripe flavors and good acidity [with 2010 and '11 pinot noir], we didn't get the explosive flavors you come to expect from the Russian River Valley."
So he welcomed 2012, when nigh onto perfect weather meant "your hand isn't forced."
So did Vlossak, who compared 2012 to the "vintage of the century" in Oregon.
"My impression is that in 2008, if you didn't make great wine, you need to find something else to do," he said. "Now 2012, I'm not sure the quality was as ubiquitous, but the smart people made really, really good wine. We've spent a lot of years working to keep [consumers] interested and spending their small amount of disposable income. With the 2012, they're just going to buy the [stuff]."