When I tour a wine region in France or northern Italy to gather early tasting notes on a new vintage, I bring a blank notebook and an open mind. If the growing season was hot and dry, odds are good that the vintage has been glorified by the general press from the time the grapes were picked. If, on the other hand, the year featured wildly varying weather, significant rain events or a very late harvest, the wines had probably been damned from the start by early critics. Me, I taste all these wines with cautious optimism.
That's because I've learned from long experience that premature predictions about a new vintage often have little to say about the wines that are ultimately bottled.
Drought years or summers with extreme heat can yield excessively tannic and alcoholic red wines with inadequate acidity, or even a cooked-fruit character. Even so, producers and wine journalists alike tend to hype the vintages highest in natural grape sugars, with the result that impressionable consumers trample each other in a rush to scoop up these atypically outsized wines.
The hot years are trickiest for white wines, which rely on their acidity, concentration and balance, rather than their tannins, for their staying power. For example, very warm weather in early September of 2009 in many cases flattened out white wines from the Loire Valley, Burgundy and Alsace: their alcohol and exotic tropical fruit and honey notes--and lack of acidity--often blur the classic minerality and floral high notes of these wines.
For all these reasons, wine lovers who prize site specificity and sheer drinkability normally gravitate toward temperate vintages. The wines may be lighter but they're also more vibrant, easier to drink in their youth, and more flexible at the dinner table. And they convey the impression of intensity without undue weight, a quality that lovers of Old World wines appreciate.
Consider these weather conditions when you look at recent vintages in France. As a general rule, 2008 brought a cooler growing season, with a late harvest, while 2009 was a warm and early year. Two thousand ten is more in the style of 2008. So while 2008 and 2010 have a tendency to be more classic for normally minerally, vibrant white wines, 2009 can be quite variable in quality, with some wines dominated by their vintage character, as opposed to their unique soil tones. Of course, in regions like Burgundy and Bordeaux, the better producers made many wonderfully fleshy, ripe red wines in 2009, and these wines are likely to offer considerable early appeal. But many long-time Burgundy drinkers prefer wines of delicacy, aromatic complexity, vibrancy and sharply defined terroir character, and these collectors are as likely to prefer the 2008s.
So what's a happy wine drinker to do? My recommendation is to opt for wines from the best producers in the reasonably ripe years and not to overbuy the hottest harvests. Or follow the advice of critics you trust. You'll learn to gauge from your own experience how heat and drought on the one hand, and cool or rainy conditions on the other, affect the wines of a particular region, so that you too can game the system.
Light orange. Aromas of dried cherry, musky herbs and flowers, plus a hint of white pepper. Concentrated red fruit flavors are enlivened by a zesty orange pith quality that lends a bitter edge to the back half. Packs a punch but shows good mineral-driven vivacity, finishing with solid grip and good length. This bottling is quite rich this year and built to handle full-flavored food.
Pale yellow. High-pitched, mineral-driven aromas of lemon zest, talc and spearmint. Taut and juicy, showing citrus fruits, a hint of green apple and strong minerality. Picks up deeper melon and pear character with air and finishes dry and persistent. I like this wine's linear character.
Vivid ruby. Pungent aromas of strawberry and raspberry preserves, plus a hint of white pepper. Focused and dry, offering incisive red fruit flavors and a sexy floral pastille quality. A spicy note carries through the brisk, delineated finish. As usual, this wine punches above its weight.
Good medium red. Decadent nose offers musky minerality and liqueur-like framboise.
Fat, sweet and thick but with ripe, harmonious acidity giving shape to
this round, plush wine. Approachable already, with the slightly exotic
character following through in the mouth. Finishes with very sweet
tannins and liqueur-like length. I'd drink this over the next six to
Straw-yellow color. Compellingly ripe yet subtle aromas of apricot, peach pit, pear and spicy vanillin oak, lifted by a note of orange blossom. Dense and broad on the palate, with noteworthy richness and depth. Serious, broad and very fresh for this warm year, but with stony minerality giving lift to the flavors and grip to the lingering finish.
Ruby-red. Lively, complex aromas of raspberry, cherry, black tea and cola. Suave and silky, with good intensity and depth to its pure red fruit and spice flavors. Shows power without any undue weight and an attractive sappy quality. Finishes with silky, fine-grained tannins. This is quite refined for the price and drinks very well now.
Pale yellow. Pungent wet stone minerality to go with floral and herbal aromas. Juicy, classically dry and quite withdrawn, with a subtle flavor of underripe pineapple. Brisk, classic, palate-dusting Chablis with a long, rather austere finish featuring lemon peel, crushed stone and menthol. Today this comes across as less massive and more soil-inflected than the 2010 version.
(60% cabernet sauvignon, 30% merlot and 10% petit verdot): Bright ruby-red. Musky aromas of cassis, blackberry, chocolate, coffee bean and violet. Pure, fine-grained and vibrant, with dark berry, herb, pepper and spice flavors nicely framed by harmonious acidity. Finishes with suave but firm tannins and lovely aromatic persistence. Classic, elegant and energetic wine with the spine to age. An impressive La Lagune.
Spicy dark fruits, wild herbs and black pepper on the nose. Supple, broad and sweet, but light on its feet for a southern French red from Rhone varieties. Finishes with gentle tannins and a lingering sweetness of fruit. Not the last word in complexity but very easy to drink, especially with a light chill.
Greenish yellow. High-pitched aromas of lime zest, green apple and white pepper. Richer pit fruit and melon qualities on the supple palate, with an exotic note of passion fruit emerging with air. Suavely blends lushness and nervy character, finishing with refreshing lift and bright citrus cut.
Subtle aromas of lemon peel, pepper and spices. Juicy, bright and tangy but not at all hard, with enticing citrus and apple flavors supported by a stony underpinning. Finishes with surprising length for its category. This very dry, brisk, thoroughly enticing wine is a real essence of summer: I could drink it by the bucketload.
Bright medium ruby. Very ripe, perfumed aromas of blackberry and violet. Dense, sappy and concentrated, with excellent energy to its thick, sweet dark berry flavors. Finishes with serious toothdusting but sweet tannins and excellent length. This impressive Cotes du Rhone bottling boasts almost liqueur-like richness yet maintains its balance.
Bright orange-pink. Intense strawberry and raspberry aromas show good power, ripeness and clarity. Juicy and precise on the palate, offering nervy red berry and floral flavors and a hint of bitter cherry. Finishes smooth and very long, with resonating rose and cherry notes.
Since 1985, Stephen Tanzer and his team of renowned, widely published regional experts have spent months of every year on the wine trails of the world, having their passports punched and tasting tens of thousands of wines annually, the best of which are reviewed in the independent, critically acclaimed, bimonthly International Wine Cellar (IWC).
Many wines featured in Second Tuesday will be selected from past, current and upcoming issues of the IWC. But Stephen and associate editor Josh Raynolds will also include superb recent discoveries that would otherwise slip between the cracks of IWC coverage.
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