Does the Vintage Year Matter?

It is the most common and consistent item on wine labels around the world- the vintage year.  The vintage year is the year that the grapes were grown, harvested and made into wine. And the short answer to the question, “Does the vintage year matter?” is Yes. But as with most things about wine the short answer needs a little longer explanation!

There is a saying in the winemaking world that “great wine begins in the vineyard,” which is the recognition and acknowledgment that wine is the product of well grown and tended grapes – and nothing impacts the growing more than Mother Nature.

While the grower can control for lots of things throughout the season, and the winemaker can ply his or her craft expertly, it’s really Mother Nature that has the greatest power and influence over the wine that ends up in the bottle.  And we know that Mother Nature can be unpredictable and fickle, especially as we witness our changing climate around the world.

So in a word Yes, the vintage does matter because it allows us to assess the single biggest factor that influenced the wine we are buying – the growing conditions of that season in the field. This is particularly important if the wine we are buying is expensive or expected to improve with age, or with wines that are made to drink young and fresh, like rose’.

For example, if I am willing to spend $50 for a Splurge Sip bottle of wine I would like to know as much about the conditions that helped to create it; or if I want to put away a special bottle until some occasion in the future, then I want to know if it has the staying power.  When it comes to rose’ I like it young and fresh so I want the most recent vintage, the 2016 versus a 2015 sitting next to it on the shelf.  There’s even a wine from Portugal called Vihno Verde, which means ‘green wine’ named not because of its color but to drink when young and at its freshest.

So all things being equal, the vintage year does become an important factor in making certain wine decisions. Some years the growing conditions are simply better than others and that’s reflected in the ability of the winemaker to make the most of it.

But I also maintain that while vintage matters, it is not particularly important  for most of the Every Day Sip wine consumed. In a previous post titled “When Should I Drink It?” I wrote, “Every day wine is just that.  Buy it and drink it.  It’s not scientific but my own rule of thumb is that any wine produced and marketed for $30 or less is made for today’s enjoyment, not years in any cellar.” And now I will add that the vintage of that wine is less important than the “drink it now” enjoyment. So don’t stress about it.  Will there be differences between years? Sure. But the bigger production wines that comprise most of the Every Day Sip bottles on the shelf are less dependent on the specifics of a microclimate and even broader weather influences. Most of these wines are not estate grown or single vineyard wines to begin with but are made from grapes grown over much larger vineyard areas and brought into the winery.

Here are some resources to help you be the judge about whether vintage matters as well as a couple of earlier posts to guide you through the wine label.

Reading the Wine Label
What is a Single Vineyard Wine?

Vintage References
eRobertParker Vintage Chart
Wine Enthusiast Vintage Chart
Wine Spectator Vintage Charts

All of this writing has made me ready for a break – so I think it’s definitely time for a Sip!

Keeping Your (Wine) Cool

Now that we are in the heart and heat of summer I thought it a good time to talk about being cool – with our wine that is.  If there’s one thing that wine really doesn’t like it’s heat! Nothing will destroy a bottle faster. Now is a good time to revisit some basics about storing and serving wine at a good temperature.  Whether you have three bottles or three hundred; whether you’re drinking classic Bordeaux or everyday Malbec; whether you’re a Chardonnay fan or stick to Pinot Grigio, there are some guidelines that are helpful to having the kind of sip experience you want.

Summer Buying
When it’s hot keep it cool. Don’t let the wine sit in your car.  Common sense, right? But it’s easy to be out running errands without realizing how long the wine may be heating up in the trunk. I transport it in the car so at least it’s as comfortable as I am!  Just don’t park and let it simmer. And please, don’t let your wine sit in the garage.

If you buy online be aware of the shipping time.  Many wineries and online sellers will ship refrigerated and with a cooling pack inside the box which is great. And many also do not ship in the heat of summer without letting you know – so if you’re a club member let them know your preference. But it still makes sense to be aware of the weather. If there’s a heat spell simply notify the winery or seller to delay your shipment.  Delivery trucks get hot.

Summer Drinking
During the warmer months I generally prefer lighter styled wines and wines with good acidity. And I drink them cool.  I love Rose’ and to me there’s is nothing more fun than sipping chilled Rose’ on a summer afternoon.  Check here for my evangelizing about this!  But there are whites and reds which also just seem fit for summer sipping.

For whites I move away from Chardonnay, Viognier and fuller bodied styles to Pinot Grigio/Pinot Gris, Sauvignon Blanc and Albarino among others.  Here are some zippy summer whites to enjoy. One of my favorite summer memories is sitting on a pier eating fresh steamed clams right out of the ocean and sipping a chilled Pinot Grigio – yum! Of course, a tingly Prosecco or Cava sure fit the time too.  Anyway, an easy rule of thumb is think about the origin of the wine – warm climate = good drinking. And drink them nicely chilled. A half an hour in a bucket with 2/3rd ice and 1/3rd water is the ideal cooler.  Also, if you have the wine in the fridge, be aware that most refrigerators are a bit too cold (typically about 38 degrees). Too cold and you’ll miss some of the taste character of the wine so take it out for about 20 minutes before drinking – it’s still chilled and it will be tastier.

For reds I wander to Barbera, Chianti, Valpolicella, Rioja Crianza, and my favorite, Pinot Noir.  And I like to drink them cool.  If you have a temperature controlled cellar or storage unit then the 55 degrees setting is just right.  If you don’t then put the bottle in the fridge for about 30 minutes to cool it down from room temperature.  There’s is nothing “wrong” about enjoying bigger full wines during the summer (serve me that big Zin with some ribs!), but to me the food is the driver and we tend to eat lighter then too.  More chicken and fish on the grill, summer salads and veggies, pasta with fresh tomatoes and herbs from the garden or farmer’s market, chilled soups, and even with more brats and burgers if you’re eating lighter it makes sense to be drinking lighter too.

Okay – I have now written my way to lunch and it’s about 80 degrees out there!  I think I’ll head to the deck, the shade and a chopped salad with glass of chilled Sauvignon Blanc!

For lots of wine choice go to the the Sips pages:

Everyday Sips – Wines under $25

Guest Sips – Wines $25 plus

Splurge Sips – Wines over $50

Take a Look at the New “My Sips”

Since I started this blog last summer I’ve been adding to the “My Sips” pages regularly.  My Sips are just that, wines I’ve had that I want to share with you.  I chose them based on the particular post, whether it’s about a wine region, a grape type or some good wine geek information!  And, after all, it’s lots more fun to drink wine than it is to read about it, right?

The list has grown pretty quickly – and to make it a bit more user friendly I’ve reorganized the pages so that it’s easier to find what you may want to try.  There are a couple of different ways to get to them and once you’re there I hope you’ll find the organization by main wine variety helpful.  Each category is on the main navigation as well as under the My Sips tab.

Just to refresh – there are three categories of My Sips:

  • Everyday Sips.  These are wines that sell for less than $25.  I know we each have our “everyday” price point so you’ll find a mix of wines at different prices, with most under $15.  Here’s the link: Everyday Sips
  • Guest Sips.  These are wines to give or get. Going to a dinner at friends?  Check the list.  Need a bottle for a BYO? Check the list.  These are nice wines that you can share whatever the occasion.  You’ll find them priced from $25 and up – generally to about $50. Here’s the link: Guest Sips
  • Splurge Sips.  Special wines for special times, or just when you want to treat yourself or friends.  Full confession – I don’t drink these often either!  But you’ll find wines I have had and that I think are worth the “splurge” when you feel like it.  These wines are $50 plus. Here’s the link: Splurge Sips

I don’t rate wines and these are not “reviews.”  But I know I appreciate it when someone can point me to a new wine or even get me back to an old favorite.  And I am always happy to hear what you like too – so feel free to share.

I hope you enjoy the new My Sips!

Reading the Wine Label – USA

American wine labels are pretty straight-forward.  First of all they’re in English, which, even though I was born and raised on Chicago’s south side, I still consider my native tongue! But there are some basic things to know about US wine labeling that can help you make better wine buying and drinking decisions.  To me one of the most important things to know is that the more specifically identified the wine in the bottle is identified on the bottle, the greater the potential for a higher quality, better sipping experience once you pop it open.  Here’s what I mean.

There are certain pieces of information that are required by law to be on the label and they are what you’d expect – brand name/name of the producer/winery, alcohol content, sulfite warning, health warning, where the wine is from, etc.  But there are lots of other things that are permitted and that’s where a little knowledge helps sort it out.  Here are the most common and most important and the label image is there to guide you visually – Ballentine Vineyards 2010 Napa Valley Cabernet Franc, Estate Grown, Pocai Vineyard:Ballentine Label

  • Vintage: Vintage matters.  It’s all about the growing season.  Was it too cold early or too hot late?  Was there lots of rain or none?  Hail? Winds? Sunny or cloudy?  Wine is an agricultural product that Mother Nature has a lot to say about.  If there is a year on the label (or on a separate smaller label on the bottle) then, in general, at least 95% of the grapes had to be harvested in that year.  I say in general because wines from broader regions, like whole states or counties, can have that reduced to 85%, which is similar to the regional wines in Europe.
  • Grape Variety: Pretty basic but you’d like to know what you’re drinking, right?  But for that grape to be on the label then at least 75% of the stuff in the bottle must be from that grape and the place named.  So if the label says Cabernet Franc you can be assured that 75% of it is Cabernet Franc.  If no one grape is 75% of the wine in the bottle then it has to be labeled simply Red Wine or White Wine – this is where you find branded, proprietary blends (example is Oracle from Miner),  or may see the word Meritage, which signifies the use of the Bordeaux varieties and membership in an association with governing rules – or each grape in the blend must be identified.
  • Appellation: “Where you from?” The appellation named on the label go from broadest to most refined – Country, State, AVA (American Viticultural Area) and Vineyard.
    • The general rule is that 75% of the grapes come from that state, but its not that simple since a couple of states (California and Oregon) have more stringent labeling regulations.  So a wine labeled “California Chardonnay” must have 100% of those Chardonnay grapes from California.
    • AVAs are key to label reading.   There are 230 AVAs in the US and if the AVA is on the label then 85% of the wine is from there.  AVAs are places like Napa Valley (pictured), Russian River, Columbia Valley, Sonoma Coast, etc.  Here’s a link to the full list: AVA List
  • Single vineyard name:  And if there is a vineyard name on the label then 95% of the grapes that made that wine have to be from that vineyard. (Pocai Vineyard pictured)
  • Estate designation:  If it says “Estate” on the label it means the producer/winery must own or lease the vineyards providing the grapes. (“Estate Grown” pictured).

I always look at the label.  I want to know as much about that bottle as possible.  And when I see more narrowly defined sources for the wine my going in assumption is that the potential is there for wine that has had more focus and attention brought to it from the vineyard to the winery to the bottle – and then to me!

Does the Shape of Your Wine Glass Matter?

I’ve gotten a lot of questions about what type of wine glasses people should buy. So I thought I’d ask and answer the most basic one – Does the shape of your wine glass matter?  My short answer is YES.  But let me explain a bit further.  That YES is based on having a sensory experience with the wine, an experience that stimulates your smell, taste and enjoyment of this amazing liquid.  And that’s why I think the shape of the glass matters.

The tulip or bowl shaped wine glass is well designed to deliver on smell and taste, and on sight as well as long as you don’t use colored glassware.  After all the three basic actions to take in order to taste and appreciate wine are to See It, Smell It and Sip It.  That’s my routine when I first pour it in the glass or have it served to me.

See It: Take a good look at the wine and notice it’s color.  Color can be an initial telltale about the wine.  Is it cloudy or clear?  What shade of red is it (deep dark purple or brick red? see through light garnet or ruby?) – or what variation of white (more golden or yellow? pale or amber, etc).  The color can indicate the varietal, the age or the style so you want to be able to See It and that tulip glass with a nice bowl lets you move it around for a good look without spilling it.

Smell It:  Take a good whiff!  And as you move it around (this is the swirl of wine tasting) you can observe the “legs” or “tears” on the side of the glass.  This is an indicator of the wine’s body and alcohol.  Slower, more viscous legs indicate more heft and likely higher alcohol. The alcohols begin to evaporate and leave the legs – and carry the aromas up to our noses as we then Smell It.  Our smell drives our taste.  We are all unique and I won’t tell you what you should smell or taste with any wine.  There is no right or wrong answer.  This is your own sensory experience, but having a glass that let’s you stick your nose into it is where the tasting begins.  Then Sip It.

Sip It:  The payoff.  Here I think the glass matters in the mouth of the beholder.  I like the feel of sipping from a nice, thin wineglass as opposed to something heavy and thick.  The Riedel folks maintain that the crystal and the glass shape for each type of grape actually enhances the taste. I had a lengthy breakfast discussion with Georg Riedel himself about this and he can be pretty convincing, but I’ll leave that for you to decide.  Here’s a link to their glass guide: Riedel Glass Guide.  I personally like having a a well shaped tulip bowl on a stem to hold an to.  The stem let’s me hold it and swirl it easily while at the same time keeping the heat from my hand from warming the wine.

So in my view the glass does matter, but don’t make yourself crazy about what you have to buy or what the “proper” glass is for a particular wine.  Some of my favorite sips have come in wine_glass_glass_transparent little trattorias when wandering through Italy where the wine is served in small water glasses – and that makes them the ideal wine glass!

My Sips

IPhone Pictures 09-10 101What Are “My Sips” All About?

Hopefully part of the entertainment of Sips will be discovering some new wines.  I’ll regularly be offering up some wines to try that I am calling “My Sips.”  They are just that – wines I’ve tasted and like.  Nothing more.  I am not trying to tell you to like them or to buy them, nor will there be any ratings or comparisons with one wine being somehow better than another.  These wines are simply ones that I have enjoyed Everyday, or when Guests are over or when it’s fun to Splurge.  And I’ll give you the price that I found them at retail, online or directly from a winery.

In that Everyday category my goal is to keep the wines less than $25, with most of them under $15.  When I have a Guest Sip I move it up a notch, though of course that really depends on the occasion… and your friends!  Basically Guest Sips are wines to bring out when you’re entertaining or getting together with friends, no special occassion necessary.  And then when it is time to Splurge sometimes you just have to go for it – a special day, a real treat – however you want to define it.  By the way, expect to see lots of different Sips over time… just because I may identify a particular Everyday doesn’t mean it’s the only one, rather it’s one choice out of many and the beauty of wine is the amazing variety of those choices.

There are a lot of ways to buy wine and different laws state to state can make it complicated and sometimes frustrating depending on where you live.  I have the opportunity to find lots of choices at many different kinds of retailers.  But I also seek out wine and buy online from retailers in other states and from wineries directly.

There are some really good online resources to use, starting with  Wine-searcher is an aggregator… plug in the name of a wine and you’ll get multiple results from around the country from big retailers to smaller specialty wine shops along with prices and direct links to buy.  I have also bought online from different well known merchants like Zachy’s, K&L, Binny’s, BevMo and Morrell.  All the links are below.  Then there are the auctions.  Hart Davis Hart is a premier wine auction house and is another way to locate something special, case lots, collectables, etc.

The fact is it has never been easier to find the wine you want…  And if all else fails then just head directly to the winery site.  So I hope you enjoy my own “Sips” from time to time as much as I enjoy the continuing fun of discovering new wines and sharing them with friends – both in-person and as virtual sipping buddies!

Just for the heck of it, here are a few recent Sips of Pinot Noir from me to you.

Everyday Sip:
2013 Meiomi Pinot Noir $18
Fuller bodied offering with darker fuitiness. Very versatile, right down to the screwcap! Basically a “second” wine from Belle Glos.

Guest Sip:
2012 Penner – Ash Pinot Noir, Willamette Valley $40
Lovely Willamette Pinot that leads with black cherry.

Splurge Sip:
2012 Domaine A. F. Gros Chambolle Musigny $80
Ah, Burgundy. Delicious Pinot with complexity and just a hint of Burgundian earth under the lush raspberry flavor. I drank this young and loved it.  Great structure and depth.