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Lise Ciolino
December 15, 2012 | Environment, Tasting, Vineyard | Lise Ciolino

What makes a great vintage?

What makes a particular vintage of wine so great? First we must look at the characteristics of a great wine from any vintage, and then figure out what influenced the grapes to produce that great wine, as opposed to merely a good wine. Hint: a great vintage has nothing to do with bottle price or the Dow Jones Industrial Average.

Even experts can disagree on a great wine and great vintage because everyone has their individual preferences—and knowing that a wine comes from a "great" vintage doesn't mean that you are going to like it. Most experts would probably agree, however, that greatness boils down to four factors:

  • Flavor: complexity, depth, balance
  • Mouthfeel: smoothness, finesse, elegance
  • Finish: length and flavor
  • Ageability: good tannin structure

Flavor and ageability are primarily dictated by Mother Nature, while mouthfeel and finish are affected by both winemaking and Mother Nature. Of course, these are generalizations since flavor can also be affected by winemaking (e.g., barrels), but these are minimal affects ideally. Mother Nature encompasses what doesn't change about the natural environment (e.g., soil type, climate, aspect, elevation—what is called the vineyard's terroir), along with what changes from year to year, namely weather.

Assuming the winemaker and vineyard don't change, the weather is what really makes a great vintage and a great wine. For us in northern California, great weather means warm temperatures and moderate rainfall at the right times throughout the growing season from March through November. Ideal weather for Montemaggiore would mean:

  • lots of rain in the early spring to saturate the soils and fill our ponds
  • warm sunny weather in late spring to bring an early bud-break and even pollination
  • mild summer with highs in the 80s and 90s keeping the ripening process steady during the day, while cool (but not too cold) nighttime temperatures maintain acidity levels
  • warm and dry in the early fall so that we can choose when to harvest

In a great vintage, the grapes probably had a long hang time on the vines (early bud-break and late harvest) to develop the depth and complexity of flavors and provide a solid finish to the wine. The days would be warm and the nights cool to retain the acid balance in the wine. Warm and mild temperatures along with no rain during the growing season would mean the tannin structure provides a smooth mouthfeel and provides the potential for ageing, meaning the wine to become more interesting over time. These conditions lead to a great wine.

Another perspective is that a great vintage has few if any negative weather events. Frost after bud-break in early spring kills the tender buds hence lowers yields and shortens the growing season (new buds come out, they are just delayed and less prolific). Big temperature swings or rain during pollination in late spring (May and early June) means lower yields and encourages uneven ripening. A summer with high temperature spikes can scorch leaves and grapes while slowing ripening and affecting flavors. During the early fall, heavy rains could force an early harvest, engorge the grapes with water, and encourage molds. So a good season is one in which nothing goes wrong weather-wise (we could say the same thing about Vincent's beloved baseball team, the Chicago Cubs, but something always goes wrong with their season).

All is not lost in a difficult vintage because a great winemaker can still make a decent wine. In fact, these are the years when a winemaker earns her kudos. In difficult vintages, Lise might harvest a bit earlier, sort the grapes more carefully, and encourage shorter fermentations—all in order to accentuate the positives while deemphasizing negatives. Other winemakers may employ tricks such as aging the wine in lots of new oak barrels to hide undesirable flavors, and alcohol removal when the wine seems thin and hot. Lise, however, prefers let each vintage express itself and not force the wine to be something that Mother Nature didn't intend. Using 2011 as an example, this a vintage which most winemakers would call difficult (very similar to the graphic above), but Lise would like to think that the Montemaggiore 2011s are decent and may even be considered quite good (without using any tricks).

We hope this provides some insight as to what makes a great vintage from our perspective. But the proof is with your palate, so we encourage you to always decide for yourself what you think is a great wine—don't let vintage charts and "experts" dissuade you! To really appreciate the affect that weather has on vintage, we suggest hosting a group of friends for vertical tasting of single-vineyard wines over a series of vintages. In fact, we offer a six-bottle vertical of Montemaggiore Syrahs to facilitate just that.


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