Why vintages matter

As another grape harvest winds down throughout the northern hemisphere, it might be a good time to consider the importance of the vintage as it relates to wine.

Unlike distilled spirits, wines are a product of nature that vary from year to year depending on the conditions of the growing cycle. Not all vintages are created equal.

This matters because for the most part vintages are printed on the label, and they help consumers decide whether to purchase wine from a reputed good vintage or take a chance on one from a vintage that might be considered spotty.

The difference is often reflected in the price. Lower prices on wines from off years frequently appeal to those with a daring palate.

Bordeaux, Burgundy and to some extent Tuscany provide some of the best examples of vintage variation. Cool years in Bordeaux, for example, generally produce wines that are firm or hard when young and have aggressive tannins and sometimes green, vegetal notes. But finding the best wines from a poor vintage in Bordeaux can save someone with an adventurous spirit from taking a big hit on the wallet.

Even California, which is thought to be immune to vintage variation because of its abundant sunshine, occasionally suffers from a poor harvest. Cool weather and rain in 2011, for example, presented challenges that produced a fair amount of mediocrity in some precincts, a condition that is amplified when 2011 is compared to the outstanding 2012 and 2013vintages.

We won't know for sure about 2016 until the wines have had a chance to evolve and the first formal tastings take place -- sometime in the spring of 2017. But we do know this much: No two vintages are identical, and those initial impressions, good or bad, will be a reflection of what nature provided in 2016.

This is the difference between wine and, say, gin. And that, dear readers, is one of the mysteries of wine that always fascinates, regardless of the final judgment on quality.


Best Value

Wines are rated on a 100-point scale. Wines are chosen for review because they represent outstanding quality or value, and the scores are simply a measure of this reviewer's enthusiasm for the recommended wine.

Morgan 2015 Albarino, Monterey ($18) -- Morgan's albarino is an unusual expression of this grape variety, which is typically produced without the influence of oak barrels. Morgan chooses to age the fermented juice in French oak for five months, which imparts subtle notes of smoke and spice. Yet the presence of a barrel note does not diminish the lovely aromas of stone fruits, citrus and pear. It's a different approach but extremely well-executed. Rating: 90.

Luna Nuda 2015 Pinot Grigio, Vigneti delle Dolomiti IGT, Italy ($15) -- This pinot grigio from the Alto Adige district in northern Italy is bright and clean with fresh aromas of lime flower and green apple and a crisp acidity that cleanses the palate. It's perfect for light pastas and tapas, or steamed shellfish. Rating: 88.

Tasting Notes

Robert Mondavi 2013 Cabernet Sauvignon, Oakville ($55) -- The richness and flavor intensity are pure Oakville -- a district within the Napa Valley of California that delivers complex, layered cabernet sauvignon almost on command. Robert Mondavi's 2013 Oakville is a powerful, muscular cab that offers aromas of blackberry and cassis, and notes of graphite and cedar, as well as generous wood spice. It will need some time to fully come into its own, but all of the markers are there. This wine has the potential to turn into something even more glorious that it is in the here and now. Rating: 94.

Chateau La Nerthe 2012 Chateauneuf-du-Pape, France ($65) -- One thing I've learned about La Nerthe over the years is it's generally better at 10 than it is at four. If it's fairly delicious now, those with extraordinary patience will likely be rewarded in the long-run. Thus, the 2012 vintage with ripe, juicy red-fruit aromas and a generous helping of wood spice, is yet another beautiful Chateauneuf from La Nerthe. But my strong inclination would be to lay this wine down for another five to eight years and wait for its profound complexities to emerge. Rating: 93.

Matanzas Creek 2013 Merlot, Sonoma County ($28) -- At one time, believe it or not, there was a merlot craze, and Matanzas Creek was near the head of the pack of producers that gave this important Bordeaux grape variety in a world dominated by cabernet sauvignon. That ship sailed long ago, but Matanzas continues to treat merlot with respect and typically makes one of the best in California. With juicy red and black fruits and hints of wood spice, the 2013 exhibits richness and intensity. There's enough grip on the finish to suggest this one's good for another seven to 10 years in a proper cellar. Rating: 91.

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