I’m of the opinion that wine vintages don’t matter much—except when they do.
Generally speaking, I’m not a vintage watcher. I’ve found great wines in lousy vintages—the 2011 Chateau Montelena Napa Valley Chardonnay comes to mind—and I’ve had crappy wines from supposedly great vintages. The truth is, most of us don’t put our wines away or cellar them long enough for vintages to matter much. The majority of wineries worldwide produce wines that are meant to be consumed upon release, not stored away in a cool, dark cellar for decades.
With that cautionary preface, I’ll also say this: The 2012 vintage for California, Washington and Oregon wines is sensational. It’s looking to be the best vintage since 2007, which was considered by many to be the “perfect” vintage, especially for Napa Cabernet.
What makes for a great wine-vintage year? Well, the planets have to line up just so. And then there’s the weather—weather and climate are key. The 2012 grape harvest in California was so abundant that some wineries ran out of room to store their grapes. It was an embarrassment of riches.
According to Nick Frey, president of the Sonoma County Winegrape Commission, 2012 was “a great harvest for Sonoma County growers and winemakers. Yields and fruit quality [were] exceptional.”
And in a Sonoma County Harvest 2012 report, winemaker Steve Rued of Rutherford Wine Company called summer 2012—which was “warm, but did not have any real heat waves”—a “perfect summer for grapes. The whites tasted great, with good acidity. The reds all had good color and structure and very good flavors. Not only did everything taste very nice in 2012, but the crop was about 20 percent above normal. Everyone welcomed these extra grapes, after the very small 2011 harvest. 2012 should turn out to be a very good vintage. ”
Still, what makes for a great wine vintage? Yes, the weather in 2012 was perfect for wine grape growers, but what does that have to do with what’s in the bottles? James Cahill, the talented winemaker for Oregon’s Soter Vineyards, sheds some light: “As wine professionals, we would expect certain attributes from a ‘great’ vintage. One condition is that you’ll see quality from top to bottom. That is, good wines in all price ranges from a wide variety of producers. Oregon will give you that in 2012. Will you see wines that will broaden your expectations for what is possible here? I think yes.”
That’s good news, because Cahill is saying that we should expect really great wines not just from fancy, expensive bottles, but from “top to bottom,” across varietals, producers and price points. That’s great news for the wine consumer.
What will these wines taste like? Again, I’ll let the pro weigh in: “For me, one of the distinctions will be a kind of ripe-fruit quality that we don’t see every year,” Cahill says. “Even from sites that are prized for producing ‘feminine’ styles with high-tone red fruit and aroma, fine acidity and balance, we will see a fruit spectrum that expresses very ripe red berry (almost confection but still fresh) juiciness. 2012 is a very special vintage.”
Some of the 2012 whites are already here and reds are starting to show up, as well. My advice: Stock up.