Hot vintage: Great vintage?
The hottest summer in Europe for more than a century has sent grape pickers into vineyards across the Continent earlier than ever in history, amid a rising chorus of excitement about the potential for great and memorable wines in Vintage 2003.
At the noble Chateau Haut-Brion, for instance, the white-grape harvest began last Wednesday, two days earlier than the previous record ... set 110 years ago in 1893! Similar reports are coming in from across France, as well as in Northeastern Italy and in Spain's sparkling-wine ("cava") regions, where searing temperatures in late July and August have promoted unusually early ripening.
But is this really good news? On the surface, it might seem so. The conventional wisdom holds that exceptionally hot summers yield exceptional wines. In relatively recent history in Bordeaux, for instance, the delicious vintages of 2000, 1989 and 1982 all followed long, hot summers. Ditto for 1947, another memorable year.
But despite the affection of some critics for big, overripe wines, the assumption that the riper the grape, the better the wine, is far from universal. Many experts point out that very ripe grapes end up with too much sugar, which ferments into objectionably strong and unbalanced wines.
A more complicated, technical issue also hovers over the vineyards this super-heated summer: In much of Europe, the season started cool and moist, only turning hot later. This matters because of an obscure viticultural issue: Until "veraison" - the point when the green grapes on the vines suddenly start showing their mature color - most of the vine's energy goes into its roots and leaves. Only after the grapes turn color do they begin maturing.
Now, this year, with cool weather early in the season, veraison did not come particularly early. As a result, the intense heat of the past month or so has caused exceptionally rapid ripening. Many experts argue that grapes that ripen too fast don't have time to develop desirable "physiological maturity" that's needed for high-quality, complex and aromatic wines. In vineyard jargon, grapes that lack insufficient "hang time" on the vines before picking may yield ripe but simple, uninteresting wine.
Moreover, in some parts of France - particularly the Languedoc - hot weather has been accompanied by drought conditions, a situation that can put stress on the vines and limit the potential quality of the grapes.
Finally, bear in mind that at this point only some varieties of white grapes are being picked. Even if the slower-maturing red grapes are also harvested early, there is still the potential for such vineyard disasters as damaging storms, hail, or simply cooler, rainy weather that could turn things around overnight.
No matter what the public-relations agencies report, it's still too early to know for sure how the rest of the season will go. The one thing we can take for granted is that the winemakers in Europe - and around the Northern Hemisphere - are crossing their fingers and praying for continued good weather.
It should also be noted that the fiery summer in Europe does not extend around the world. In California, for instance, a cool, rainy spring and variable summer is resulting in predictions of a small harvest - an outcome that would not hurt the feelings of many in the industry there, which is facing a "glut" of wine that's forcing prices down.
To sum all this up, there's only one sure way to be positive about the quality of a vintage, and that's to wait until the wine is bottled and ready for tasting.
Now, for today's tasting report, in prepping for the tour of Burgundy that we're planning next spring with French Wine Explorers (see below), I ran across an older Burgundy the other day in the bargain bin at a local shop, a real buy for a penny under $10. It fits in neatly with today's discussion because vintage 1996 - a very good year, if not one of the greatest ever in Burgundy - pretty much demonstrated the conditions that growers hope for: A long, not-too-hot summer that fostered gentle, gradual ripening, resulting in wines of balance and structure that, even at the budget level, make enjoyable drinking young, old and in-between.
Domaine A.-F. Gros 1996 Bourgogne Hautes-Cotes de Nuits ($9.99)
Clear ruby in color with no hint of brown, still youthful looking in the glass, this pleasant Burgundy offers fresh red fruit aromas and earthy notes with a distant, palatable hint of "barnyard." Fresh and tart red fruit flavors show a distinct acidic snap. There's still plenty of fruit and good structure in an appealing but rather simple wine that's probably best with food. U.S. importer: New Castle Imports Inc., Myrtle Beach, S.C. (Aug. 7, 2003)
FOOD MATCH: Pinot Noir in general and Burgundy in particular shows an affinity for mushrooms; this one made a fine match with the intense mushroom risotto featured in the September-October 2003 edition of my favorite food magazine, Cook's Illustrated.
VALUE: More than fair at this bargain-bin price.
WHEN TO DRINK: Three years ago, I reported that this simple '96 needed time. Now I'm not sure it will show much more improvement, but it's far from going over the hill.
WEB LINK: You'll find the importer's fact sheet on Domaine Anne-Francoise Gros at
Wine Lovers' Voting Booth:
Going to wine tastings
Sometimes wine lovers get stuck in a rut. We rely on the same old sources of advice and go back to our old favorites when it's time to choose wine for dinner or restock the wine rack or cellar. Still, most of us will agree that an interesting wine-tasting event offers one good way to learn about wines we haven't tried before ... and a tasting may inspire us to try something new.
For this week's Wine Lovers' Voting Booth, we'd like to find out what exactly it takes to lure you from your favorite easy chair to venture out and taste some wine, as we ask, "when will you most likely go out to a wine tasting?"
To cast your ballot, you're invited to drop by the Voting Booth,
Tour the world of wine with Robin Garr in 2004
Have you dreamed of touring the world's great vineyards and wineries but held back because the challenge of arranging accommodations, finding meals and getting access to the wine makers and experts at all the wineries seemed too daunting to take on?
Here's an alternative that I hope you'll find appealing: Working in partnership with two top-rank, respected wine-travel companies, I'm planning to host two outstanding wine-region tours early next year.
From Feb. 3-12, I'll host a tour of New Zealand. Working with Wine & Food Trails of Santa Rosa, Calif., our group will visit the top wineries and restaurants and stay at first-class accommodations in Hawkes Bay, Martinborough and Marlborough. We'll learn which local artisan-produced foods pair best with New Zealand's distinct wines, meet their these passionate producers and learn where that passion comes from.
Then, from May 24-30, I'll partner for the third year with our old friends, certified Sommeliers-Conseil Lauriann Greene-Sollin and Jean-Pierre Sollin of French Wine Explorers. Our 2004 trip will cover the great wine regions Burgundy and Champagne, featuring 4-star accommodations, extensive tastings at top wine estates and dinners at some of France's best restaurants.
As always, these tours will be strictly limited in numbers, so if you think you might be interested, I urge you to get in touch with the tour operators early to reserve your place. For summary information and links to both tour organizations' Websites, click to
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This week on WineLoversPage.com
Here are links to some of our recently published articles and features that I hope you'll enjoy:
Wood on Wine: Summertime! The living is easy, and our Atlanta-based columnist Linwood Slayton likes his summer wines to be a little easier, softer and refreshing wines to kick back with, relax and chill and enjoy a bottle of something light. He lists Pinot Gris, Pinot Grigio and Riesling among "Summer de-lights" in his regular column, Wood on Wine,
Oxford Town Wine One of California's oldest producers, Sebastiani Vineyards of Sonoma goes back to 1825. Now the Sebastianis are recreating the company as a producer of premium varietal wines. John Juergens, wine columnist with Oxford Town weekly in Mississippi, tells us about it - with tasting notes - in "Sebastiani Vineyards – Remaking a winery":
WebWineMan Have you noticed pink wines popping up in the wine stores this past few weeks? They are not your everyday white Zinfandel or sweet pink wine. These light, dry roses boast enough body and acid to work with light fare or as an aperitif, they are made with a variety of red wine grapes, and they are an integral part of the wine world. Richard Fadeley presents an overview of rose wine, with notes on somd favorites, in A Rose is a Rose is a Rose!
Last Week's Wine Advisor Index
The Wine Advisor's daily edition is usually distributed on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays (and, for those who subscribe, the FoodLetter on Thursdays). Here's the index to last week's columns:
Blackouts, summer heat and wine (Aug. 15, 2003)
High or low? (Aug. 13, 2003)
Playing the (wine) market (Aug. 11, 2003)
Complete 30 Second Wine Advisor archive:
Wine Advisor FoodLetter: Bourbon pecan chicken (Aug. 14, 2003)
Wine Advisor Foodletter archive:
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Monday, Aug. 18, 2003