Cloudy with a chance of outstanding — or why the vintage matters 

Even climate change is impacting vineyards

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It's that time of the year when hope springs eternal at wineries all across the northern hemisphere.

The 2014 wine grape harvest has been underway for more than a month at many of the warmest locations and will continue throughout the fall, finishing late next month or possibly even into November at the coolest and likely most northern sites.

In between, growers and winemakers will sweat it out as they wait for total grape maturity to arrive — that's both sugar and tannins — in the face of deteriorating weather. It's a giant game of chance and it is not for the fainthearted.

When I first started tasting some 35 years ago there was only one harvest of note in the wine world, and that was in Bordeaux.

The Bordelais were the masters of vintage, seldom commenting until the wines were fermented and often saying nothing until the next spring, when their en primeur or advance sale of the just finished vintage took place for the trade. In those days growing conditions were confined to a handful of folks in the know and in any event they didn't really affect sales all that much.

Vintages were usually graded good, better or best and the price went up regardless. A small vintage triggered a price jump due to lack of product; a poor vintage did the same because only the best wines were selected and production was miniscule; and if the vintage was outstanding, well, the price had to rise because the quality was so fine. Like I said, the Bordelais were, and still are, the ultimate wine marketers.

The air is less rarefied in the New World and in the last decade or two technology, and folks' obsession with weather, has brought a renewed interest in the growing season, harvest and the concept of vintage quality. The irony is many sectors of the wine trade have come around to thinking the exact opposite. Why talk vintage when few are perfect or outstanding?

As the New World began to flex its muscles we learned that every year is a good year in California, Chile, South Africa and Australia because it's always warm and sunny.

We now know better. "Warm and sunny" comes in degrees, if you'll pardon the pun, and even in the New World some years are better than others.

In fact, it's the cooler growing seasons that seem to be the best. Yet today, with the exception of an absolute dog year, the notion of a good or bad vintage is all but extinct. For many wineries, harvest reports are more about public relations (that now come to you live via vineyard cams) than any real pronouncement about quality of the grapes picked.

Interviews with the owner or winemaker and daily updates from the vineyard have taken the legs out from under the old good-versus-bad vintage assessments often issued by tight-lipped wine buyers, and a few respected tasters, deep from within the vineyards.

Frankly, knowing what we know today, it begs the question of how important the four digits that appear on most every wine label really are.

Could the end of the "vintage" as we know it be for the best?

Certainly today's harvest is a lot less of a mystery than it used to be and you could probably argue it is also much less risky.

From bud break forward, growers have so much information available to them that much of what happens in August, September, October or even November has been predetermined for weeks, if not months. It doesn't mean disaster can't strike but failing torrential rainfall throughout the final weeks of the growing season the chances of big-time failures appear to be highly unlikely.

Without doubt, growing fruit on a vineyard site or in an appellation ideally suited to its grapes helps reduce the failure rate, as do better clones, better farming practices, low yields, and a host of tools available to the modern grape grower. It even appears possible to smooth out the rough edges of the vintage just by being diligent or, even better, passionate about what you are doing.

The result is better wine year after year and given the less variation in quality, it would seem consumers needn't worry about the vintage.

Or should we?

Just when you think you have a handle on it all, global warming is turning parts of Europe and Canada into the likes of the Napa or Barossa Valley. Modern-day harvest reports speak about the lack of rainfall and rising temperatures throughout the growing season. Seasons that are too dry and too warm are challenging everything we know about growing grapes each new vintage. I supposed we could consider a wine's vintage for what it is — simply the year the grapes were picked. But what fun is there in that?

Last week, the smell of fermenting grapes had begun to invade the Okanagan Valley — it was chardonnay in Osoyoos, pinot noir in Okanagan Falls, Pinot Gris in Naramata. I can't wait to find out if the 2014 vintage is going to be shall we say — good, bad or indifferent?

All of which leads me to say I'm still a bit of a vintage fiend. I like knowing that all things being equal, the 2012 and 2013 Okanagan vintages were superior to the 2010 and 2011. I take pride in in knowing 1982 Bordeaux, like 1961 and 1959 and 1945, are considered some of the greatest Bordeaux vintages ever, or that both Germany and the Rhone Valley have had an almost unending run of success over the last 15 years, nearly rendering the concept of vintage variation dead.

That is, until the temperature drops to five degrees C overnight, as it did last week in the Okanagan, and all the optimism of a "cracker" vintage is severely shaken. Will it remain warm enough to finish the ripening; will the rain stay away; can we avoid a deadly frost?

It takes a steely will to wait until the end, if only because the biggest prize lies right beside the biggest failure. It's the chance we take on every vintage.

Anthony Gismondi is a globetrotting wine writer who makes his home in West Vancouver, British Columbia. For more of his thoughts on wine log onto


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