Some Don't Like It Hot

When I tour a wine region in France or northern Italy to gather early tasting notes on a new vintage, I bring a blank notebook and an open mind.  If the growing season was hot and dry, odds are good that the vintage has been glorified by the general press from the time the grapes were picked.  If, on the other hand, the year featured wildly varying weather, significant rain events or a very late harvest, the wines had probably been damned from the start by early critics.  Me, I taste all these wines with cautious optimism. 

That's because I've learned from long experience that premature predictions about a new vintage often have little to say about the wines that are ultimately bottled.

Drought years or summers with extreme heat can yield excessively tannic and alcoholic red wines with inadequate acidity, or even a cooked-fruit character.  Even so, producers and wine journalists alike tend to hype the vintages highest in natural grape sugars, with the result that impressionable consumers trample each other in a rush to scoop up these atypically outsized wines.

The hot years are trickiest for white wines, which rely on their acidity, concentration and balance, rather than their tannins, for their staying power.  For example, very warm weather in early September of 2009 in many cases flattened out white wines from the Loire Valley, Burgundy and Alsace:  their alcohol and exotic tropical fruit and honey notes--and lack of acidity--often blur the classic minerality and floral high notes of these wines.

For all these reasons, wine lovers who prize site specificity and sheer drinkability normally gravitate toward temperate vintages.  The wines may be lighter but they're also more vibrant, easier to drink in their youth, and more flexible at the dinner table.  And they convey the impression of intensity without undue weight, a quality that lovers of Old World wines appreciate.

Consider these weather conditions when you look at recent vintages in France.  As a general rule, 2008 brought a cooler growing season, with a late harvest, while 2009 was a warm and early year.  Two thousand ten is more in the style of 2008.  So while 2008 and 2010 have a tendency to be more classic for normally minerally, vibrant white wines, 2009 can be quite variable in quality, with some wines dominated by their vintage character, as opposed to their unique soil tones.  Of course, in regions like Burgundy and Bordeaux, the better producers made many wonderfully fleshy, ripe red wines in 2009, and these wines are likely to offer considerable early appeal.  But many long-time Burgundy drinkers prefer wines of delicacy, aromatic complexity, vibrancy and sharply defined terroir character, and these collectors are as likely to prefer the 2008s.

So what's a happy wine drinker to do?  My recommendation is to opt for wines from the best producers in the reasonably ripe years and not to overbuy the hottest harvests.  Or follow the advice of critics you trust.  You'll learn to gauge from your own experience how heat and drought on the one hand, and cool or rainy conditions on the other, affect the wines of a particular region, so that you too can game the system.