Tip Sheet for Handicapping Wines

With just a little knowledge about your favorite categories of wine, and basic intelligence about the weather during a particular growing season—this information is easily available in harvest reports published on-line by producers around the world—you can boost your odds for buying great bottles. First, a bit of background:

In very warm climates, the challenge for the grower is to get the grape skins sufficiently ripe before grape sugars skyrocket and acidity levels plunge.  This is especially the case in much of Australia, southern and eastern Spain, Napa Valley and southern France, just to name a few examples.  So a particularly hot summer and harvest in a very warm region is quite often a BAD thing.  What you want to look for is a long, steady growing season, which makes for balanced, full-flavored wines with aromatic complexity and verve.  American wine drinkers are obsessed with the so-called great vintages, but wines from average or even cool years are often more fun to drink in their youth and can also be pleasant surprises with time in bottle. 

In general, moderate climates yield lighter, fresher wines that rely on their acidity for backbone:  pinot noir from New Zealand and Oregon, Albariño from the Atlantic northwest of Spain, and riesling from just about anywhere. These wines don’t benefit from freakishly hot weather either.

Of course, some regions, such as Bordeaux, Southern France, Paso Robles, can be a bit more difficult to handicap, as vineyard owners gain flexibility by being able to blend two or more grape varieties that have different ripening curves.

Based on these variables, here’s a tip sheet for consumers:

For syrah, look for wines from cooler microclimates in hot areas (California, Washington State, South Africa, Australia), or from protected spots in cooler regions (New Zealand).  Hot, dry years raise the risk of exaggerated alcohol, roasted or downright raisiny flavors due to dehydrated grape skins, and very low levels of acidity.

For barbera and dolcetto, two food-friendly sets of wines prized for their palate-cleansing juiciness, avoid vintages that feature hot weather in August and September.  Too much heat can compromise acidity in the wines and send grape sugars (and, ultimately, alcohol levels) soaring.  The same goes for Beaujolais, which is all about energy and easy drinkability, not weight and power.

Similarly, for white wines from France, such as Burgundy, the Loire Valley and Alsace, be suspicious of the very ripe years, where high alcohol and low acidity can blur the aromatic lift and distinctive soil character of the wines.  Even when big, hot-vintage reds have adequate balance, they generally require bottle aging to resolve their substantial tannins.  These are rarely the years that provide fresh, delineated wines for early drinking pleasure.