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Ask a Somm: Should I Care About Wine Vintages?

Welcome to Ask a Somm, a column in which experts from across the country answer questions about wine. Wondering about a bottle? Drop us a line.

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Maude, in Los Angeles, is chef Curtis Stone's first ever solo restaurant, and one that proffers a California-style tasting menu dedicated to a different seasonal ingredient each month. So while the kitchen has its work cut out, so too does sommelier Ben Aviram who oversees the tasting menu's beverage pairings. Below, Aviram considers the importance of wine and vintages.

Q: Is there an easy way to understand wine vintages? If 2010 was a good year in France, does that mean it was a good year in California? Are vintages across the board or do they vary by region? Any tips you can offer to understanding which years to look for at restaurants?

Elizabeth Daniels

Photo by Elizabeth Daniels

Aviram: I find that vintages can be one of the most misunderstood and over emphasized points on a wine list. There is so much minutia of micro-climates and seasonal events that go into determining if the 2008 is better than the 2009 of any particular wine. And really, with all but the biggest lists, it’s unusual to be confronted with the dilemma of selecting between multiple vintages of the same wines. How can the average consumer be expected to keep up with these nuances?

There’s no correlation between a good vintage in Bordeaux and a good vintage in Napa. Often vintage quality can be dramatically different from one region to another within the same country or from one part of an appellation to another. Even if one is able to take all that vintage information into account, modern winemaking techniques in the hands of talented winemakers have made vintage variation less influential than it once was.

... modern winemaking techniques in the hands of talented winemakers have made vintage variation less influential than it once was.

Some of my favorite wines have been the outliers. Amazing wines made by brilliant winemakers in otherwise less than desirable vintages. A classic example of this unpredictability can be found in the lauded 1982 vintage of Bordeaux. The "Vintage of the Century," though many such years have been declared the same since. If you take 1982 Château Margaux as an example, the 1983 has, in fact, been drinking better up until most recently. The line is fuzzy now, and down the track a few more years the 1982 will likely overtake the 1983, but it’s one example of how misleading the general perception of a vintage can be. It comes down to trusting the person curating the list, your sommelier. That person is probably the best person to look to for guidance. Often "rock star" vintages draw attention away from other great wines but aren’t the best drinking wines on the list right now. For example, 2005 was a year that got a lot of attention, but I can’t tell you how much 2005 red Burgundy was consumed far too young when perfectly delicious 2006 or 2004 was available and often at less cost.


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