Wine writers always like to play the Good Vintage/Bad Vintage game . . . as if vintages were that black and white. Take for instance, Oregon’s 2007 and 1997 vintages. (My apologies for having appropriated Eric's photo from his website without formal permission).
Both of these vintages have been described as “problematic,” “difficult,” “weak,” and assorted other epithets. 1997 was remembered as a high yield, wet vintage that produced watery, high-acid wines with a lack of fruitiness—at least, that is what some critics claimed. 2007 was also a wet vintage with wines that seem to lack color, have high-acidity, and diluted fruit. It certainly wasn't like 2006 . . . or 2004, 2003, 2002, 2001, 2000, 1998, & 1999 (it might have been a little like 2005).
Is all this true? Of course it is . . . and isn’t.
In the Willamette Valley (a little less so in warm-climate Oregon) vintage variation is a vital element of the winemaking scene. Too cool in the spring and flowering can be hindered, affecting the nature of the vintage. Too hot in the summer and sugars can develop too fast and unevenly. Rain during harvest can panic inexperienced winemakers into picking too soon, and veterans can be fooled into thinking things will dry off after the first rains.
All of these things (and more! . . . as they say) happened in 1997 and 2007. Hence, 1997 has become a "bad" vintage and 2007 is getting similarly dissed by some wine critics.
Here it is 10 years after the 1997 vintage and I just had a phenomenally good Willamette Pinot noir from that supposedly terrible vintage. It was from Eric Hamacher and it was wonderful. He disproves the "bad vintage thesis."
His 1997 wine was full of color, belying its older origins. The aromas were trademark Oregon with full fruitiness and a foundation of earthy dust. The body was not the traditional thick Pinot we’ve seen so many of in recent years, but rather had a silky and diaphanous quality that was quite sensuous, and yet packed full and balanced flavors, with fruitiness that was forward, and fresh. It wasn’t a light or insubstantial wine, quite the opposite. There was good force to the flavors and superb balance throughout. A thoroughly delightful Oregon Pinot noir from what is traditionally considered a thoroughly forgettable vintage.
This Hamacher Pinot noir proved 1997 was a great vintage . . . at least for a winemaker of Eric Hamacher’s skills.
You see, in the end, the winemaker can trump the vintage. Sure, there were not so great wines in 1997 (you want a list?) but that is no reason to damn the whole vintage. There were also wonderful 1997 wines made as well (and I have a list of those, too), as the Hamacher Pinot proved.
So when you read about how problematic any particular vintage is . . . such as 2007 . . . take it with a grain—no, a carload—of salt. And look for producers that have proven themselves vintage after vintage, good, bad, or indifferent as the critics call it.
As always, drink (and think) for yourself!