Believe the hype: why the 2009 vintage is good for middle-class collectors like us

We’ve opened up seating at our Festa del Rosato tasting tonight at Sotto in Los Angeles. We usually only seat on the patio for these events but the demand has been so great that we’ve taken over the entire restaurant. If you happen to be in LA tonight, please stop by and taste with me and Rory. Here’s the registration info.

gregorian chants italyAbove: the Abbazia di Sant’Antimo in Castelnuovo dell’Abate in the southern subzone of Brunello di Montalcino.

One of the things that sets the wine trade apart from other luxury goods categories is the rapport between storage and cash flow. Grape growers and winemakers — especially those who produce high-end wines — often have to wait years before they can sell their products. For them, every vintage is an investment and a gamble.

And when the wines don’t sell, winemakers are faced with a sometimes insurmountable problem: with unsold vintages in the cellar, they need to make room for the new wine being bottled. The storage and cash flow problem is compounded by the fact that many domestic distributors and international importers do not pay for the wine upfront.

External factors can also exacerbate these issues. The dark period following 9/11 and the 2007-2008 financial crisis are examples of this.

Of course, there’s also the other side of the coin. When a great vintage is followed by a tough low-yield vintage, bottlers have to scramble to fulfill their orders.

Beginning in the 1970s, when far-sighted bottlers began to see the potential of the export market, growers and winemakers started to become acutely aware of how market perception of a given vintage could drive or kill sales.

As various bottler associations began to emerge and come into focus during that period (the Brunello consortium, for example, was founded in 1967), producers began to align their marketing efforts. Like the growers who sold them the fruit, they realized that they could influence the way a given vintage was perceived and received by the trade and by consumers.

Collusion is too strong a word. But when pressed, any older Langa grower, winemaker, or bottler will quietly concede that there was a concerted effort within the trade to pump up the 1974 vintage in Barolo and Barbaresco. It was a strong vintage, although not a great one. But it followed a disastrous, rainy vintage in 1972 and a challenging vintage in 1973.

The 2007 vintage in Langa is an analogous case, in my view. It was a great vintage for certain producers, a good one for others. But at the time of its release, with the financial crisis still looming and a lot of wine from 2006 still in the cellar, I can remember distinctly how export managers tended to inflate its quality, even though it wasn’t one of the great, balanced, “classic” vintages of the decade.

As the great Italian wine writer Antonio Galloni noted on his excellent site Vinous Media last week, “every vintage can’t be epic.”

In an article entitled “2009 Brunello di Montalcino: The Day of Reckoning,” he writes:

    The 2009 growing season in Montalcino will be remembered by the massive heat wave that arrived suddenly in August of that year… The intense August heat caused sugars to mount faster than phenolic ripeness could be achieved. In some places, it is obvious the heat caused plants to shut down, blocking ripeness. In other spots, yields were too high for plants to carry their fruit through to full maturity.
    The 2009 Brunellos are some of the most uneven, problematic young wines I have ever tasted. As a group, the 2009s are forward, light in color and built for near-term drinking. Readers will see obvious signs of maturity in wines with advanced color and flavor profiles. In fact, many wines are already alarmingly evolved and mature.

(The complete article is available to all readers here. I can’t recommend it to you highly enough and I feel it’s such a great example of why Antonio is one of the best wine writers working today. His critical palate is always balanced by his judiciousness and his encyclopedic knowledge of Italian wine and wisdom in tasting are impeccable.)

abbey sant antimo montalcinoAbove: the Abbey is from the Romanico or Romanesque period of Italian architecture, when many Roman temples were converted to churches. That’s why there’s a pagan symbol in this capital.

But when Antonio advises the Brunello collector to make her/his purchases carefully where the 2009 vintage in Brunello is concerned, he’s not talking to me. He’s addressing buyers with much greater financial means than I will ever have. I do have a few bottles of Brunello in my 27-case locker in San Diego. But I can’t afford to collect Brunello, at least not the ones that I like. At $80+, they are out of my price range: my ceiling for wines I collect aggressively is around $65 and most of the bottles in my long-term aging collection fall between $35-50.

Ultimately, 2009 will prove to be a good vintage for middle-class collectors like me. Many producers have reclassified their wines, in part because the fruit isn’t as age-worthy and in part because they fear they won’t be able to move it out of their cellars.

And the wines, if not already ready to drink, will come around sooner. I don’t have unlimited storage space and I tend to drink most of the wine purchase on the earlier side. The 2009 Produttori del Barbaresco (classic) Barbaresco is such a great example of this, in my view. It’s not a wine that I will put down for long-term aging in my cellar. I’ll drink it now and over the next few years (although I will put a few bottles down so that I can maintain my complete vertical).

Writing this post, I can’t help but think about the 2002 Poggio di Sotto Rosso di Montalcino. Piero Palmucci didn’t make a Brunello that rainy year and he bottled all of his top fruit as Rosso. In 2006, when I was working for a high-profile wine seller in New York, you could buy it for a song. And it was ready to drink.

Poggio di Sotto lies a stone’s throw from the Abbazia di Sant’Antimo (pictured, above), where the monks still perform Gregorian chants every year, despite the weather conditions.

I agree wholeheartedly with Antonio that the 2009 harvest in Brunello won’t be the harvest that some growers have hyped it up to be. But sometimes, when you’re an average bourgeois punter like me, you just gotta have faith…

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