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Looking for a nice Bordeaux? First the good news: You can still find the 2005 Chateau Margaux for sale. Now the bad news: It will set you back about $1,200 a bottle (or $50 an ounce). Even nonenthusiasts have heard about the hype surrounding the 2005 Bordeaux and their outrageous prices. It’s been touted as the “vintage of the decade.” Just like the 2003 wines were. And the 2000s before that. All this for wine that is no closer to being ready to drink than your 5-year-old is to legally drinking it. But the attention that these particular wines are getting raises the question of what exactly is a “great vintage.” Are these wines really so different and so superior that you should rejoice that your daughter recently decided to go to a state school instead of the Ivy League so you can go ahead and splurge on a case or two? The truth is, vintage means a lot less now than it did a few years ago. And if you drink mostly new world wines, vintage means very little. As an agricultural product, wine grapes are subject to the whims of Mother Nature. Vintage variation arises because, for example, some years are too hot, some too cold, and some just right. Other important variables include too little rain (vines can’t drink), too much rain (vines can drown or be washed away), sunlight (for a little thing I like to call photosynthesis), and freak events like hailstorms. SUN AND RAIN So what’s a good vintage? It’s when everything falls into place. The weather in spring is sunny and not too cool, allowing for the development of flowers that will give way to grape bunches. Summer consists of sunny and warm (but not too hot) days mixed with a little rain to “refresh” the vines. Harvest then occurs under sunny skies as the days cool a bit with the onset of fall. So long as the grape growers do their job and pick at the right time, the stage is set for winemakers to make great wine. But what does a good vintage mean for us wine drinkers? For one thing, it means, on the whole, that the resulting wines will have the components required to improve with age. But of more importance to the casual wine drinker, it means that we’ve got a better shot at buying a good wine at a good price since it’s easy for winemakers to make great wine at every level. The 2005 vintage in Bordeaux is a great example of this. The $1,200-a-bottle wines are fantastic, as one would expect, but the $10 to $20 wines are very good, too. But a less-than-great vintage doesn’t have to mean less-than-great wine. Grape-growing knowledge and technology have improved so dramatically over the past couple decades that even marginal weather conditions can be dealt with and overcome. This is especially true in places like California and Australia where skies are generally sunny and grape growers are free to water as they see fit. Similarly, winemakers have a lot more technology at their disposal to turn less-than-perfect grapes into good wine. They won’t talk about it — and some of it may not be quite legal — but winemakers can now extract excess water to make a more concentrated wine, extract alcohol if the sugar levels are too high, add powdered tannin for additional body, or even add sugar if the grapes didn’t get adequately ripe. While these techniques may not result in more “natural” wines, they have resulted in better wines. LESS IS MORE Lesser vintages can actually have advantages over the more touted years. One reason is that many of the wines are significantly less expensive. A 2004 Chateau Margaux (not a blockbuster like the 2005, but also well-rated) can currently be had for about $300 — a quarter the price of the 2005. For another, the wines may be more approachable at a young age. I have had great pleasure drinking the more open and accessible Viader (a Napa cabernet blend) from 1998 — Napa’s worst year in a decade — while I wait for the 1997 to open up, shed some astringent tannins, and smooth out. The 1997 will be the better wine, but the 1998 has been better to drink so far. In the end there is little reason for most wine drinkers to get hung up on vintage. If you like the wines from a certain producer, you will probably like them regardless of the year. If you do want to follow such things, a good rule of thumb is to buy from famous producers in off years and lesser known producers in great years. That should allow maximum “bang for your buck” in satisfying your Bordeaux craving.
Phillip Dub� is a freelance wine and food writer in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., and an attorney at Becker & Poliakoff.

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