From Burgundy to Barolo, winemakers are smiling this fall. With the help of an exceptionally long and sunny summer, Europe is having another of its magical "9" years. In varying degrees 1969 (outside Bordeaux), 1959 and 1949 all were memorable vintages, and the wines of 1929 set the standard for the century.
It is too early to make quality judgement, but there should be a relative ocean of wine in the aging vats. California, too, has had a copious crop. Following 1968, which was a quality year in most wine regions but one short on quantity (California excepted), the situation should be ripe -- in the dogma of classical economic theory -- for a drop in prices. Others factors intrude, however. The given is that there will be a good deal of wine. The variables include inflation, costs of production, the continuing struggle between growers and shippers, pride and how big a piece of pie various merchants along the vineyard-to-table pipeline decide they can slice off without overly offending everyone else.
In sum, there will be, eventually, a good deal of good quality wine on retail shelves labeled "1979." The large yield is good news because if it had been small and, worse yet, of very good quality, the whole house of cards might come tumbling down. There have been some problems, of course. The Napa and Sonoma harvests in California weren't complete before rain and a cool spell occurred that may affect the quality of the cabernet sauvignon. In Italy and Bordeaux, as well, the early harvested grapes were in nearly perfect shape, but those who waited found the weather playing tricks on them. Burgundy fared well, as did the merlot-dominated wines of Bordeaux. Germany's harvest is not yet complete.
The strategic importance of such a vintage is far less than it would have been years ago, or even early in this decade. The trade's economic situation -- and the world's for that matter -- is such that it will be difficult for Washington consumers to make any long range buying decisions based on either the size or the quality of this harvest.
Furthermore, with the current state of the art, one has to be very careful in accepting vintage assessments. Most, but by no means all, 1979 wines will be called "good" or "very good." But "very good" doesn't necessarily equate with "very tasty" or "fun to drink." Despite the radical change in consumer habits (drinking wines younger and demanding wines with more fruit and less acids), the kneejerk habit continues of calling years that produce hard, slow-maturing reds -- such as 1975 and 1961 -- "great" and downgrading the tremendously fruity and easy-to-like red wines of vintages such as 1978. The copious Bordeaux vintage of 1973, which produced light but drinkable wines, has been decried as "commercial," and even 1970 clarets have taken some potshots for falling short of ideal specifications, for what they might not be at the turn of the century. For much of this decade, though, they were the best buys on the red wine market.
Perhaps there is a need for a new nomenclature. Hard, complex wines charged with tannin produced in Bordeaux from the harvests such as 1961, 1966 and 1975 should be called "connoisseur's wines." Buy them with the fore knowledge they must be laid away for a dozen years or more before they can be expected to even resemble the descriptions you will read in books. And be prepared to gamble. The 1966s are rounding into shape. In my opinion, some of the 1961s never will. Don't apologize for the forward vintages, if they are well balanced wines. Call them good, even "great" if they will afford great pleasure to those who buy and drink them.
There has been too much talk of the evil of modified methods of winemaking. Too many Californians have been taken to task because their cabernets "mature too soon" and may not prove worthy 30 or 50 years hence. Those who insist on the classic form and on making wines that wend their way to maturity over two decades or more should be recognized. But they should not be idealized to the point that wine -- and vintage -- appraisal fails to serve the consumer with a thirst for wines to drink soon after purchase.