Columnist, Food

Staring at the vintage chart in the February issue of Wine Enthusiast magazine, my eyes began to blur. Red, purple, green, orange and blue squares merged into a vinous Rorschach test challenging me on which vintages to hold, drink or pour down the drain, with point scores showing the relative merits of each. The reputations of my palate and my cellar were at stake, if only in my own mind.

Then I focused and saw advice. Vintage charts represent the collective wisdom of a magazine’s reviewers, who taste thousands of wines each year, including current releases and older vintages. They are intended to guide collectors on which wine regions to buy or avoid in a given vintage, which to stash away and forget, or which to dig out of the boxes and racks in our basements, closets and temperature-controlled wine storage lockers.

There’s much to learn from even a casual read of a wine vintage chart. (Dave McIntyre)

The squares to the left of the chart, showing the most recent vintages, were red, purple and green, indicating wines to cellar; to either open now or hold for a few more years; or to pretty much hurry up and drink. Those to the right were mostly orange — “can drink, may be past peak” — or blue — “in decline, may be undrinkable.” Those squares signaled lost opportunities.

Vintage charts may seem irrelevant, since today’s consumers buy wine to drink it, not to collect it. We don’t parse the differences between the 2014 and 2015 Kendall Jackson Vintner’s Reserve Chardonnay or the Barefoot Cellars Merlot, because those wines are meant for everyday consumption and are produced to minimize vintage differences. They are consistent and reliable, like a good beer.

And yet there’s much to learn from even a casual read of a vintage chart. I’ve been drinking German Rieslings too soon, for example. While I enjoy the fresh acidity of a young Riesling, Wine Enthusiast’s chart suggests waiting several years. The “ready, at peak maturity” window for those wines begins at 2007 and goes back to 2001. Although younger vintages are rated “very good” to “excellent,” the chart suggests they’ll be even better in a few years. Same with red and white wines from New York’s Finger Lakes: The chart suggests we work through the 2011 through 2008 vintages this year. And Napa cabernets? Don’t open anything younger than 2012, but 2010 back through 2005 are best, according to Wine Enthusiast.

The chart also affirmed my enthusiasm for the 2015 vintage throughout Europe, consistently rated excellent or superb, with top “classic” ratings for Bordeaux’s Médoc region and for port. Those wines will be pricey, though. Some Bordeaux futures from 2015 are still available through stores such as MacArthur Beverages in the District, and I received a New Year’s Day email from Bounty Hunter Rare Wine & Spirits in Napa offering some last-chance deals. The real Bordeaux bargains however, will be in the lesser-known “petits châteaux,” affordable wines that excel in value in superb vintages such as 2015. Look for those on retail shelves in the coming months.

My eyes also gravitated to one of my favorite French regions, Beaujolais. These wines, from the gamay grape, are fun, food-friendly and consistently underrated. When Georges Duboeuf, the so-called “king of Beaujolais,” visited Washington last spring, he told me 2015 had been the best vintage for the region since the 1940s. Wine Enthusiast agrees, rating the Beaujolais vintage at 96 points out of 100, or superb, and giving us permission to drink these wines now, even though they should improve for at least a few years. (We are advised to “hold” most other European reds and several whites.)

Beaujolais cru wines, those named for various villages throughout the region, are just beginning to reach the market. The few I’ve tasted have been outstanding, and I’ll be on the alert for more throughout the year. One of my favorite Beaujolais importers, Falls Church-based Wine Traditions, has yet to bring in any 2015 Beaujolais cru, so there is much to anticipate.

Phil Bernstein, a wine consultant at MacArthur Beverages, says his store has about 20 Beaujolais from 2015 on sale. “I like the vintage, especially Fleurie and Brouilly,” he says, referring to two of the cru appellations. “It has attracted lots of folks who normally don’t drink Beaujolais.”

However, Bernstein says the unusual ripeness of the 2015 vintage disappoints some of his regular Beaujolais customers. “It’s too un-Bojo-like,” he quips.

Oh, well. More for the rest of us.