Liquids: Wines to Buy in 2005

Celebrating the new year in wine terms is sort of retrospective: We look forward to tasting the past. Because all good wine must age for at least six months—if not five years—it’s quite rare to drink a wine the same year it was made (save for Beaujolais Nouveau). It’s also hard to keep up with which vintages, exactly, will arrive on wine-shop shelves in any kind of order. But we can definitely look forward to opening bottles this year that were minted during the Clinton administration. And if that’s not reason enough to invert a bottle while reading Remembrance of Things Past, I don’t know what is.

To be fair, a lot of great things have happened since Bubba—at least in the winemaking world. But when I say “great,” I need to qualify it: A vintage (or year) is usually deemed great when the conditions for grape growing are optimum—meaning hot, sunny days and little rain. What’s great for the grapes is usually bad for the people who live where the grapes are growing. This is especially true here in the Northeast, where the weather isn’t typically ideal for grape growing except in drought years (1999 and 1997, for example), so in years that have us all melting through our summers, the grapes at places like Westport Rivers Winery are ripening beautifully.

That said, we haven’t had a good drought in a while in these parts. But you may recall that many parts of Europe got clobbered in 2003, especially the Mediterranean countries that are home to many of the best grape-growing regions. Remember? It was so hot the French were swimming in the fountains of Paris. If you don’t, you will once you taste a glass of just about any bottle of wine from France, Italy, or Spain bearing this terrific vintage. In fact, wines with a 2003 vintage are being touted as nothing short of extraordinary. And they’ll be here this year.

Retailers I spoke with who have already tasted samples of the 2003s from France, Italy, and Spain are optimistic—if not giddy—about the intense quality of the reds and whites alike, characterized by rich, vibrant fruit flavor even in wines that are traditionally more acidic than fruity. Roger Ormon, wine manager at Brookline Liquor Mart in Allston, says he thought at first that the record-breaking heat wave would have overwhelmed winemakers. Then he tasted the 2003 white Burgundies. “They were all quite pretty, fresh, understated wines; obviously they did take great care to use less new oak, making much better use of the previous year’s barrels to preserve acidity,” he says. “I’m hoping it will be the same in Bordeaux.”

So is David Raines, wine director at Gordon’s Fine Wine in Waltham, who thinks 2003 will be a watershed year for lesser-known producers from all over the Mediterranean, especially Bordeaux’s cru bourgeois—the relatively unknown wines priced in the $20 to $30 range. He also thinks Beaujolais has a shot at stepping out beyond its nouveau party-wine image. “The 2003 Beaujolais is unlike anything before, with extreme ripeness and interesting wines in a category many people have avoided.” If you see 2003 on a bottle in the wine shop or on a wine list, buy it. From Italian barberas to Spanish tempranillos, Ormon says, “even from unknown winemakers, the wines are just extraordinary.”

What else should you buy this year? Gregg Berman of Berman’s Wine & Spirits in Lexington says 2001 cabernet sauvignons from California are hot, too. “It’s the best vintage they’ve had, if not ever, since 1994, which would be a comparable vintage,” he says. High-end California wine prices have also come down. “They’ve leveled off because of the economy,” Berman says. He says we’ve also become more savvy—and demanding—about what we’re willing to pay. “People who would spend $100 a bottle are conscious of the fact that good wine can be had at $30 a bottle, too, which is probably a trend that started after 9/11—the high end of this industry is still trying to recover from that.”

Which means we’re still looking for value, but we’re better educated and therefore choosier. “People are also interested in new discoveries,” says Chip Coen, vice president at wine distributor M.S. Walker. Coen says the most interesting wine values this year will come from South America, New Zealand, Australia, South Africa, the Iberian peninsula, and Eastern Europe.

I think Coen sums up our collective New Year’s resolution when he says, “We seem to want better, more, closer, faster—and all with less oak!”

I’ll raise my glass to that and wish you all a happy New Year.