2008 in Australia
  I was heading home one day when Steve, a wine guy at the Skokie Binny's, handed me a bottle of 2008 Steeple Jack Shiraz. He said it was the best six dollars I could spend on wine. The recommendation came with a warning, though: he told me not to expect the simple cherry pie filling standard in Australian shiraz at that price. I bought one (for six bucks, why not?) and drank it that night.

  I had tasted the 2006 when it first arrived. I found my notes in the file I keep: red fruits, then some spicy qualities, turning funky on the finish. Not too complex, but not bad for a six dollar bottle.

  In comparison, the 2008 Steeple Jack Shiraz is great. I'm not going to say that it will knock your socks off (the internet is no place for hyperbole!) but I will say that it drinks like a $15 shiraz and costs $6. On top of lots of heavy fruits (think dark red raspberry) there's a healthy amount of herbal backbone, keeping things in focus and offering a level of complexity that you don't often see at this price.

  So I reported back to Steve. I told him that the '08 blows the '06 out of the water, that it's a good bottle of wine and a fantastic value. He agreed, adding, "That shows you the impact of the vintage even on the cheap stuff." I agree.

  By the way, most everything I've read about the 2008 vintage in Australia has been relatively negative. The story is always about how hot it was, especially late in the season. This heat caused moisture to evaporate from the grapes, resulting in low yields and high levels of sugar. From what I've tasted mostly inexpensive wines so far the reds have been great, if a little overblown and overextracted. I'm okay with that. We're seeing great shiraz values like the Steeple Jack, Stump Jump, Boxhead, Marquis Philips, and more. We're still waiting for most of the reviews to roll in, but I'm guessing the vintage will be declared more successful after the top-notch wines are released.


2007 in the Rhone

  Another recent vintage that has caught my eye is 2007 in the Rhone. I've tasted quite a few 07's, characteristically showing intense, heavy fruit framed in a tannic or herbal edge. I've found many under $20 that have been outstanding, like the Piaugier Sablet Cotes du Rhone Villages, with dominant black and blue raspberry along with notes of cola and licorice, all for $15 (on sale through February for $12.99)! Or the slightly more refined and rustic Chateau des Roques Vacqueyras, with raspberry and plum and dried orange peel supported by a tight 'tea leaf' herbaceous quality, for just two bucks more. After tasting these side by side with more expensive wines of the region, I started to wonder why anyone would ever want to spend the extra money for a more expensive bottle.

  So I was pretty stoked on the 2007's, but then I found myself at a tasting of French wines that were mostly unrepresented here in the Chicago market. I discovered a whole new world of '07 Rhones thin, herbal, coppery, lazy and simple wines that had none of the vintage character I was looking for. What a letdown. But I realized two things: 1) vintage isn't always everything, and 2) the wine buyers at Binny's do a pretty good job of seeking out the best (nobody tell them I said that).


So Then

  All this was on my mind early last week when I sat in on a seminar about the "Terroir, Diversity, and Complexity of Brunello di Montalcino, Chianti Classico and Vino Nobile di Montepulciano." After pushing through a solid presentation and tasting nine good but vaguely samey wines (from excellent 2004 and 2006 vintages), the conversation turned to a Q&A with representatives from the Tuscan regions.

  One member of the audience asked for a recap of all of the vintages of this century for Brunello di Montalcino. The esteemed representative of the region, whose name I should have written down, cordially gave his opinion of each vintage since 2000. He was speaking in Italian, and everything was translated. After finishing, he offered this:

  "People who drink from vintage charts drink vintages, when they should drink wine.... You should trust a good winemaker to make great wine in any year. Drink the wine, not the vintage."