Wines from “Bad Years” Are Secretly Delicious

Paul Blow

Fred Jones, a sommelier at Hearth in New York, recently told me of his success in pairing a 2004 Bordeaux with food. It was softer and friendlier than a lot of wines he could have chosen, not overpowering to the food, and best of all from the customer's perspective, it was a less expensive Bordeaux. Go figure: It was wine from a "bad year."

Bad years, a.k.a. bad vintages, mean that the conditions (weather, soil) weren't optimal, and hence the wine isn't as strong as in "good years." But I like bad years. So does Jones. And here's why you should like them too.

1. They're cheaper. Wines from good vintages are big and fruity, clean and full-bodied. But, just as often, they are heavy and tannic, unapproachable when young, and—worst of all—expensive. I laughed when I read the following line in an online article a few weeks ago: "At this early stage of vintage 2011, some Bordeaux vintners are expressing relief that they haven't produced another great harvest this year." France's famous southwestern region has enjoyed a "vintage of the century" every couple of years, attended by an enormous spike in prices. Now, even midlevel Bordeaux is outside the reach of financial mortals. On the other hand, the occasional lesser vintages can be snapped up for good prices.

2. They're ready to drink now. The wine is somewhat thinner, softer, less concentrated, and less likely to age for decades in the cellar. Well, that's a wine I want to drink. Why? Because it's ready to go. We should thank nature for sending us the occasional inexpensive, soft, friendly, short-lived wine. These are the perfect things to quaff lustily while those iconic bottles slowly trudge toward some state of readiness (if they ever arrive).

3. They pair better with weeknight dinners. Off-vintage wines may not be what we want to uncork with a thick, dripping slab of rib-eye, but who's eating steak like that more than once or twice a month? Rather, these lighter wines are perfect accompaniments to the chops, chicken, bean soups, curries, and stir-fries that make up our more quotidian diets.

4. There really is no such thing as a bad year. There are hardly ever "bad" vintages anymore. The global wine economy is just too competitive to allow producers to release the kind of thin, swampy, painfully green wines that originally made us fear bad vintages. Winemaking skill and technology have become so ubiquitous that producers have the means to deal with most problems. And if it was a truly wretched year—underripe fruit, rain, rot—producers will often not release the wine. They'll sort out bad fruit, even if it means reducing their crop by half or two-thirds, rather than risk the potentially crippling damage that a bad score or stalled sales can do to their reputation. Some vintages might not be as charming as others, but bad—as in brutally flawed—wines hardly exist anymore, meaning that our risk of buying something truly displeasing is really quite low.

So what are the good "bad years"? Of course, I don't mean to suggest that great vintages shouldn't be celebrated. But in these cash-strapped times, I'm happy to let others empty their bank accounts for 2007 Napa wines while I drink 2008. The same with 2009 Beaujolais and red Burgundy—if it's my money, I'm happy with 2008. So maligned was 2007 Pinot Noir from Oregon and so hyped was 2008. Well, guess what? Many of those 2007s are shaping up to be pretty delicious right now—and, best of all, they're available at good prices.

Jordan Mackay is a San Francisco–based wine and spirits specialist whose work has appeared in publications such as Gourmet, the Los Angeles Times, Food & Wine, and Decanter. Follow him on Twitter. Follow CHOW too, and become a fan on Facebook.