Part of the human experience is marking the passage of time. We count, celebrate, remember and start anew on an annual basis. Humans have been blessed, and occasionally cursed, with the ability to take stock of decisions, evaluate them, turn them over, and put them away, and often, revisit them later.
I recently had the honor of seeing 36 years of decisions, risks, and labor bottled in the cellar of Tertre Roteboeuf in Saint-Émilion. Its owner, François Mitjavile, looking over thousands of lovingly stacked bottles representing his life’s work, disputed the idea that there are “good” years for certain types of wine. Instead, he insisted, a “good year” is another name for an easy one. When conditions are perfect, even marginal winemakers and vineyards can succeed. It is the difficult years that are most instructive about the land, the grape vines and ultimately, the wine. At Tertre Roteboeuf, each vintage represented something that Monsieur Mitjavile learned about his craft, his land, his vines, or himself.
When ordering wine, everyone wants to have the best experience possible. As a result, it is those critically acclaimed years -- for recent years in Bordeaux, that means 2000, 2005, 2009 and 2010 -- are in the highest demand. It is true, in choosing wines from those years, there is an increased chance that the bottle will be more polished, as well as better suited for aging. And a year that made the wine easy to make will also typically make it easy to enjoy. But, like choosing a wine from a less prestigious region, wines from “off-years” -- in Bordeaux this includes 2007, 2011 and 2013 -- offer a great opportunity to learn.
Wines from lesser vintages showcase the characteristics of a grape, the land, or the winemaker’s technique that can be obscured in the better years. It is like studying the sketchbook of a great artist. Yes, the masterpiece garners all of the attention, but sometimes greater insight about the artist’s process and intent are revealed in the preparatory work leading up to the masterpiece. Only in studying the sketches can a more complete appreciation of the masterpiece be gained. Plus, wines from the same producer often fluctuate dramatically in price from year to year, so off-years can offer a much greater value.
The tendency to focus on the greatest hits, whether it be in wine, art, or one’s own life is appealing. However, very little growth comes from the great years when life was easy. As Monsieur Mitjavile made me appreciate, when marking time, it is just as important to respect the difficult years, because that is where true greatness finds its root.