A toast to the rewards of 'off' vintages

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Let us all lift our glasses to the "off" vintages.

They come from the years when the rains came too early, or not often enough. They come from the years when the sun beat down too hard, or not hard enough. They come from the years of frost, of hail, of mildew.

And they come quite often.

That's because the term "off" vintage does not apply only to the years that brought catastrophe to the vineyards. Years such as 1963 or 1965, when the grape crop in Bordeaux turned into a rotten mess, 8l are fortunately rare.

Most "off" vintages are simply years when things did not turn out perfectly. They are years the market never embraced -- not necessarily because the wines were bad, but because some vintage chart told them the year before or the year after was better.

For smart, adventurous consumers, "off" vintages are opportunities. It's a risky buying strategy, but it can yield great rewards, not just in fine wine but also in the good feeling you get from scoring a bargain.

An example: In one Maryland-area wine shop, the 1990 Paul Jaboulet "La Chapelle" Hermitage, a Rhone Valley wine that is one of the world's greatest reds, costs about $55. But the "La Chapelle" from the much-vilified 1984 vintage costs only $18 at the same shop, and it's a complex, robust wine that you can drink now.

The 1984 "La Chapelle" is a vivid illustration of the tyranny of vintage perception. People get it fixed in their minds that a year is not a good one, and they stretch that little crumb of knowledge into a smorgasbord of misunderstanding. Retailers tell stories of customers who refused to buy 1984 California cabernets because they had heard it was a subpar year -- in Bordeaux.

In fact, short of total disaster, a difficult vintage is an opportunity for the best winemakers to shine. In Alsace, for instance, 1986 is regarded as no better than an average year, but the great producer Zind-Humbrecht produced some late-harvest gewurztraminers that are near perfection.

But Americans are notorious "cherry-pickers." When a "Vintage of the Century" comes along -- as it seems to do every three or four years -- we hit the wine stores as if we were re-enacting the D-Day invasion. Otherwise, we ignore the vintage entirely. There are some magnificent wines on the market that just aren't selling.

As many stock market investors know, it often pays to watch the way the herd is running and do the opposite. It isn't a sure-fire winner, because sometimes the herd is right, but there are ways to cut the risks of off-vintage wine purchasing.

* Know what you're talking about. Beginners should stick to good vintages and well-known names. You need to know who the top producers are and whether they have a track record of making fine wine in less-than-perfect years.

* Deal with a capable wine merchant who tastes what he sells and doesn't blow smoke. Ask what he thinks of several off-vintage wines in his store and if he says they're all wonderful, walk out.

* Insist on getting your just "reward" for taking a slow-selling item off a retailer's hands. The more dust on the bottle, the better the price should be.

* Don't hesitate to bargain over a wine that you know isn't moving.

For instance, if a 1987 from a top Tuscan estate has been marked down from $30 to $25, but that's still a little rich for your blood, tell the merchant you might be interested if it were $18. Some retailers might get huffy, but others will be glad to sell it rather than watch it sit for another six months. The worst they can do is say no.

(This works best if you're dealing with the owner or manager. Generally, hired salespeople don't have the discretion to wheel and deal over price. And, please, don't try to haggle over quarters. Retailers have enough aggravation.)

* Be prepared for a few disappointments. Off vintages aren't off-vintages for nothing.

Among the off-vintages on the marketplace now that offer potential values are:

California: By California standards, 1988 was a mediocre year for cabernet sauvignon. The 1989 vintage, heavily hit by harvest rains, was somewhat better. A few producers, such as Laurel Glen, overcame adversity and excelled.

With 1990 and 1991 performing much better, you can expect to see many 1988s and 1989s being sold at cut-rate prices. Wait for the market to come to you, and buy carefully. The same advice applies to 1989 chardonnays.

Bordeaux: The 1987 vintage produced some charming wines for early consumption. In some cases, early has come and gone, but the best wines are just about at their peak. Most of these wines have been discounted from Day 1.

Burgundy: Neither 1986 nor 1987 was a poor vintage for Burgundy, but neither has sold particularly well. Many retailers are eager to get rid of what remains. Buy opportunistically. There's good guidance available here from Robert M. Parker Jr.'s book "Burgundy." Many of the better retailers keep a copy to refer to themselves.

Rhone: Much like Burgundy, 1986 and 1987 fell between more popular vintages. The 1986 Rhones tend to be overly tannic, the 1987s a bit light, but both vintages produced some good wines that are now being discounted. For Chateauneuf-du-Pape, 1987

was not an off-vintage; it was a stinker. Avoid it. But look to the 1987 Cote Roties for opportunities.

Germany: There isn't much 1987 wine left, but if it's inexpensive and carries a Terry Thiese Selection label, it's worth a try. This is a vintage that appeals to riesling purists who aren't shy about acid and like their wines dry. The 1986 vintage was flabby overall, but there were some magnificent sweet wines made in the Rheinpfalz.

Alsace: Watch for 1986 and 1987 special bottlings from good producers at sale prices. Avoid regular bottlings. Buy Zind-Humbrecht wines at full price if you ever see them.

Italy: Retailers wildly overpaid for the middling 1986 and 1987 vintages from Tuscany and Piedmont, so even the greatest producers' wines are taking big discounts. You should be able to pick up some of these at retailer's cost. There are some real sleepers among the 1987s.

Keep in mind when buying wines from any of these regions that you are in the driver's seat. There's a vast amount of wine in the pipeline waiting to be sold. If you wait, the bargains will come.

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