There is a phenomena that is unique to the world of fine wine that gives some winemakers sleepless nights, sends collectors on quests that are akin to searches for the Holy Grail itself, and provides ample employment opportunities for wine writers and critics alike: Vintage Variation.

For brewers and distillers, achieving consistency in their product is a common and overarching goal. But for producers of fine wines — particularly in cool climates — embracing inconsistency is more the norm. Most espouse the philosophy of “letting the grapes dictate the wine” by emphasizing the attractive characteristics that are presented by a particular vintage.

The primary cause of vintage variation is of course, weather.  Some varieties are more prone to reflect the effects of temperature, sunlight and precipitation during the growing season and naturally display more vintage variation than other varieties. For blended wines, the winemaker has the ability to either accentuate or diminish the impact of vintage variation through the addition or subtraction of varieties from the blend as well by changing the relative proportions of each of the varieties used.

One of the best ways to experience the vintage variation phenomena is through a vertical tasting. By tasting different vintages of the same wine, the impact of changes in growing conditions from year to year can often be evident. A second aspect of the wine that can also come through is its ageability. Assuming all of the wines tasted were stored in similar conditions, a vertical tasting can be a good way to experience the evolution of aromas and flavors that take place throughout the wine’s life.

I recently had an opportunity to experience the phenomena of vintage variation firsthand with two colleagues from the New York Cork Report’s Finger Lakes team. We got together for a vertical tasting of the Ravines Wine Cellars Mertiage, a wine that has been produced by noted winemaker, Morten Hallgren for nearly a decade and a half.

Our spouses joined us in tasting the 2005 through 2011 vintages.

Each of the bottles, with the exception of the 2011 vintage, had been stored in similar cellar conditions. Also, each bottle was opened one or two hours before the tasting.

As with any tasting experience, there was some diversity in our opinions of the wines. However, there was also a general consensus about the qualities that we found in each wine. The following is a summary of our collective thoughts and comments about each vintage from the tasting:

Ravines Wine Cellars 2005 Meritage (45% cabernet franc, 32% cabernet sauvignon, 23% merlot): The growing season for the 2005 vintage was exceptionally hot, sunny and dry which resulted in a balanced and structured wine. There is an abundance of dark fruit upfront and throughout with notes of tobacco, mushroom, cedar and spices layered in.  Tannins are soft and supple and provide a framework for a myriad flavors. Even though this vintage has nearly a decade of aging, none of us noticed any signs of it slowing down. The 2005 was “best in show” for most of us and is proof that high-quality red wines that are capable of graceful aging can be produced in the Finger Lakes.

Ravines Wine Cellars 2006  Meritage (58% cabernet sauvignon, 28% cabernet franc, 14% merlot). A long, cool growing season followed by a wet September culminated in a later-than-usual harvest giving this vintage exceptional flavor and proportion. This vintage also signaled a change to a more Left Bank-style blend with a much higher percentage of cabernet sauvignon employed. Spice and other secondary flavors took a backseat to rich, aromatic fruit. The 2006 also had far fewer layers than the 2005, but a longer finish. The wine had not diminished, but there was some agreement that it might not mature much beyond its current state. This was another example of a well-crafted wine that is capable of aging.  It was one taster’s favorite, but overall (it) was less preferred by the group than the 2005 and 2007 vintages.

Ravines Wine Cellars 2007 Meritage (62% cabernet sauvignon, 27% cabernet franc, 11% merlot). The 2007 vintage was the product of near-ideal conditions for red wines: mild winter, an unusually hot and dry summer and refreshing showers in August. Nearly perfect conditions persisted until mid-late October allowing the grapes to ripen to ideal levels. The 2007 had a subtle, but effective structure that provided a foundation for juicy and jammy dark fruits like currant, black cherry and plum. This vintage had both depth and length. Notes of spice and herb returned to a more prominent role.  This wine showed exceptional development, but still had room to grow before reaching its peak. It was our second favorite vintage tasted and only trailed the 2005.

Ravines Wine Cellars 2008 Meritage (64% Cabernet Sauvignon, 22% Cabernet Franc,14% Merlot). Exceptional growing conditions for red grape varieties continued in 2008 with the combination of warm summer days and cool summer nights, followed by warm and dry conditions in September and October. Those conditions allowed the grapes to intensify in aromas and flavors and imparted a clean, pure taste. There is plenty of fruit at the front of this wine, but it is brighter than what is found in previous vintages. Red cherry, raspberry and currant give the wine a much “younger” taste than previous vintages. Some tobacco and spice notes are beginning to show through, but this wine is more subtle than it is complex at this stage of its development. The 2008 is another example of an expertly-crafted wine, but fell more into the middle of the pack for our tasting.

Ravines Wine Cellars 2009 Meritage (64% cabernet sauvignon, 24% cabernet franc, 12% merlot). This vintage was challenged by a wet growing season that lacked consistent warmth and sunshine. But a warm and dry September allowed most varieties to rally although results were somewhat inconsistent.  However, this wine tells a different story. While the 2008 vintage was subtle and refined, the 2009 vintage is “in-your-face.” It starts with a powerful, but enticing nose that is woven with fruit, spice and earthy aromas. It has the highest level of acidity of the vintages that we tasted which is a perfect complement to the spicy and earthy flavors which otherwise could dominate. Although it was less subtle and lacked the layering of the 2005, it was similar in complexity. In terms of aging, the 2009 was an energetic “twenty-something” with its future still ahead of it.

Ravines Wine Cellars 2010 Meritage (62% cabernet sauvignon, 18% cabernet franc, 20% merlot) A warm, sunny and dry growing season was capped off rain and cooler temperatures in September resulted in more inconsistent results for reds in 2010. Merlot was harvested in early October, but Cabernets had to wait a few more weeks until being ready later in October. The 2010 vintage showed some of potential of what it might offer in the future with hits of cherry, plum and vanilla. But for now, it was primarily tannic and unopened. It was at this point in the tasting that we formed the collective opinion that we might have ventured into vintages that were too young for drinking.

Ravines Wine Cellars 2011 Meritage (72% cabernet sauvignon, 28% merlot). In 2011, growers were blessed with early spring followed by a warm, dry summer. Rains late in the season aided ripening and resulted in red varieties that were consistent and high quality. The 2011 vintage also saw a significant change in the Ravines’ Meritage through the elimination of cabernet franc from the blend. Despite our misgivings about having opened the 2010, we ventured ahead into the 2011. Fortunately, we felt somewhat vindicated when we tasted the wine. Although it was unmistakably a very young wine, it was beginning to show some hints of complexity and development.  It was constrained, but balanced and suggested that it was far from its full potential.

The vertical was a great format for tasting the impact that vintage variation can have on a wine. It highlighted the unique characteristics of each vintage and illustrated a clear progression of development in the wines from 2005 through 2011.

In terms of the individual wines, we each had our preferences. But there was general agreement across the group that the 2005, 2006 and 2007 vintages were in full maturity, while the 2008-2011 were still developing. One other interesting bit of tasting trivia that we discussed was the fact that aside from the 2011, the vintages that got the highest tasting scores from the group came from odd-numbered years. We will need to give the 2011 a few more years to age before we will see if that trend continues.

The Ravines Wine Cellars Meritage was a perfect wine for the tasting and we all agreed that was the right selection.  It is a high quality fine wine that is expertly crafted from some of the best fruit that the Finger Lakes has to offer.  New York Cork Report Correspondent Kevin Welch called it “the best red in the Finger Lakes” which is high praise from someone who knows Finger Lakes wines as well as he does.

If you want to experience the vintage variation phenomena for yourself, the best way is to put together your own vertical tasting. Choose a wine, invite some friends and enjoy!