You don’t have to know much about wine to have heard about “good years” and “bad years,” and perhaps even thrown the terms around cluelessly and nonchalantly during impromptu stops at roadside wineries. During a good year, the conditions for grape-growing are optimal, and the result is wine that is typically strong, fruity, full-bodied—and expensive. Bad years, by contrast, don’t necessarily taste bad, and since they’re cheaper than vino produced in “good” years, they can be fantastic values.
A recent Chow.com post takes a contrarian approach to the concept of good and bad years for wine, arguing that there’s often good reason to go bad.
Sure, “bad” vintages—wines from “bad years”—come from grapes grown while the weather and soil are less than ideal. Many wine enthusiasts, including the sommelier at one high-end New York City restaurant—like wine from “bad years” anyway.
(RealSimple.com: One-Day Holiday and Christmas Shopping Plan)
Why? For one thing, while it tastes different than wine from “good years,” different does not necessarily mean bad. Wine from a so-called bad year tends to be softer and thinner than most—and that suits many drinkers just fine, especially if they’re eating poultry or stir-fries, which pair better with these lighter wines.
What’s more, the wine produced from “bad years” of today is nothing like the wine resulting from bad years of old:
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.
Because wines from “bad years” really aren’t bad at all, they’re often terrific values compared to good vintages, which are priced at a premium for being stronger, bolder, and presumably better overall. Whether they actually are better, and better enough to justify a much higher price, is up to the individual to decide. On the surface, intentionally seeking out wine produced during a bad year may seem foolish, but in a way, it demonstrates a sophisticated knowledge of wine—and just as sophisticated a sense of value for the dollar.
The author of the Chow.com post, who also writes for high-profile foodie pubs like Food & Wine and is (obviously) a fan of “bad years,” offers a few highly subjective recommendations for some of the best wines from bad years:
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.
Brad Tuttle is a reporter at TIME. Find him on Twitter at @bradrtuttle. You can also continue the discussion on TIME’s Facebook page and on Twitter at @TIME.
MORE: Wine Flash Sales: How to Buy Deeply Discounted Bottles of Vino