The wine business is a little like the car business: It depends on a steady stream of design innovation. Each year a new model slightly different from the previous year’s debuts, raising expectations and ginning up interest.

From a winemaker’s point of view, a successful vintage has vines that get off to a good start, that flower and set fruit on schedule and receive enough sun and warmth to produce healthy, ripe fruit at harvest.

For the press and wine merchants, this isn’t really enough. Another ho-hum, no-trouble vintage doesn’t generate subscriptions or excitement. What’s wanted are vintages with something to crow about—that promise above-normal levels of ripeness, concentration and richness. Vintages of this kind may be heralded as once-in-a-decade (or even a century) events. They seem to come along with more frequency than ever.

But while blockbuster (or even marginally more robust) vintages drive sales and prices, they don’t always produce more drinkable wines. This is because very ripe grapes typically mean higher alcohol and less acidity—things that generally make wine less fresh, appetizing and food-friendly.

In a sense, then, wine drinkers are driven from pillar to post: Too little richness can make wine feel ungenerous, even a little mean; too-ripe vintages can lack the freshness and zip that constitute a big part of wine’s appeal.

To illustrate this in a recent radio segment, I offered Chris a taste of two pairs of reds, each consisting of back-to-back vintages of the same wine. In each case one vintage was, to my palate, demonstrably richer than its counterpart. The challenge for Chris, tasting blind, was first to put the pairs together, then tell me which of each pair was the richer and which the fresher, and finally to tell me which he preferred.

The wines we tasted for this segment were the 2014 and 2015 Vignobles Brunier “Le Pigeoulet” Vin de Pays de Vaucluse Rouge (around $20) and the 2013 and 2014 Monte Bernardi “Retromarcia” Chianti Classico (around $25). Each is in the process of a vintage change at Formaggio Kitchen, so fans are currently facing this very issue as they purchase these popular wines.

Le Pigeoulet is composed of classic southern Rhone grape varieties, including grenache, syrah, carignan and cinsault; Retromarcia is solely sangiovese. Chris did a fine job of correctly pairing the wines, like with like, and had no trouble identifying which vintage had made the fuller, richer wine. Good for him.

One of the pitfalls of tasting wines side by side is that it easily devolves into a beauty contest—the wine showing the most flesh and the curviest curves is awarded the roses. It takes a bit of experience and a judicious dollop of imagination to know, in a sip or two, how a wine will acquit itself at the table over several glasses and a couple of hours. But there’s something a bit more difficult to describe. I call it transparency: the sense that some wines give of being able to taste into and through them. I contrast this with wines that seem to be all surface and no interior. Often the culprit is just too much fruit—a product of very ripe, sometimes over-ripe, grapes.

In most cases, the scenario I’ve painted will be unrealistically and unnecessarily binary. Plenty of middle ground exists between wines that are just too lean to please and those too rich to be engaging. This was certainly the case in our segment, where each wine we tasted was both delicious and serviceable, even though Chris and I agreed that it was the fresher (less rich) of each pair that we preferred.

Riding the ups and downs of vintage variation is one of the delights of wine, and watching skilled winemakers negotiate these hills and valleys is a source of admiration. But the next time you hear that the new vintage in such and such a place is going to be one-in-a-century, don’t be too quick to jump in the queue. Bigger isn’t necessarily better.

—Stephen Meuse

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