A friend of mine who imports wines was touring Vinitaly with a friend who was planning to open a wine shop. They were tasting, and she found something she liked; as they were leaving the producer's booth, he asked, "Did you get the lot number?"
"The what?" she said. They went back.
You may be wondering why J thought lot numbers were so important. After all, So-and-So's 20__ vintage is So-and-So's 20__ vintage.
Well, yes and no. If So-and-So works all of the wine at once, and bottles it all at once, it is.
However, if there is enough of the wine that So-and-So divides it into several tanks and bottles them separately, each tank is a distinct entity, and though the winemaker will likely try to treat them alike, things can vary from one to the next.
How? First of all, differences in tank time can result in slight differences in the various lots. Second, wines in different tanks can evolve differently, even if they're treated alike: One tank may be in a slightly cooler spot in the building. Something settles out that doesn't in another that is a little warmer. In this case the differences in the lots can be minor, but they can also be substantial.
Or the wines in the different tanks can receive radically different treatments. Some friends of mine tried leaving one tank of one of their white wines on the lees for longer than the others, to see what would happen.
- The wine from the normal lots was brassy gold with gold highlights, with an elegant bouquet with floral notes, warmth, sea breezes, and hints of white chocolate; on the palate it was smooth, full, round, and crisp, but not tart, with rich fruit that led into a clean persistent finish with slight bitter almond notes. A big wine with tremendous finesse.
- The special lot was obviously cut from the same cloth, but on steroids: Intensely charged brassy gold with gold highlights, and floral notes laced with sage, herbs, almost caramel-like sugary overtones, and bitter almonds in the bouquet. Pleasing but somewhat biting, and so powerful that the individual nuances interfere with each other. On the palate it was huge, with tremendous fruit and a powerful, very long, finish with extremely intense bitter almond overtones.
"In retrospect, we should have called the special lot something else," says the winemaker, adding that they burned their fingers badly: The experiment confused their customers. Those already familiar with the wine, who thought they knew what they were getting, were quite upset by the special bottles, while those who discovered the wine by buying a special bottle were equally upset to discover that most of the wine was lighter.
Lots are, alas, not always created equal.