Some people dismiss the importance of wine vintages purely because they don’t understand them or are confused by them. The confusion is obvious when you hear questions such as “does vintage mean old and expensive; is the vintage the year that the wine is bottled? Is it the year that the wine is made or the year that the bottles are released to market?”
So let’s confront the confusion by addressing what we mean when we refer to wine vintages. A wine’s vintage indicates the year that the grapes are picked/harvested, the relevance of which I’ll cover in the rest of this post.
According to Wikipedia, the word vintage was first used in the early 15th Century and taken from the Old French word vendage, meaning wine harvest. In turn, they say that this word was taken from the Latin vinum (wine) and demere (to remove).
So, now that we understand what a vintage refers to, we can discuss whether it’s important to know about it, or not. During the post, I’ll use the word vintage and year interchangeably.
In general, you can take it that almost all still wines come from a single vintage and that year will be printed on the label. There are a few exceptions such as fortified and sparkling wines (including Champagne), which are frequently blended from different vintages. This is done mainly to adhere to a ‘house style’ but, however, in spectacular years a Vintage Champagne or Vintage Port will be made. Also, some mass produced bottles of wine (or cheaper ones) may not have a vintage on the bottle for reasons I’ll explain later.
The other question that I am always asked with regard to vintages is – why should one vintage be any different from another? To which my simple response is that it all relates to the weather.
Wine vintages can be greatly affected by the weather in that year.
- (North America and Europe) the grape growing season is from about April to October.
- In the Southern Hemisphere (Argentina, New Zealand, etc.) the growing season is from October to April (and vintage-dated with the later year).
The thing about wine growing regions is that they have what are known as micro-climates. As a result, different grapes respond to different climatic conditions in their own individual way. Therefore you could say that a vintage reflects a regions weather patterns in a given year.
Galileo wasn’t far wrong when he said that “wine is sunlight, held together by water” because, in essence, the defining feature of a vintage is sunshine. This is because long sunny days (and cool nights) afford the grapes the opportunity of reaching full maturity (optimum ripeness). Alternatively, if a region gets too much rain, grapes will not ripen enough and tend to be of a lower quality.
It is worth saying here that as much as climatic conditions can affect a wine crop, it is generally held that a good winemaker can make a good wine from bad grapes but an average winemaker can still only make an average wine (even from good grapes). And furthermore, extreme weather conditions can ruin any vintage for any producer – good or bad.
A good winemaker can make a good wine from bad grapes but an average winemaker can still only make an average wine (even from good grapes).
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In days of old, when wines were at the mercy of Mother Nature, vintage was everything. However, in today’s tech-driven environment the winemaker has plenty of modern tools available to combat and compensate for less than good weather conditions.
Winemakers can introduce various strains of yeast to influence the aromatics or change the texture to suit certain palates. They can use reverse osmosis to bring down alcohol levels and use additives to enhance colour components.
After reading the paragraphs above, you may be deciding that perhaps wine vintages are irrelevant and not important but before you do – let’s get back to the weather.
How the Weather can affect Wine Vintages.
As already mentioned, various weather conditions will affect a wine growing season, for better or for worse e.g. above average sunshine, wet summers, frosty springs, rainy autumns etc. As a result, when you know the type of weather conditions that prevailed for a certain year, you should also have better knowledge about the potential quality of that crop.
- In Springtime, if there are frosts or hail they can influence crops by breaking off flowers/buds which will reduce the crop volume. The quality might not be affected but the length of the growing season could have a detrimental effect. Supply may be affected.
- A wet summer can cause fungal diseases and conversely, a drought can influence the quality of the grapes. A wet harvest (Autumn) can cause the grapes to swell, thereby diluting the quality of the juice or worse still – causing rot. Quality might be affected.
Knowing what grapes prefer what climates can further help your determination of a ‘good year’. However, I don’t intend to get into those variations in this post. Suffice to summarise that vintages are influenced by prevailing weather conditions and therefore, quality and volume can be affected.
When you hear someone say – that was a bad vintage, they are referring to the effect of the weather conditions on the wine crop, in that year. With this point in mind, an interesting thing about wine vintages to note is that they are less important in some regions than in others.
For instance, if a region has a fairly consistent climate the vintages won’t differ as much year in, year out. Also, as alluded to above, some very large producers manipulate vintage variations so as to produce wine for specific audience tastes.
These large producers are data-driven and as such, the vintage is less important.
Considerable debate swirls around (pun intended) as to who exerts more influence over a given bottle of wine – the vintage or the vintner.
The debate has two sides, obviously. Those large producers are criticised for over manipulating a wine so that it tells little of the growing season’s story. Conversely, not intervening to help a wine after a particularly harsh season receives its share of criticism also (perhaps a discussion for another post).
Considerable debate swirls as to who exerts more influence over a given bottle of wine - the vintage or the vintner.
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Are Wine Vintage Charts still Important or even Relevant?
Another topic I’d like to discuss, which is closely related to vintages is the use of wine vintage charts. I see people coming into Green Acres to browse our wine selection with a smartphone app opened to check the vintages. Whilst this is fine, I believe that they should really chat with myself or James so we can explain the variations to them.
You see, vintage charts are broad-brush generalisations, based on weather conditions leading up to, and during the harvest. They comprise three components – 1) a score which indicates the quality, 2) a description that sums up the growing season and 3) a recommendation as to when the wine should be at its drinkable best.
The thing is vintages have to be considered in context. Put it this way, if all the wine produced was excellent for aging – what would we drink in the short term? The context I’m talking about is that winemakers will produce both wines to lay-down and wines to drink in the short/medium term. Expert wine retailers will know the winemaker, their style and their intentions – insider knowledge, so-to-speak.
Vintage charts are a definitely a handy reference point laid out in a convenient format. As mentioned, they are by necessity, general in nature, but one great use is in helping to make good choices on unfamiliar wines. They are also a help to collectors to determine when their wines might be drinking well.
In Green Acres, we offer a personalised cellar advice, wine investment consultation, storage advice and a valuation service. Contact me if you need help with any of these areas.
So, are vintage charts important and relevant? I believe that they are – to certain wine drinkers. The collector and/or investor will find them important, the hobbyist or person looking for an unfamiliar wine will find them very useful and the casual drinker will have little use for them. Overall, though my advice would be not to get too hung up on wine vintages.
Don’t get too Hung-Up on Wine Vintages.
The date/vintage has been used on labels almost as long as when we started using bottles as containers for storing wine. Since that time, wine collectors, writers, and makers have been debating one vintage quality over another.
It’s this categorisation that makes some bottles/regions much more expensive than others. Of course, supply and demand influence price also – see James’ recent blog post on the subject.
To my mind, if you are an investor or planning a cellar, vintages will be very important to you. If you are a normal wine drinker (i.e. 90% of the wine drinkers in Ireland) who wants to enjoy a glass while watching the TV at home, wine vintages might not be as important.
Yes, of course, if you are a vineyard owner, maker or producer, vintages are your reputation which you should manage proactively over the years. That is why you will hear us saying, “if you see a 2010 Bordeaux grab it” – because it was an excellent vintage and all wines from that region and vintage should have produced good wines.
It is this knowledge of a particular vintage that adds to the experience of drinking a bottle of wine. I wrote this post with the opinion that knowing a little bit about wine vintages is important to us all.
My final word on this is that wines might taste different from year to year, but that doesn’t make any one of them better than the other. Wine vintages are important to people in the industry, investors and collectors alike. For the normal wine drinker – I repeat, don’t get too hung up on the vintage. Enjoy the wine you’re with.
I hope that my post will help you understand a little bit about wine vintages. If in doubt about planning your wine cellar or investing in wine feel free to contact me or drop-in to us here in Green Acres and we can discuss any aspect of your wine preferences and any special wines you would like to discover.
We look forward to engaging with you again soon – Cheers, Donal