Wine Vintages and Why They Matter (Sometimes)
Wine Vintage Definition
A wine vintage is the year in which the grapes were harvested. A wine’s vintage can greatly affect the taste and quality, primarily because of the weather that affects the vines throughout the growing season.
- In the Northern Hemisphere (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).
Wines without a vintage date: Non-vintage wine is made by blending multiple years together. Non-vintage wines are known for their consistent, house style and are usually a good value. For example, a common non-vintage wine is Champagne labeled simply as “N.V.”
What Defines a Good or a Bad Vintage?
If vintage just reflects a region’s weather patterns in a given year, then what makes a vintage good or bad? Essentially, the defining feature of a vintage is sunshine. Sunny days give grapes the best chance of reaching full maturity and optimum ripeness levels. If a region receives too much rain and clouds, grapes do not fully ripen, may be more prone to rot and disease, and tend to deliver lower quality grapes. Conversely, if the region is too hot (too many days above 92 ºF / 33 ºC) and sunny, then grapes become raisinated before they fully ripen and the resulting wines may be flabby or have bitter tannins.
Was It a Good Vintage?
You can look at vintage charts to see expert’s opinions on vintages. Keep in mind that if it was a good vintage in one region, it might not be one in another. Also, great vintage for red wines may not be as good for white wines from the same region. Here are a couple of good vintage charts that cover most of the world’s wine regions:
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How Weather Affects A Vintage
You can figure out if a vintage was good or bad yourself by identifying key features about the weather in a vintage.
- Spring: Spring frosts are common in semi-continental climates (like Burgundy and New York) and destroy crops before they even flower. Hail storms can break off flowers and buds, reducing the vintage’s size sometimes by 100%. These features do not necessarily reduce quality unless they greatly reduce the length of the growing season.
- Summer: Wet weather during the summer (like in Virginia and Germany) causes fungal diseases which will ruin grapes. Conversely, drought and exceptionally hot weather (like in California or Argentina) causes the vines to pause their growth until cooler weather returns. These features can reduce quality in the grapes.
- Fall: Rain at harvest swells grapes, causing them to lose concentration or rot. Cold weather slows grapes from ripening. Harvest time foul weather can greatly reduce the quality of a vintage.
By the way, different types of grapes prefer different types of climates. For example, Riesling grows well in sunny areas with cool nights. Cabernet Sauvignon, on the other hand, needs a dry, hot and sunny climate to properly mature.
Hail storms ravaged the 2016 vintage in Beaujolais, France. by animavinum
When Vintage Matters More
Vintage year plays the biggest role in regions with the most variable climates. For example, many of Europe’s more northern winegrowing regions (France, Germany, Northern Italy) have some of the least predictable weather. Here’s where you should pay attention to vintage:
- Wines From Intermediate Climates: Less predictable growing regions include France (e.g. Bordeaux, Burgundy, Champagne) Northern Italy (Piedmont, Veneto, Lombardy, etc) Northern Spain, (Rioja, Rias Baixas) Germany, New Zealand, parts of Chile and Austria.
- When Collecting Wines: When collectors buy wines, vintage matters. Good vintages produce grapes that are well-ripened, carry considerable tannin and acidity (both function as a savvy vinous preservative). High-end reds from the likes of Bordeaux, Burgundy, Piedmont, Spain, Australia, California, and South America from good vintages have the best opportunities to get better with age and, in this case, specific vintage years hold some serious weight. For white wines, vintage factors into the aging potential for many of Burgundy’s best whites and Germany’s top Rieslings.
When Vintage Matters Less
As important as vintage is for some regions and wines, it’s not as important in others:
- Wines From Predictable Climates: Regions with consistent, sunny, grape-growing weather conditions show the least amount of vintage variation year in and year out. Wines from many warm weather regions including Central Spain, Portugal, Argentina, Australia, California and Southern Italy, tend to produce wines with a more consistent style year in and out.
- Affordable Wines From Large Producers: With commercial producers, wines are made by the numbers. Levels of alcohol, pH, total acidity, residual sugar, among other specs are carefully managed/manipulated to minimize vintage variation as much as possible. Wines from larger producers are generally consistent year after year.
Why To Buy Affordable Wine on Good Vintages
Savvy consumers know where to look for the best wine deals. A good vintage is a great time to buy value wine because good grapes coming into the cellar mean less work (and less expertise) is needed from the winemaking. Case in point, red wines from Sicily and Sardinia from 2014 offer tremendous value from this stellar Italian vintage. Keep in mind that while one vintage may spell disaster for a region’s red wine crop, the cooler temperatures may raise the bar on regional whites by compensating for crisp acidity and vibrant palate profiles.
Last Word: Expert Weigh In
Considerable debate swirls as to who exerts more influence over a given bottle of wine. Is it the vintage or the vintner? In days gone by, wines were at the ruthless mercy of Mother Nature. However, in today’s tech-driven cellars the winemaker has plenty of trendy tools available to combat and compensate for less than stellar weather cycles. From introducing specific strains of yeast to shake up aromatics or sculpt palate texture, to utilizing reverse osmosis to tame elevated alcohol levels and additives that adjust color components, the winemaker’s tool belt is brimming with tips and tricks.
At both extremes, producers are blasted for over manipulating a wine when it tells little of a particular growing season’s story. Likewise, allowing a wine to reveal just how challenging a vintage was without cellar intervention brings considerable criticism as well.
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