One of the most commonly misunderstood terms in wine is VINTAGE. To be clear, the vintage is the year stamped on the bottle. That year is the year in which the grapes were picked to make the wine in that bottle. So Vintage = Year.
One might think that that's the end of this blog post, but let me introduce you to the new can of worms this vintage dating practice opens in this, my
Wine Vintage FAQ's:
Q. Why is it important to know what year the grapes were picked to make the wine?
A. Let's bear in mind that wine is an agricultural product. Grapes are grown on farms that we affectionately call vineyards, which are subject to the same vagaries of nature as any other crop in the world - spring frosts, rain, sunshine, temperature,
etc. Think about this: is the weather exactly the same every summer? Are some summers hotter or cooler, dryer or more rainy, than the ones before and after? If you think about it that way, you start to understand why the grapes, which grow and develop flavor, color and sugar over the summer and are harvested in early autumn, are of a different quality every year. And then you start to understand why its important to know what year the grapes were grown in to start to have a sense for what to expect of the wine in the bottle. For example, grapes grown in years of intense heat and drought, like in 2003 when elderly people were keeling over in France's major cities, had high levels of sugar and lower levels of acid by harvest time and produced full flavored, higher alcohol wines than grapes grown in cooler, wetter summers.
Q. To list a vintage year, do all the grapes used to make the wine have to have been picked in that year?
A. It depends on the laws of the place where the grapes are grown. In the EU, the law states that 85% of all the grapes on a vintage dated wine must be from that vintage, and in some locales within the EU, that number is 100%. In the US, the minimum is also 85%.
Q. Does the term "Vintage Wine" mean a better wine or a wine of higher quality.
A. No. It is a misunderstood term. A vintage wine simply means a wine dated with a vintage. There are crappy vintage wines that sell for $7.00 a bottle as well as exhorbitant vintage wines for upwards of $400 a bottle.
Q. Are some vintages better than others?
A. It depends on the preferences of the person drinking the wine. There are some vintages that are celebrated by critics because those are years that yielded a great deal of well-made wines. The old adage "You can make bad wine out of good grapes, but you can't make good wine out of bad grapes" rings true. If the summer in a particular was too cool and rainy for there to have been a consistantly good harvest that vintage, then it's caveat emptor for purchasesrs buying wines from that vintage. But there have been years that were only relatively cooler or hotter than usual and have produced wines that some people prefer over the norm. My favorite example of this is northern California 2001. Red wines (particularly Cabernet Sauvignon and blends thereof) from Napa and Sonoma Valleys are generally very full bodied - lots of ripe fruit, agressive tannin, high alcohol, like the middle linebackers of the wine world. The 2000 vintage was all that. The critics originally dismissed the 2001 vintage, during which the summer was cooler than usual. But what this yielded were wines that were less agressive in tannin with more moderate alcohol levels and more balanced acidity, more like a quarterback - the picture of lean strength and agility. People who enjoy French wines would enjoy these wines and they are still drinking beautifully more than 10 years old.
Q. Do wines from some vintages age better than others?
A. Yes. The vintage sets the tone. If the development of sugar and abatement of acid in the grapes over that summer went well, that autumn's harvest is ready to produce wines that could possible age better than if those things were not in good balance. Above, in the anecdote about the wines from France's 2003 vintage told of wines with ripe fruit characters, low acidity and high alcohol. Those wines are not built for long aging in general because the various elements are not in good sync. Even the higher end wines from that vintage are not expected to be enjoyable long past the 10 year mark, in contrast to the same wines from other vintages that can age 20+ years gracefully.
Q. Are all the wines from a "bad" vintage "bad" wines?
A. No. It's important to keep in mind that the assesment of a vintage, even in a small area, is not the sole determinant as to the quality of every wine from that area. There are other factors involved, such as farming methods used, that can help vineyard managers navigate fickle weather condtitions and still get good raw material for the winemakers. Vintage charts and vintage reports should only be used as guidelines. Ultimately, you should always let your palate be the judge!
Q. Is an older vintage better than a more recent one?
A. Not always. They are more rare and as a result more interesting to drink, but as I explained above, each vintage had its own conditions. My most recent example was a vertical tasting of Antinori's Tignanello. I tasted the 2007 and the 2008. The 2007, the older vintage, was not nearly as good as the 2008. See my upcoming article, Wine Ambition, for tasting notes.
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