Vintage years

Every once in a while I am asked about the significance of vintage years listed on a bottle of wine. This is not such an easy question to answer.

On the surface we can see the obvious: Vintage years are those years listed when the grapes were harvested for that particular wine. That's the easy answer. The more complicated answer goes very deep and can cause some major headaches for producers, as well as retailers and consumers. Let's take a look at the big picture, then go deep.

We like to say that the world is getting smaller and smaller. There are times when, in the most unlikely places on the globe, we bump into an old acquaintance, former schoolmate or neighbor. The internet generation also makes the world smaller and can take away the complexities from hard questions and provided us with meaningful answers. The information highway can make fingertip pros out of many of us.

The world of wine is not unlike this phenomena but is an opposite mirror image! The more we know about wine, the more and varied the information, the more (many times) complex the issue becomes. This is particularly true with vintage dates, as more questions pop up than answers.

In the old days there used to be this very sombre yet witty saying printed on many cardboard cases of wine from California vintners: "Every year is a Vintage Year in California." The term "Vintage Year" was meant to be a qualifier of sorts. Because if a wine was of a new vintage, it was automatically assumed to be good.

Well, yes, every year is a new vintage year, much like every year on earth for a human being is a new birthday year, but this in no way assumes that it is a better year for that person or will be a better year for that wine. It was also assumed that a "good" vintage with yummy, textbook grapes made the entire state a wondrous place for that vintage of wine.

But, as I wrote earlier, the more we began to know about viticulture and the more information that came our way through science and experience, we began to also understand that simple statements and blanket feelings about vintages simply did not ring true. Those of us who studied wine, retailed wine and consumed wine began to understand that California was very viticulturally diverse in every way. The more the information surfaced and the more that wine grapes kept edging into new growing regions, the more we realized that vintage dates (grapes grown within a calendar year) could be vastly different in quality from region to region and blanket statements about vintage quality were at an end.

We also came to understand that a single vintage date also could vary in quality within regions, meaning of course that, within the same vintage no two places in one viticultural region, say Napa Valley, would share the same quality level. This could be because of viticultural practices or intra regional variances in temperature, soil condition or rainfall. California is obviously not the only place on earth this happens. (I do not want to seem that I'm picking on the Golden State, as it happens throughout the wine growing areas of the world.)

I am many times blown away by wine writers who declare a vintage to be superior to others with the understanding that many of the wines of this particular vintage are going to be superior in every way. Remember, just because a specific vintage is lauded does not mean all wines or even a majority of wines coming from that vintage will be good. Conversely, I have found a few great values and some gems from vintage dates where the "experts" have called these dates "poor."

More next week!

Share This Story