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Why is Vintage Important?

We’ve all heard those snooty wine lovers who make declarations like, “1998 was a very good year for Bordeaux.” How do they know? Have they tasted all of them? Learn why it is that some years are better than others when it comes to wine.

We thought it appropriate, at the kick-off of a new year, to take a look at years past to understand why it is that some years are better than others when it comes to wine. First, let’s start by defining “vintage”. Vintage is “the yield of grapes or wine from a vineyard during a single season”. In other words, the vintage year on the label refers to the year when the grapes were harvested, not the year the wine was bottled or released.

At its most basic, vintage comes down to the weather. If weather conditions don’t allow the grapes to ripen properly, then the finished wine won’t be at its best. So, how do you know what the good vintages are? The answer, as with so many things related to wine, is – it varies. For instance, according to wine expert, Robert M. Parker, Jr.’s ratings in The Wine Advocate, in Bordeaux, 2007 was an “outstanding” year in Barsac/Sauternes, but in nearby St. Emilion, it was not as good. You have to look at individual appellations and even individual estates.

Observe one note of caution. Vintage charts such as those promoted by Parker, and publications such as Decanter, Wine Enthusiast and Wine Spectator magazines provide guidelines, but their opinions are not absolute. They are to be used only as a general gauge of quality for any given region in any given year.

That being said, we all can still remember the stellar 2005’s that came out of California’s North Coast and Napa Valley. Mild weather prolonged the harvest into November and the long hang time on the vine was good for Cabernet Sauvignon. That’s because grapes that remain on the vine longer tend to be richer in flavor.

You can have too much of a good thing, however. Australia is the perfect example of this. Back in 2003, benevolent growing conditions resulted in a “grape glut” which led to an oversupply.

This continued in 2004 when a summer heat wave was followed by cool weather that elongated the growing season. However, in 2007 when they experienced a severe drought, winemakers had to scramble for grapes from other countries like South Africa.

The bottom line is that each grape variety also has its own specific growing season and the specific climate it needs to thrive. While both Bordeaux and Burgundy can be counted on to generally always have quality, Cabernet Sauvignon does better in Bordeaux and Pinot Noir is at its best in Burgundy.

Here are a few tidbits to keep in mind as you peruse the The Traveling Vineyard’s online shelves.

Vintage. Schmintage.

Many experts believe that vintages don’t matter in the way they once did because the science of winemaking has become more sophisticated. Winemakers have the technology and skills to overcome even bad weather.

Timing is Everything.

From harvest to your glass, the entire process that makes up a “vintage” can take up to three years. So what you’ve seen lately on store shelves at the end of 2012 is mostly 2009s and 2010s harvested two to three years ago. It takes time for growers to pick, ferment, age and bottle the grapes. Whites have a shorter lag time because they are not aged as long in a barrel. They are ready to be evaluated and appear in vintage charts sooner. You could taste a 2012 dry Riesling as soon as the spring of 2013.

A Rush to the Shelves

Because the seasons are flip-flopped, the southern hemisphere can release its wines six months earlier than California and the Old World. Actually, southern hemisphere wines will have had more time to mature than a wine from the same year produced in the northern hemisphere.

Newer New World

Chile and Argentina are relatively newer additions to the New World category, so new that they didn’t appear in vintage charts until after 2004.

In each of these cases, vintage is actually not important. Instead, the lack of vintage on the label has become widely accepted even touted as producing a better product.

Blending Beats the Odds

Many winemakers compensate for the ups and downs of vintages by blending. They may select grapes from different vineyard because the weather conditions in some produce a better vintage than in others. They may also blend different varieties (Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot, for example) as is the practice in Bordeaux, France. This is because different grapes react differently to the weather even when they’re planted in the same region. In this way, winemakers hope to achieve consistent quality year after year.

Champagne: Ageless and Classic

Chances are when you opened that bottle of sparkling wine recently on New Year’s Eve, that it was a “non-vintage” selection with no year listed on the label. You actually very rarely see a vintage year on a Champagne bottle. (And if you do it’s probably a very expensive bottle!) Champagne (which, by the way, only comes from the region by the same name in France) and other “sparkling wines” (the name for bubblies from other regions around the world) are divided into three basic categories in order of increasing quality: non-vintage, prestige cuvee, and vintage. Non-vintage Champagne makes up roughly 85% of all production. It is a blend of wines from different vintage years. Estates do this to produce wines of consistent quality year after year and to establish a “house style.” that customers expect when they reach for that particular producer. Typically, the harvest is exceptional enough to produce vintage Champagne only about three times in a decade. “Prestige cuvées” are not labeled with a vintage, but they are considered to be the top of a producers range. They are made from the first pressing of the best grapes of the finest villages and represent the highest quality.

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