Wine Basics – Vintages, a Quick Look

Of all the mysteries of wine, vintages can be one of the most confusing.  The way they are often discussed by wine aficionados doesn’t help any either.  This post is an attempt to demystify vintages and even make them useful.

At the most basic level, a wine’s vintage is the year the grapes were grown, not as some people think the year the wine was bottled.  Grapes are a crop.  Like any other crop there are good years and bad years in any given location.  That is why the vintage can be important.  For most farmers, what is important is getting as big a crop as possible.  With grapes, a big crop doesn’t necessarily make for the best wine.

It can be helpful to understand a bit about the life cycle of a vineyard.  Grapes are the fruit of a vine.  In the winter the vine is dormant and usually has been cut down to just a central stem or two.  In the spring the vine puts out shoots.  These are usually thinned and trained on to supports before leaves come out.  At these early stages, rain is a good thing.  A bit later the vine will flower.  This is a critical stage as the flowers have to be pollinated.  Rain can damage flowers, wash pollen out of flower or keep the insects that pollinate the grape flowers from doing their job.  This can cause there to be a small crop or even no crop.  It doesn’t have much of an effect on the quality of the grapes, just the number.

After the flowering and pollination, the grapes will form. It takes around one hundred days for the grapes to ripen.  Ideally the vineyard will have warm days with plenty of sun, cooler nights, and just enough rain to keep the vines going.

If it is too cool the grapes will not ripen properly making for thin and acidic wines with little flavor.  This will also happen if the grapes don’t get enough sun.  If it is too hot the grapes will ripen too early.  Grapes that got too hot tend to have fewer flavors and can taste cooked, like grape jam.  Too much rain can cause the grapes to swell and even burst.  Those that don’t burst tend to be low in sugar and flavor.

At harvest time the weather is critical.  Rain can have a stronger impact if occurs just before the grapes are harvested.  Other conditions can reduce the size of the crop without affecting the quality.

As you can see from the conditions that affect them, vintages are very much local phenomenon.  Since most grapes are grown in hill country, the conditions on one side of a hill can be different from the other.  At best vintage charts are approximations.  The more precise they are about location, the more helpful they are likely to be.

So where does this leave the wine drinker?  Well vintages can be important but it is easy to overrate their importance.  For me it is better to choose a wine that is of the appropriate age than of a particular vintage.  While knowing when a wine is ready is a subject for at least one other posting:  In general the bigger and more tannic a wine is, the longer it takes to mature.  With many exceptions, white wines tend to be best from when they are released to about age five.  So, I would far rather drink a twelve or so year old Barolo from a lesser vintage than a six year old one from a great year.  Conversely, while I love the Viognier based Rhone wine Condrieu, I would not want to drink one much over seven years old no matter what vintage.  For me what it comes down to is the vintage is just part of the mix in making decisions.

A few final thoughts:  Most years are neither great years nor bad years.  It is in the interest of the wine business to declare years great.  After all they want to sell the wine.  Even in a bad year, a good wine maker can still make a good wine.  Conversely the best year of all time is not going to do much to help if the wine is poorly made.  Sometimes wines made in what are considered lesser years are just a bit lighter or mature more quickly.  They can be real bargains.

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