What does “Vintage” Really Mean?
We know that the vintage indicates the year. Duh. But what year does it indicate? The year the grapes are picked? The year the grapes are bottled? The year the bottles are released to market?
See? It’s not a dumb question at all.
Well, the answer is, “Vintage” indicates the year that the grapes are harvested. In Canada, the USA and Bordeaux, France, in order for the vintage to be printed on the label (as in “2003” or “2007”), the wine must be made of at least 95 percent of that year’s grapes. So, if you’ve got a wine from California and there’s no vintage date, you can assume that the wine was made from grapes of several years’ harvests.
In other parts of the world (and the rest of France), regulations regarding the percentage of the year’s grapes may be more relaxed.
Why does Vintage Matter?
Well, to be honest, for me, it really doesn’t. But that’s because I don’t drink wines that would really benefit from me tracking a vintage. I mean, I could do it, but for me, I really have no reason to.
You see, hard core wine drinkers with a wallet to match often buy more expensive wines (let’s use wines from Bordeaux, France again as an example). In that case, these Bordeaux are often bottled and then cellared for decades before the wine drinker determines the wine has matured to its potential. Why? Because many of the higher-end Bordeaux (which is made mostly of Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot grape varieties) use grapes with high acidity and tannins with the intent that, as the Bordeaux ages, the tannins and acidity will mature and mellow, bringing the wine’s flavors into an harmonious ideal. When a wine’s flavors have aged into its potential, it is said to have reached its peak and it’s time to drink it. If you wait any longer, the wine will decline in its flavors and structure.
Why Don’t People Pay as much Attention to Vintage on Inexpensive Wines?
Why not do the same with inexpensive wines: cellar them for a few years to see if the flavors can become even more developed and balanced? Well you can and it might be a fun experiment. It’s just that most vintners producing inexpensive bottles of Cabernet Sauvignon, for example, are balancing the flavors, tannins and acid with the assumption that the wine will be consumed more readily than a fancy Bordeaux. Plus, at least in my case, I don’t have a cellar.
What Other Information does a Wine’s Vintage Provide to the Consumer?
Still, why does vintage matter if you just pop the fancy Bordeaux in the cellar for ten years anyway? It matters because it helps the consumer know what year he or she prefers in a particular type of wine (as in, “I really liked the 1988 Pomerol”) and, it helps the consumer obtain information about that particular wine that will help him or her know whether it should be drank immediately or cellared (and if cellared, often a vintage will assist the consumer in knowing the recommended time to cellar before drinking).
For example, a particular Bordeaux’s vintage might have a reputation for having had a year where the grapes produced a greener, more tanniny wine that requires longer cellaring. Wine critic/Vintner/Connoisseur X has recommended that this vintage be cellared at least 15 years before drinking….
Or, if you really follow wine, the vintage can tell you all kinds of things about that year’s weather (which in turn can effect the grapes quality or the conditions in which the grapes were harvested), any pestilent or disease that might effect the wine’s quality, whether or not the vintner changed techniques, etc.
Even with inexpensive wines, if you go to a wine store and see a Cabernet Sauvignon from a certain winery and you thought the last bottle you tried from them was a bit overpowering in tannins or acidity, you could try that same wine with an older vintage date to see if the flavors are a bit more mellowed.
In short, if you are really interested in tracking the differences a vintage makes on wine, you can do this with expensive or inexpensive wine and conduct all sorts of fun experiments. Your options are endless!
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