Put simply, the vintage of a wine is the year in which the grapes were harvested. The vintage can influence the taste and quality of the resulting wine due the conditions experienced by the vines over the growing season. It’s because of this that, in some instances, vintage can greatly affect the wine’s price.
In the Northern Hemisphere (eg. Europe and North America) the grape growing season runs from approximately April-October.
In the Southern Hemisphere (Australia, New Zealand, South America etc) the growing season runs from approximately October to April (with the vintage dated to the year of harvest).
Wines without a vintage date also exist (particularly where sparkling wine is concerned) called “non-vintage” (or N.V) and are made by blending wine from multiple years together. The purpose of N.V wines is to maintain consistency throughout the years and, in the case of Champagne, to maintain a “house-style”.
A “good” vintage will be one in which growing conditions were optimal for producing quality wine. The defining feature of a “good” vintage is for many regions is sunshine and temperature. Generally speaking; more hours of sunshine and warmer temperatures across a growing season will give the grapes an increased chance of reaching full maturity and optimum ripeness levels where sugars, acids and tannins are in balance for winemaking. Without this, grapes may not fully ripen, delivering low quality and resulting in unbalanced wine. However, if a region is too hot and too sunny grapes can become overripe (or even raisinated or scorched!) and this too will lead to an imbalance for winemaking – therefore an equilibrium is required.
The weather experienced across a growing season – both on the long-term and in the short-term – can dictate whether a vintage is considered a success or a failure. Some weather events even have the potential of jeopardising or totally compromising what would otherwise be an ideal vintage. A few examples of particularly devastating weather scenarios include:
How to find out if it was “good” vintage?
Keeping abreast of wine industry websites and magazines is a useful way of finding out whether a vintage was successful or not, as experts will provide “vintage reports” and collate them into “vintage charts” to help guide your purchasing based both on their first-hand experience of the wine regions during the growing season as well as through their conversations with the local producers. It is worth nothing that just because it was a good vintage in one region does not mean that this was the case for another; nor does it mean that a good vintage for reds in a region will also equate to a good vintage for whites, even in the same region. This duality is also applicable to wine grapes as different varieties will prefer different climates, for eg. Riesling grows well in sunny areas with cool nights whereas Cabernet Sauvignon, needs a dry, hot and sunny climate to properly mature.
For an in-depth vintage guide by country visit https://www.jancisrobinson.com/learn/vintages
A good vintage is a great time to find value in wines by looking for less well-known names in revered regions (for eg. Bordeaux Cru Bourgeois in 2009 and 2010). By doing this you can get a taste of the greatest potential nature has to offer in a region for a fraction of the price of the famous examples. Another thing to keep in mind is that while one vintage may spell disaster for a region’s red wines, for example, the cooler temperatures may reflect better on their regional whites by translating crisp acidity and refreshing flavour profiles.
In the early days of winemaking right up to the turn of the last century, wines were at the ruthless mercy of Mother Nature and for many people this added to their story. However, in today’s tech-laden cellars the modern winemaker has an array of tools at their disposable capable of undoing the wrongs and masking the inconveniences of nature. Considerable debate now permeates the wine industry as to who now exerts more influence over a given bottle of wine – nature or man? Producers can now be criticised for over-manipulating a wine when it tells little of a particular growing season or does not portray a sense of place. Likewise, allowing a wine to succumb to a poor vintage without winemaking intervention brings the skill of the vigneron into question and too results in criticism.